Henley's Dramatic Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439

While Crimes of the Heartdoes have a tightly-structured plot, with a central and several tangential conflicts, Henley's real emphasis, as Nancy Hargrove suggested in Southern Quarterly, is "on character rather than on action." Her characters are basically good people who make bad choices, who act out of desperation because of the overwhelming sense of isolation, rejection, and loneliness in their lives. Speaking of Babe in particular, Henley said in Saturday Review: "I thought I'd like to write about somebody who shoots somebody else just for being mean. Then I got intrigued with the idea of the audience's not finding fault with her character, finding sympathy for her." This basic premise is at the center of Henley's theatrical method, which challenges the audience to like characters their morals might tell them not to like. "I like to write characters who do horrible things," Henley said in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, "but whom you can still like ... because of their human needs and struggles I try to understand that ugliness is in everybody. I'm constantly in awe that we still seek love and kindness even though we are filled with dark, bloody, primitive urges and desires." Henley's drama effectively illustrates the intimate connection between these two seemingly disparate aspects of human nature. Henley achieves a complex perspective in her writing primarily by encouraging her audience to laugh, along with the characters, at the tragic and grotesque aspects of life.

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Tragic events treated with humor abound in Crimes of the Heart, powerful reminders of the intention behind Henley's technique. For example, when Babe finally reveals the details of her shooting of Zackery, the audience is no doubt struck by her matter-of-fact recounting of events: "Well, after I shot him, I put the gun down on the piano bench, and then I went out in the kitchen and made up a pitcher of lemonade." While Babe's story lends humor to the present moment in the play (a scene between Babe and her lawyer, Barnette), we can appreciate the human trauma behind her actions. Writing in the New York Times, Walter Kerr identified in Henley's play "the ground-rules of matter-of-fact Southern grotesquerie," which is "by no means altogether artificial. People do such things and, having done them, react in surprising ways."

As the scene continues, however, Henley may perhaps push her point too far; Babe's actions begin to seem implausible except in the context of Henley's dramatic need to achieve humor. Babe recounts. ' "Then I called out to Zackery. I said, 'Zackery, I've made some lemonade. Can you use a glass?'... He was looking up at me trying to speak words. I said 'What? ... Lemonade? ... You don't want it? Would you like a Coke instead?' Then I got the idea—he was telling me to call on the phone for medical help." In a realistic context the audience understands that Babe is still in shock, not thinking clearly. At the same time, however, it is difficult not to find her unbelievably dense—or, from a dramatic perspective, becoming more of a caricature to serve Henley's comedic ends than a fully-realized, human character. Moments like this are seized upon by Henley's harshest critics; Kerr, for example, wrote that Crimes of the Heartsuffers from her "beginner's habit of never letting well enough alone, of taking a perfectly genuine bit of observation and doubling and tripling it until it's compounded itself into parody." Even Kerr admitted, however, that despite moments of seeming excess, "Crimes of the Heartis clearly the work of a gifted writer."

Most other critics, meanwhile, have been more enthusiastic in their praise of Henley's technique. Far from finding in Crimes of the Heart a kind of parody, they have elucidated how real Henley's characters seem. Hargrove...

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