Crimes of the Heart

by Beth Henley

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Henley's Dramatic Technique

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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.

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."

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critics, meanwhile, have been more enthusiastic in their praise of Henley's technique. Far from finding inCrimes of the Hearta kind of parody, they have elucidated how real Henley's characters seem. Hargrove offered one possible explanation for this phenomenon, finding that one of “the real strengths of Henley' s work is her use of realistic details from everyday life, particularly in the actions of the characters. These details reinforce the idea that ordinary life is like this, a series of small defeats happening to ordinary people in ordinary family relationships. Her characters unobtrusively but constantly are doing the mundane things that go on in daily life."

The roots of our modern theatre in ancient Greece established a strict divide between comedy and tragedy (treating them as separate and distinct genres); more than two thousand years later, reactions to Henley's technique suggest the powerful legacy of this separation. Audiences and critics were either pleasantly surprised by Crimes of the Heart—finding the dramatic interweaving of the tragic and comedic refreshingly original—or, less frequently, were shocked by what appeared to be Henley's flippant perspective on life's difficulties.

The scene in which the sisters learn that Old Granddaddy has suffered a second stroke in the hospital, and is near death, is another powerful example of Henley's strategy of treating the tragic with humor. Meg, feeling guilty for having lied to her grandfather about her singing career, is resolved to return to the hospital and tell him the truth: “He’s just gonna have to take me like I am. And if he can't take it, if it sends him into a coma, that's just too damn bad."

Struck by the absurdity of this comment {for Meg, unlike Lenny and Babe, does not yet know that her grandfather already is in a coma), Meg's sisters break into hysterical laughter. The resulting scene depicts them swinging violently from one emotional extreme to the other. "I'm sorry," Lenny says, momentarily gaining control. "It's—it's not funny. It's sad. It's very sad. We've been up all night long." When Meg asks if Granddaddy is expected to live, however. Babe's response "They don't think so" sends the sisters, inexplicably, into another peal of laughter. While on the surface, the laughter (both that of Lenny and Babe, and that generated among the audience) seems shockingly flippant, the moment is devastatingly human. The audience sees the deepest emotions of characters who have been pushed to the brink, and with no place else to go, can only laugh at life's misfortunes.

While the mistakes her characters have made are the source of both the conflict and the humor of Crimes of the Heart, Henley nevertheless treats these characters with great sympathy. Jon Jory, who directed the first production of Crimes of the Heartin Louisville, observed in the Saturday Review that "most American playwrights want to expose human beings. Beth Henley embraces them." With the possible exception of Chick, whose exaggerated concern for what is "proper" provides a foil to Lenny and her sisters, Henley's characters seem tangibly human despite the bizarre circumstances in which the audience sees them. "Like Flannery O'Connor," Scott Haller wrote in the Saturday Review, "Henley creates ridiculous characters but doesn't ridicule them. Like Lanford Wilson, she examines ordinary people with extraordinary compassion." While in later plays Henley was to write even more exaggerated characters who border on caricatures, Crimes of the Heart remains a very balanced play in this respect. Jory noted that what struck him about the play initially was this sense of balance: "the comedy didn't come from one character but from between the characters. That's very unusual for a young writer."

While humor permeates Crimes of the Heart, it is often a hysterical humor, as in the scene where Meg is informed of her grandfather's impending death. Just as Lou Thompson has observed in the Southern Quarterly that the characters eat compulsively throughout the play, a "predominant metaphor for... pathological withdrawal," so the laughter in the play is equally compulsive, more often an expression of pain than true happiness. By the conclusion of Crimes of the Heart, however, hysterical laughter has been supplanted by an almost serene sense of joy—however mild or fleeting, Lenny expresses a vision of the three sisters "smiling and laughing together ... it wasn't forever; it wasn't for every minute. Just this one moment and we were all laughing." In addition to drawing strength from one another, finding a unity that they had previously lacked, the sisters appear finally to have overcome much of their pain (and this despite the fact that many of the play's conflicts are left unresolved). They have perhaps found an absolution which Henley, tellingly, has described as a process of writing itself. "Writing always helps me not to feel so angry," she stated in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, "I've written about ghastly, black feelings and thoughts that I've had. The hope is that if you can pin down these emotions and express them accurately, you will somehow be absolved."

Source: Christopher Busiel, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Drawing the Audience In

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Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart ends with its three heroines—the MaGrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Miss.—helping themselves to brick-sized hunks of a chocolate birthday cake. The cake, a "super deluxe" extravaganza from the local bakery, is as big as the kitchen table, and the sisters laugh their heads off as they dig in. The scene is the perfect capper for an evening of antic laughter—yet it's by no means the sum of Crimes of the Heart. While this play overflows with infectious high spirits, it is also, unmistakably, the tale of a very troubled family. Such is Miss Henley's prodigious talent that she can serve us pain as though it were a piece of cake.

Prodigious, to say the least. This is Miss Henley's first play. Originally produced at Louisville's Actors Theater, it won the Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Circle Award after its New York production last winter at the Manhattan Theater Club. Last night that production arrived, springier than ever, at the Golden, and it's not likely to stray from Broadway soon. Melvin Bernhardt, the director, has fulfilled Miss Henley's comedy by casting young actors whose future looks every bit as exciting as the playwright's.

Crimes is set "five years after Hurricane Camille'' in the MaGrath family kitchen, a sunny garden of linoleum and translucent, flowered wallpaper designed by John Lee Beatty. The action unfolds during what the youngest sister, 24-year-old Babe (Mia Dillon), calls "a bad day." Babe knows whereof she speaks: She's out on bail, having just shot her husband in the stomach. And Babe's not the only one with problems. Her 27-year-old sister Meg (Mary Beth Hurt), a would-be singing star, has retreated from Hollywood by way of a psychiatric ward. Lenny (Lizbeth Mackay), the eldest MaGrath, is facing her 30th birthday with a ' 'shrunken ovary" and no romantic prospects. As if this weren't enough, Old Granddaddy, the family patriarch, is in the hospital with "blood vessels popping in his brain."

A comedy, you ask? Most certainly—and let's not forget about the local lady with the "tumor on her bladder," about the neighbor with the "crushed leg," about the sudden death by lightning of Lenny's pet horse, Billy Boy. Miss Henley redeems these sorrows, and more, by mining a pure vein of Southern Gothic humor worthy of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. The playwright gets her laughs not because she tells sick jokes, but because she refuses to tell jokes at all. Her characters always stick to the unvarnished truth, at any price, never holding back a single gory detail. And the truth— when captured like lightning in a bottle—is far funnier than any invented wisecracks.

Why did Babe shoot her husband? Because, she says, "I didn't like his looks." Why, after firing the gun, did she make a pitcher of lemonade before calling an ambulance? Because she was thirsty. Why did she carry on with a 15-year-old black boy during the months before her crime? "I was so lonely," explains Miss Dillon, "and he was goooood." Why has Babe's lawyer, a young, sheepish Ole Miss grad (Peter MacNicol), taken on such a seemingly hopeless case? Because Babe won his heart when she sold him poundcake at a long-ago church bazaar—and because he believes in "personal vendettas."

You see Miss Henley's technique. She builds from a foundation of wacky but consistent logic until she's constructed a funhouse of perfect-pitch language and ever-accelerating misfortune. By Act HI, we're so at home in the crazy geography of the MaGraths' lives that we're laughing at the slightest prick of blood. At that point Miss Henley starts kindling comic eruptions on the most unlikely lines— "Old Granddaddy's in a coma!"—without even trying. That's what can happen when a playwright creates a world and lets the audience inhabit it.

We're not laughing at the characters, of course, but with them. We all have bad days, when we contemplate—or are victims of—irrational Crimes of the Heart. In this play, Miss Henley shows how comedy at its best can heighten reality to illuminate the landscape of existence in all its mean absurdity. But the heightening is not achieved at the price of credibility. The MaGraths come by their suffering naturally: It's been their legacy since childhood, when their father vanished and their mother hanged herself—and her pet cat—in the cellar. Crimes of the Heart is finally the story of how its young characters escape the past to seize the future. "We've got to figure out a way to get through these bad days here," says Meg. That can't happen for any of us until the corpses of a childhood are truly laid to rest....

Source: Frank Rich, "Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart" in the New York Times, November 5,1981.

Sisterhood is Beautiful

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From time to time a play comes along that restores one's faith in our theater, that justifies endless evenings spent, like some unfortunate Beckett character, chin-deep in trash. This time it is the Manhattan Theatre Club's Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley, a new playwright of charm, warmth, style, unpretentiousness, and authentically individual vision.

We are dealing here with the reunion in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, of the three MaGrath sisters (note that even in her names Miss Henley always hits the right ludicrous note). Lenny, the eldest, is a patient Christian sufferer: monstrously accident-prone, shuttling between gentle hopefulness and slightly comic hysteria, a martyr to her sexual insecurity and a grandfather who takes most of her energies and an unconscionable time dying. Babe Botrelle, the youngest and zaniest sister, has just shot her husband in the stomach because, as she puts it, she didn't like the way he looked. Babe (who would like to be a saxophonist) is in serious trouble: She needs the best lawyer in town, but that happens to be the husband she shot. Meg, the middle sister, has had a modest singing career that culminated in Biloxi. In Los Angeles, where she now lives, she has been reduced to a menial job. She is moody and promiscuous, and has rained, before leaving home, the chances of "Doc" Porter to go to medical school. She made him spend a night with her in a house that lay in the path of Hurricane Camille; the roof collapsed, leaving Doc with a bad leg and, soon thereafter, no Meg.

The time of the play is "Five years after Hurricane Camille," but in Hazlehurst there are always disasters, be they ever so humble. Today, for instance, it is Lenny's thirtieth birthday, and everyone has forgotten it, except pushy and obnoxious Cousin Chick, who has brought a crummy present. God certainly forgot, because he has allowed Lenny's beloved old horse to be struck dead by lightning the night before, even though there was hardly a storm. Crazy things happen in Hazlehurst: Pa MaGrath ran out on his family; Ma MaGrath hanged her cat and then hanged herself next to it, thus earning nationwide publicity. Babe rates only local headlines. She will be defended by an eager recent graduate of Ole Miss Law School whose name is Barnette Lloyd. (Names have a way of being transsexual in Hazlehurst.) Barnette harbors an epic grudge against the crooked and beastly Botrelle as well as a nascent love for Babe. But enough of this plot-recounting— though, God knows, there is so much plot here that I can't begin to give it away. And all of it is demented, funny, and, unbelievable as this may sound, totally believable.

The three sisters are wonderful creations: Lenny out of Chekhov, Babe out of Flannery O'Connor, and Meg out of Tennessee Williams in one of his more benign moods. But "out of must not be taken to mean imitation; it is just a legitimate literary genealogy. Ultimately, the sisters belong only to Miss Henley and to themselves. Their lives are lavish with incident, their idiosyncrasies insidiously compelling, their mutual loyalty and help (though often frazzled) able to nudge heartbreak toward heart-lift. And the subsidiary characters are just as good—even those whom we only hear about or from (on the phone), such as the shot husband, his shocked sister, and a sexually active fifteen-year-old black.

Miss Henley is marvelous at exposition, cogently interspersing it with action, and making it just as lively and suspenseful as the actual happenings. Her dialogue is equally fine: always in character (though Babe may once or twice become too benighted), always furthering our understanding while sharpening our curiosity, always doing something to make us laugh, get lumps in the throat, care. The jokes are juicy but never gratuitous, seeming to stem from the characters rather than from the author, and seldom lacking implications of a wider sort. Thus when Meg finds Babe outlandishly trying to commit suicide because, among other things, she thinks she will be committed, Meg shouts:' 'You're just as perfectly sane as anyone walking the streets of Hazlehurst, Mississippi.'' On one level, this is an absurd lie; on another, higher level, an absurd truth. It is also a touching expression of sisterly solidarity, while deriving its true funniness from the context. Miss Henley plays, juggles, conjures with context—Hazlehurst, the South, the world.

The play is in three fully packed, old-fashioned acts, each able to top its predecessor, none repetitious, dragging, predictable. But the author's most precious gift is the ability to balance characters between heady poetry and stalwart prose, between grotesque heightening and compelling recognizability—between absurdism and naturalism. If she errs in any way, it is in slightly artificial resolutions, whether happy or sad....

I have only one fear—that this clearly autobiographical play may be stocked with the riches of youthful memories that many playwrights cannot duplicate in subsequent works. I hope this is not the case with Beth Henley; be that as it may, Crimes of the Heart bursts with energy, merriment, sagacity, and, best of all, a generosity toward people and life that many good writers achieve only in their most mature offerings, if at all.

Source: John Simon, "Sisterhood is Beautiful" in New York, Vol. 14, No 2, January 12,1981, pp. 42,44.


Critical Overview