Form and Content

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Crimes of the Heart is a play in three acts about three sisters—Lenny MaGrath, Meg MaGrath, and Babe Botrelle—who find life to be too difficult sometimes but who discover the courage and strength to overcome the “real bad days.” As a dysfunctional family living in a small Southern town, the...

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Crimes of the Heart is a play in three acts about three sisters—Lenny MaGrath, Meg MaGrath, and Babe Botrelle—who find life to be too difficult sometimes but who discover the courage and strength to overcome the “real bad days.” As a dysfunctional family living in a small Southern town, the MaGrath sisters unite to fight one another’s battles against an abusive husband, a failing career, and a sick, domineering grandfather. The secret to handling the really tough days lies in an understanding of their mother’s suicide. As they reminisce about their childhood, they discover that their friendship binds them together so that they are not alone.

Nothing seems to be going well for these sisters. Lenny’s birthday has been forgotten by everyone except her snobby cousin Chick, who gives her a box of candies from last Christmas. Claiming that she does not like her husband’s looks, Babe shot her husband and has just been released on bail. Unfortunately, her husband has pictures of her and Willie Jay, a fifteen-year-old African American boy with whom she was having an affair. Although the most joyous moment seems to be Meg’s first return to Hazlehurst in five years, she admits that her singing career in California was a failure that she has been working in a dog food factory.

The MaGrath sisters are consumed by their mother’s suicide, in which she hanged both herself and her cat, for which they can find no reason. All of them believe that a connection exists between their current troubles and this tragic event. At first, insanity seems to be the cause of their problems: Meg accuses Lenny of being obsessed with having a shrunken ovary, Lenny accuses Babe of being sick in the head, and Meg admits to having spent time in a psychiatric ward. Even though they think that they are peculiar, the sisters realize that they have one thing in common with the rest of humanity: the need to talk about problems, which Meg describes as a human need at the end of act 1. The ability to communicate with others will serve as a foundation for understanding their struggles. The MaGrath sisters strengthen their bond as Babe explains her reasons for shooting her husband, a bond that will eventually lead them to a revelation concerning their mother’s suicide.

The second act provides a closer look at Lenny, Meg, and Babe. Babe remains the incorrigible flirt even when discussing the details of her husband’s shooting. Meg attempts to maintain her loose reputation by going out with a married man rather than spending the evening playing cards with her sisters. Lenny’s motherly concern for her wayward sisters, as she offers unwanted advice to Meg, illustrates her loneliness and frustration about staying home to take care of their grandfather.

The first two acts provide solid background for the third one. Although it opens with sorrow, it ends with joy. The sisters’ grandfather suffers another stroke while Meg is out all night with a now-married former boyfriend, Doc Porter. Babe’s husband threatens to have her institutionalized. Then, Meg happily announces that nothing happened between her and Doc. Lawyer Barnette Lloyd tells Babe that he plans to cut a deal with her husband, so she will not be tried for attempted murder. Lenny decides to call her lost love for a date, and he gladly accepts. Among all this rejoicing, surprisingly, Babe unsuccessfully attempts to kill herself. Her failed suicide attempt becomes the key to explaining their mother’s suicide. Babe realizes that her mother killed herself not because she suffered from a broken heart or family problems but because she was having a “real bad day” and that she hanged the cat too so she would not be alone. Babe’s epiphany proves to be the tie that binds the MaGrath sisters at the end of the play as they finally celebrate Lenny’s forgotten birthday one day late.

Places Discussed

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*Hazlehurst

*Hazlehurst. Southern Mississippi town near the state capital, Jackson, where playwright Beth Henley was born. The play unfolds the lives of three granddaughters of Granddaddy MaGrath, the family patriarch who strongly believes in traditional southern roles for women. Lenny, the oldest sister, is to become the “old maid” who cares for aging relatives. Babe, the youngest, is to be a dutiful wife—the preferred role for southern women. Meg, Granddaddy’s favorite child, is to be “the Southerner who leaves the South and makes it big.”

*Biloxi

*Biloxi. Mississippi coastal port. As a teenager Meg temporarily escapes Hazlehurst and, by extension, the role that she is supposed to fulfill by going to Biloxi with her boyfriend during Hurricane Camille.

*Hollywood

*Hollywood. California town symbolizing the center of the glamorous film industry to which Meg goes in the hope of achieving Granddaddy’s dream for her: becoming a singer so renowned that she transcends those in even the highest social class of the South. However, like most young people dreaming of finding fame and fortune in Hollywood, she fails; she is so afraid of disappointing Granddaddy that she eventually loses her singing voice and goes insane.

*Memphis

*Memphis. Tennessee city to which Lenny briefly escapes from her caretaker role. She goes there to see the pen pal she met through a Lonely Hearts Club ad. Once she returns to Hazlehurst and Old Granddaddy, she relinquishes her newfound dream of love and returns to the idea she will never be able to give a husband happiness. The drama’s resolution involves the eventual rejection of these roles by all three sisters, and by play’s end the old maid caretaker, the senator’s wife, and the aspiring singer are free to develop their own identities.

Crimes of the Heart

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Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first play, is about attempted murder, suicide, attempted suicide, failure, insanity, seduction, interracial sex, sexual inhibition and frustration, blackmail, political corruption, personal vengeance, self-deception, death by stroke, death by lightning, and caticide.

This catalog of disasters suggests either pure farce or extravagant melodrama. In fact, Crimes of the Heart is neither, although it has elements of both. As in farce, the catastrophes come upon the characters so rapidly and bizarrely that one never quite takes them seriously; from the beginning, it is clear that the characters will eventually emerge from their difficulties more or less intact. Yet they are not the stick figures of the typical farce; they are believable, colorful, sympathetic—if slightly grotesque—human beings, to whose feelings, needs, and frustrations viewers can relate. For all of the play’s complicated and, at times, almost frenzied activity, Crimes of the Heart is basically about communication, courage, endurance, and, above all, love. As the title indicates, the real crimes in the play are not Babe’s shooting of her husband, or Meg’s “injuring” of Doc Porter, or mother’s murder of the family cat; the real crimes are the betrayal of self and the refusal to love which have long haunted the characters and which have been overshadowed by the more mundane crises of the moment.

Each of the MaGrath sisters has, in a different way, made a mess of her life. The oldest, Lenny, having remained at home to nurse their aged, chronically ill grandfather, has fallen under the domination of Chick Boyle, a bossy cousin. Emotionally inhibited and sexually frustrated, the almost virginal Lenny (she had “done it once”) looks forward to a similarly barren future. The adventurous middle sister, Meg, after a disastrous affair with a local boy which left him with a permanent limp (he remained with her during Hurricane Camille and was pinned under a falling roof), ran off to Hollywood to become a singer—only to fail and be committed to a mental hospital. The youngest sister, Babe, has married Zackery Botrelle, a prominent businessman and politician, but that, too, has turned out badly. It is Babe’s shooting of Botrelle in the stomach (“I aimed for his heart”), because “I didn’t like his looks,” that has forced this reunion on the sisters. Hovering over their personal failures is the enigmatic, frightening suicide of their mother. As Meg describes it, she hanged herself in the cellar after “a real bad day,” first hanging the family cat for company. The dramatic question of the play is, Will the sisters be able to get through their own “real bad day?”

They not only do so, but they more or less come to terms with their own failures and tentatively set new, more positive directions for themselves. Babe’s crisis and Meg’s failure stimulate Lenny to venture out of her shell. She finally stands up to Chick, kicking her out of the house, and then reestablishes contact with her “one time” boyfriend, who seems overjoyed to hear from her, and not at all distressed by the fact that Lenny’s “shrunken ovary” will make childbearing impossible.

Babe’s problems are more complex than Lenny’s and demand much more contrived solutions. While it is likely that Zackery’s treatment of her accounts for—perhaps even justifies—Babe’s assault on him, her situation is further complicated by her sexual involvement with a fifteen-year-old black youth (“I was so lonely . . . he was so, so good”), an affair unfortunately recorded on film by detectives working for her suspicious sister-in-law. Babe’s rescue comes at the hands of Barnette Lloyd, a young, Harvard-trained lawyer, who takes her case because “she sold me a pound cake at a bazaar once,” and because he has a “personal vendetta against Zackery Botrelle” (for reasons never stated). In the end, the lawyer manages to neutralize the evidence of Babe’s sexual adventures with proof of Botrelle’s political and financial corruption. Although Babe’s precise fate is left in suspense, it is clear that some kind of deal will be made to resolve and suppress the crisis with as little damage and publicity as possible.

Meg is the most interesting and complicated of the sisters. She has neither refused to face life, like Lenny, nor has she made bad choices, like Babe; but, having pushed herself to her limit, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Returning home after hospitalization, she treads a precarious line between stability and collapse. Her reunion provokes not only the revelation of her Hollywood failure but also revives the issue of her affair with Doc Porter, the man whom she left a “cripple.” Porter is not physically crippled—he merely has a slight limp “that adds rather than detracts from his quiet, seductive quality”—but in another sense, at least in the minds of the MaGrath sisters, he has been crippled by Meg. After the injury and her desertion, he gave up his ambition to become a doctor and became a house painter instead. In fact, Meg wonders if she has created an emotional cripple, but, upon meeting him again, she discovers, much to her surprise, that he has married, settled down, and seems quite contented. Her failure to reanimate their relationship provokes a curious response from Meg: she is pleased with herself and honestly happy for him.MEG: . . . he didn’t ask me. He didn’t even want to ask me. . . . Why aren’t I miserable. Why aren’t I morbid! I should be humiliated! Devastated! . . . But for now it was . . . just such fun. I’m happy. I realized I could care about someone. I could want someone. And I sang! I sang all night long! I sang right up into the trees! But not for Old Granddaddy. None of it to please Old Granddaddy!

Indeed, the character of Old Granddaddy is one of the central elements in the play, and his imminent death signals the new freedom that awaits the girls. On the most practical level, his death will free Lenny from the burden of caring for him, and, more important, it will free all of the sisters from the psychological bondage he has imposed on them. It was he who took them in after their mother’s suicide, and his “strength” has constantly been contrasted with her weakness. It was he who put the idea in Lenny’s head that her “shrunken ovary” would make her unacceptable to men. It was he who fostered Meg’s illusion that she had a great future as a singer, spoiling her as a child and favoring her above her sisters until she was incapable of coping with the real world into which he then sent her. Finally, it was he who established the social environment that coerced Babe into her expedient, disastrous marriage to Zackery Botrelle.

All of these various story lines and themes come together in the marvelous birthday-party scene that ends the play, and when all of the plot complications are resolved—Lenny’s call to her boyfriend completed, Chick dismissed from the house, Meg’s revelation disclosed, Babe’s case approximately resolved and her comical suicide averted—the three sisters sit down to consume a huge birthday cake in Lenny’s honor—one day late. Although not fully articulated, Lenny’s “wish” summarizes the final mood of the play.

LENNY: Well, I guess it wasn’t really a specific wish. This—this vision just sort of came into my mind.BABE: A vision? What was it of?LENNY: I don’t know exactly. It was something about the three of us smiling and laughing together.BABE: Well, when was it? Was it far away or near?LENNY: I’m not sure; but it wasn’t forever; it wasn’t for every minute. Just this one moment and we were all laughing.BABE: Then, what were we laughing about?LENNY: I don’t know. Just nothing, I guess.MEG: Well, that’s a nice wish to make.

Crimes of the Heart clearly fits into the Southern gothic tradition with its echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and, at times, Tennessee Williams. The characters are at once believable people and comical grotesques. Their pain is real, and their eccentricities and absurdities—for all of the zany humor they provide—are tied to real pain. The idea of a horse being killed by lightning is amusing, but Lenny’s grief over the horse’s death is genuinely moving. A suicide pact between a human and a cat is ludicrous, yet the anguish that prompted Mrs. MaGrath to carry it out is quite believable. It seems improbable that a woman would shoot her husband, then make lemonade, drink three glasses, and offer one to her victim, who lies bleeding on the floor, yet in Henley’s hands, such a woman is not only real but also sympathetic. Henley convinces audiences of the validity of these characters by creating a special world in which such behavior is the norm; her own love for this world and its inhabitants is infectious.

Part of Henley’s secret is in her language. She has a playwright’s instinctive sense of the rhythm of dramatic speech. Each of her characters has a distinctive voice, yet these individual voices blend easily into an impressive verbal medley. The accents are unmistakably Southern, but the “y’alls” are muted in favor of colloquial rhythms and carefully selected words and phrases, producing an effect that is both regional in flavor and universal in implication.

In terms of plotting, Henley’s skill in balancing and manipulating her many complex plot lines is remarkable, especially in a first play. As improbable as the situations in the play may sound in summary, they are linked so deftly and proceed so rapidly that questions of strict plot logic will rarely trouble an audience. As Henley herself said in a recent interview:My plays aren’t realistic. They’re born of images of real events. I really can’t write about reality. I don’t know what my plays are. They’re just filtered through the mind, or the heart, or somethin’, and that’s how they come out. They’re real to me. They’re real because they come from somethin’ real.

Crimes of the Heart followed a curious path to success: it won the Pulitzer Prize before opening on Broadway, although the play had enjoyed a most impressive string of successes throughout the United States prior to its November, 1981, opening on Broadway. After its Broadway debut, Crimes of the Heart won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best American play of the 1980-1981 season, as well as a nomination for the 1982 Tony Award for best play.

The Play

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Crimes of the Heart opens with an empty kitchen. It is late afternoon. Lenny enters and furtively tries—unsuccessfully—to stick a birthday candle into a cookie. She is interrupted, first by Chick, who blithely babbles insults about the MaGrath sisters and says that their presence in town has been her particular social cross, and second by Doc Porter, who brings Lenny both a bag of pecans and the news that her twenty-year-old horse has been struck dead by lightning. Finally alone, successfully attaching candle to cookie, Lenny sings “Happy Birthday” to herself. It is not an auspicious birthday: she is thirty, her horse has just died, Chick has belittled her with a cheap gift of chocolate cremes, and her sister Babe has shot her husband, Zackery Botrelle, and is in jail.

The first act of the play continues to build on the chaos—physical, psychological, emotional—of the opening scene. There are more arrivals: Meg walks in, having just got off the bus from California; Babe comes home from jail; Chick returns; and Barnette Lloyd stops by to discuss Babe’s case. There are departures, as well: Chick runs howling out the door at the news that her children have eaten their paints; Lenny follows to drive them all to the doctor; and Barnette leaves without getting a chance to talk to Babe, who hides from him. There are revelations: Meg’s singing career has gone nowhere, she has had a mental breakdown, and she has been working in a dog food factory to support herself; Lenny has turned away the only beau she has ever had, a man from Memphis, because of her selfconsciousness about her “shrunken ovary”; Babe’s excuse for shooting Zackery is that she “didn’t like his stinking looks”; Chick has hated the MaGraths all of her life.

The audience also learns that the MaGraths’ father abandoned them when they were young, that their mother grew more and more depressed and finally hanged herself and an old yellow cat she had, and that the three girls were raised by Old Granddaddy. Perhaps the most shocking revelation is the one that comes close to the end of the first act. Babe—the prettiest and most promising of the MaGrath girls, wife of the most prominent lawyer in Hazlehurst—has been having an affair with Willie Jay, the fifteen-year-old son of her black maid. As the act ends, with their little world in shambles, Babe and Meg order for Lenny “the very largest size cake they have” at the local bakery.

Act 2, in the evening of the same day, reveals Babe eating oatmeal while Barnette Lloyd questions her about shooting Zackery. Babe explains that after the shooting, she made a pitcher of lemonade and drank three glasses before calling the hospital. She is aware that things look bleak for her, and Barnette tries to comfort her. The phone rings; it is Zackery with the news that he has evidence that will destroy Babe. Barnette leaves to find out what the evidence is.

An angry Lenny arrives from the hospital, sputtering that Meg has lied to Old Granddaddy about her singing career. Lenny’s ire is exacerbated when she discovers that Meg has taken a tiny bite out of each piece of candy in Chick’s gift. Babe points out that Meg has been “doing all sorts of these strange things” since she discovered their mother’s body years earlier. Not pacified, Lenny continues to detail Meg’s “crimes” in the past: their grandmother sewed more jingle bells on Meg’s petticoats; Meg was probably responsible for Doc’s limp and for his not going to medical school. Meg comes in, and a brief argument flares up between her and Lenny. Babe interrupts to ask for her photo album, and the sisters forget to fight as they reminisce over the pictures in the album and decide on a nostalgic game of Hearts. When Doc calls asking to see Meg, trouble strikes again. Lenny—resentful of the attention that Meg has always gotten from the opposite sex—brings up the matter of the candy, then begins her harangue about the jingle bells and Doc; Meg retaliates with a reference to the Memphis man; Lenny turns on Babe for telling Meg about him and then runs upstairs to cry. Babe follows, leaving Meg alone. Doc arrives; he and Meg have a slightly uncomfortable conversation, then decide to go for a drive. After they leave, Babe comes downstairs, just in time to hear Barnette’s knock on the door. He has with him Zackery’s evidence—explicit photos of Babe and Willie Jay in the Botrelle garage. Once again, Barnette attempts to comfort the distressed Babe; once again they are interrupted. Lenny comes downstairs with the message that someone from the hospital has phoned to say that Old Granddaddy has had another stroke.

As act 3 opens, Babe is resting on a cot in the kitchen; it is the next day. Lenny enters, and immediately Chick shows up to demand that Lenny phone half of their relatives to tell them of Old Granddaddy’s condition. Chick leaves, and Lenny tells Babe how depressed she is about the way life has turned out. As Babe reassures Lenny that things can be different, a radiant Meg arrives from her drive with Doc. She has decided to tell Old Granddaddy the truth about her career. Babe announces that it is too late—and she and Lenny explode in a fit of giggles as they try to explain that the old man is in no condition to hear a confession. Once again, a good mood overtakes the sisters, and Lenny allows herself to be persuaded to go upstairs to call Charlie in Memphis. As Babe shows Meg the incriminating photos Barnette brought the night before, he arrives with the news that he has discovered evidence that Zackery is guilty of “graft, fraud, forgery, as well as a history of unethical behavior.” Barnette is sure that Zackery will be amenable to a deal. He also announces that Willie Jay will be leaving town on the midnight bus.

Barnette and Meg leave—he to return to work, she to pick up Lenny’s cake. Lenny comes downstairs wailing that she was too afraid to call Charlie. Once again Chick arrives, ostensibly to commiserate with Babe and Lenny over Meg’s “disgusting behavior” (staying out with Doc all night). As usual, she manages to insult the MaGraths, and this time the usually meek Lenny orders her to leave the house and finally chases her out the door with a broom. Zackery phones to inform Babe that he intends to have her committed. She hangs up, and an exhilarated Lenny enters to announce that she will call Charlie. As Lenny dials the number, Babe goes upstairs with a rope. The phone call is a success, and Lenny hangs up exclaiming that Charlie is coming to visit. Finding no one around to hear her good news, Lenny runs out the back door to find Meg, who is supposedly picking paw-paws.

From this point on, events move rapidly. Having failed to hang herself upstairs, Babe comes down, turns on the gas, and sticks her head in the oven. Only slightly dizzy, she is discovered by Meg, who has returned with Lenny’s cake. Babe has had an epiphany: She now knows that their mother killed the old yellow cat because she was afraid to die alone and wanted something she loved as a companion. Meg and Babe light the candles on the cake and call Lenny into the house. The surprised Lenny is so excited that she has to be prodded into making a wish and blowing out her candles. The play ends with the three sisters joyfully consuming huge pieces of birthday cake as “the lights change and frame them in a magical, golden, sparkling glimmer.”

Dramatic Devices

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Dominating Crimes of the Heart is its single set—the big old-fashioned kitchen of the MaGrath home—which, through its suggestion of cozy warmth and familial bonds, underscores the enormity of the everyday “crimes” committed by the characters. Associated in many minds with that popular cliche, “the heart of the home,” the kitchen conjures up images of family meals, cooking sessions spiced with family tales and harmless gossip, celebrations, reunions, and tete-a-tetes between mother and daughters. Ironically, the kitchen of the play initially is the scene of insults and quarrels, a place where resentments are aired and grudges revealed. There is no mother, she having committed suicide years earlier, and the reunion of the three sisters has been precipitated by Babe’s very real crime.

As events unfold, however, and the sisters are forced into an understanding of one another, the kitchen gradually becomes the scene of shared secrets and mended fences, of the dawning of self-confidence in Lenny, of Meg’s realization that she can control her life, of Babe’s discovery of their mother’s loneliness. Appropriately, the final celebration is held in that same kitchen which finally has become, for the sisters, the heart of their family home.

Henley focuses the audience’s attention on the sisters through a dramatic device as old as Greek tragedy—the occurrence of major events offstage. Zackery has been shot and Babe taken to jail before the play opens. The audience hears about, rather than sees, other potentially dramatic events: Babe’s release, Meg’s lies to Old Granddaddy, Meg’s midnight drive with Doc, Old Granddaddy’s stroke, Chick’s undignified escape up a tree to avoid Lenny’s broom, Babe’s first suicide attempt. Having these important events occur offstage effectively highlights the growing relationship between the MaGrath sisters, emphasizes their increasing awareness of their self-worth, and underscores their new supportiveness of one another.

Form and Content

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Crimes of the Heart focuses on the reunion of the three MaGrath sisters at a critical time: The youngest sister, Babe, has shot her husband, Zackery, and their grandfather is hospitalized because of a stroke. Divided into three acts, the play traces the emotional rebirth of the sisters as they move from a feeling of isolation and abandonment to a renewed sense of community and support. As children, they were deserted first by their father and later by their mother: Their father physically left the family when Babe was an infant, and their mother subsequently committed suicide. The legacy of the parents’ betrayal is the daughters’ repression of emotion and their dysfunctional relationships with men. Babe marries an abusive bigot whom she winds up shooting, Meg deserts her lover Doc Porter before he can desert her, and Lenny fashions a makeshift relationship with their grandfather. During the play, the sisters discover hope and nurturance in their love and concern for one another.

The first act opens on Lenny, sitting alone in the kitchen trying to celebrate her thirtieth birthday by sticking a candle into a cookie. She is interrupted by Chick, who comes on the pretense of picking up a pair of pantyhose. Her real interest, however, is to gossip about Babe and to belittle Meg and her mother. Meg returns home from California, and Babe is released from jail. Meg tells Babe about her failed singing career (she has lost her voice), and Babe tells Meg about Lenny’s fling with a Memphis man named Charlie Hill. Yet the focus of the act is Babe’s attempted murder of her husband, a wealthy lawyer who is interested in politics. Though Babe frequently says that she shot him because she did not like his looks, she finally admits that he abused her physically and emotionally and brutalized her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old African American Willie Jay.

The second act concentrates on Meg, who appears as an outsider in a culture that values women for the appearance of sexual purity. She is their grandfather’s favorite, however, causing Lenny to resent her. The tension builds between these two sisters. First, Lenny is bothered by Meg’s lying about her singing career and then by her snitching a bite from each piece of Lenny’s candy. Finally, Meg leaves with Doc Porter, who is now married with two children, for a moonlight ride and upsets the sisters’ plan to play cards together. The act ends with two disruptive events: Babe’s lawyer, Barnette Lloyd, discloses that her husband has photographs of Babe and Willie Jay together, and the grandfather has another stroke.

The third act focuses on the positive insights reached by each of the sisters. After going out with Doc Porter, Meg returns home singing happily. She knows that he is not romantically interested in her, yet she still is jubilant because she can care for someone else, an awareness that causes her to rediscover her singing voice. Babe comes to terms with her mother’s suicide and why she hanged the cat with her. After two failed attempts at suicide herself, Babe realizes that her mother did not want to be alone. Meg assures Babe that, unlike their mother, the MaGrath sisters will never be alone since they have one another. Lenny grows more self-confident and asserts her independence by chasing Chick out of the kitchen with a broom and then calling her Memphis boyfriend. The play finishes in a celebratory note as Meg and Babe watch Lenny blow out the candles on an enormous birthday cake, which they eat together.

Context

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In 1980, Henley’s Crimes of the Heart became the first drama to win the Pulitzer Prize before its Broadway debut, also marking the first time in twenty-two years that a woman had won the prize for drama. Acknowledgment of the play also included a Guggenheim Award from Newsday, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony nomination. In addition to receiving critical acclaim, the play was well received by theatergoers and was turned into an equally popular film in 1986, for which Henley wrote the screenplay.

Crimes of the Heart is distinctively Southern in its focus on place, community, humor, violence, and the past. Yet Henley’s perspective, like that of her contemporaries Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Rita Mae Brown, is from the view of the historically betrayed female. Considering the father’s betrayal as emblematic of how the traditional family and community at large have failed women especially, it is necessary to Henley’s revision of community in the play that the sisters come to terms with the past. Part of that understanding involves seeing the potential for a reciprocal relationship with men.

An element of that male-dominated past with which they must struggle is the very real presence of the grandfather, who does not abandon them physically like their father. Seemingly, the situation is quite the reverse: The grandfather provides a home for them. Yet he imposes his desires upon them, effacing theirs. When Lenny says that he only “wanted what was best” for them, Meg responds, “Sometimes I wonder what we wanted.” Her response suggests the crucial point from which a new community emerges—not from a prescribed code of behavior, but from the needs and desires of the individual members.

Henley’s play clearly grows out of a Southern literary tradition characterized by a fascination with how communal ties and a sense of the past shape character, how laughter alleviates suffering. Distinguishing her treatment in Crimes of the Heart is that she presents a new vision of community, one based on tolerance and acceptance. Without sacrificing or rejecting her literary legacy, she reshapes it to create space for the female voice. Her next two plays, The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980) and The Wake of Jamey Foster (1982), also centered on women protagonists who discover their strength and integrity while coming to terms with the past, but the community that emerges is not as tolerant and accepting as that in Crimes of the Heart. The characters remain largely isolated and abandoned in a world ultimately defined by a standard that excludes the personal needs of diverse members.

Crimes of the Heart

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The Story:

Lenny lit a candle in a cookie to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. Chick, Lenny’s cousin, came over before going to bail Lenny’s sister, Babe, out of jail. Lenny also wired her sister Meg to come home. After Doc Porter, Meg’s old boyfriend, came over to tell Lenny that her horse, Billy Boy, had been struck by lightning, Meg came home to find out that Zackery had been shot by his wife, Babe, because she did not like his looks. Meg also found out that Old Granddaddy had been in the hospital for three months with strokes. Old Granddaddy had been proud of Babe’s marriage to Zackery, the most influential man in Hazlehurst. Old Granddaddy also had had high hopes for Meg’s singing career, but Meg had stopped singing and was working for a dog food company. Meg was further surprised to find out that Doc Porter was married to a Yankee and had two children by her.

Babe returned home with Chick, who had to leave when told that her two children had eaten paint. Babe realized that Chick had hated the three sisters ever since their father had left them and their mother had come to live with Old Granddaddy. Chick had been embarrassed by mother Magrath’s suicide and now by Babe’s shooting of Zackery. Babe wondered why Mama had hanged herself. After her husband had left, Mama had been depressed, spending her days on the porch smoking and killing bugs while she sat next to the old yellow cat that she eventually had hanged along with herself.

Babe would not tell why she shot Zackery because she was protecting someone, but she did admit that she shot to kill. Lenny came back to tell Meg and Babe that Chick’s children were all right and not to make a mess. Lenny was becoming as fussy as Old Grandma. She did not do anything but work in the brickyard and take care of Old Granddaddy. She only made love to one man, Charlie, a boyfriend she met through a lonely heart’s club. According to Lenny, the romance had broken off because Charlie had found out that Lenny had a shrunken ovary and could not have children. Meg suspected that Old Granddaddy had recommended that Lenny break off the relationship. Meg noticed Chick’s birthday present to Lenny, and Meg and Babe decided to order a huge cake to celebrate Lenny’s birthday.

When Barnette, Babe’s lawyer, came over, Babe refused to see him. Barnette was a young but qualified lawyer who had a personal vendetta against Zackery and wanted to prove that Zackery beat Babe and drove her to shoot him. Babe’s medical record showed numerous injuries, and Barnette wanted Babe to corroborate that she had been abused. Barnette also assured Meg that he would not betray Babe just to get even with Zackery because he was fond of Babe. When Barnette left, Babe not only confirmed the abuse but also told Meg why she shot Zackery. Lonely and isolated, Babe had engaged in a sexual relationship with Willy Jay, a fifteen-year-old black boy. One day Zackery had seen Willy Jay at his house and had hit him. After contemplating shooting herself, Babe realized she really wanted to kill Zackery, so she shot him. After Meg convinced Babe to speak to Barnette, Babe confessed to Barnette that after she had shot Zackery she had made a pitcher of lemonade before calling the police. Zackery had damaging evidence that Barnette went to find. Barnette, whose father had been ruined by Zackery, was eager to win the case and get even.

Lenny came home angry at Meg for lying to Old Granddaddy about her career. Meg came home disgusted at herself for being obliged to lie. The sisters looked at family pictures and decided to play a game of cards when Doc called and Meg invited him over. When Doc came over Meg blamed herself for leaving Doc after he hurt his leg. Meg had stopped singing when she had had a nervous breakdown. Meg and Doc went out to enjoy the moonlight.

Barnette showed Babe photographs that Zackery had of Babe and Willy Jay making love. That night Old Granddaddy had another stroke and went into a coma. The next morning, Meg came home able to sing because she could care for Doc (although nothing had happened between them), and he had gone back to his wife. Barnette, who had evidence of Zackery’s political corruption, would make a deal with him to save Babe. Zackery called Babe to tell her he was having her committed to a mental institution. After chasing Chick up a tree for insulting Meg, Lenny called Charlie and invited him over. After a failed attempt to hang herself, Babe stuck her head in the oven with the gas on. Meg rescued Babe, and Meg and Babe surprised Lenny with an enormous birthday cake. The three sisters laughed and ate huge pieces of cake.

Critical Evaluation:

Crimes of the Heart is Beth Henley’s first full-length play, and it launched her career as a playwright. The play was originally produced in Louisville in 1979. In 1981, it opened Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, becoming the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize before opening on Broadway. In 1981, the play also won the coveted New York City Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play. Later, the play opened to good reviews at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, where it became a box-office hit and was nominated for a Tony Award for the best play for the 1981-1982 Broadway season. Eventually, the play became a staple in regional repertory theater and was made into a film, starring Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange, in 1987.

The drama is tightly structured, taking place in little more than a day. Suspense builds around Babe’s shooting of her husband and her possible jail sentence. The play is also structured around Lenny’s thirtieth birthday. The play opens with Lenny lighting one candle on a cookie and ends with the three sisters celebrating Lenny’s birthday by eating huge pieces of cake. The other unifying structure is the offstage dying of Old Granddaddy in hospital. Early in the play, Lenny announces that Old Granddaddy has gotten worse in the hospital. Later, Meg and Lenny come back from visiting him. Act II ends on the jolting announcement that Old Granddaddy has had a stroke. Act III begins with the announcement that he is in a coma. Old Granddaddy and his dying absorb a considerable portion of the play’s time. His dying focuses the play on two themes: the world of death, decay, and disease that absorbs the characters and the false values that Old Granddaddy has tried to instill in his granddaughters.

Reflecting Old Granddaddy’s dying, the world is filled with death, disease, and decay. From Lenny’s hair falling out and Meg’s slicing pains in her chest to Mrs. Porter’s tumor in her bladder, illness is pervasive. Meg reads Old Granddaddy’s book on diseases of the skin and Babe keeps news clippings of her mother’s suicide in her scrapbook. Old Granddaddy is not alone among the ailing men in the play. Zackery is in the hospital with a bullet in his stomach. Doc Porter has a crippled leg. Willy Jay is beaten. Other signs of disease, decay, and death include Mama’s cat’s being hung and Billy Boy’s being struck by lightning. The audience may wonder if, in some symbolic sense, all the death and destruction has something to do with the baleful and unseen influence of Old Granddaddy.

Old Granddaddy has also influenced the lives of his three granddaughters. They have tried to live out his dreams for them. He has filled them with illusions that have led them to self-destructive behavior. Old Granddaddy wanted Babe to marry the influential Zackery so she could rise up in society. Babe is not suited to be among Zackery’s social set and winds up unhappily married to a brutish man. Old Granddaddy pumped Meg up with ideas about becoming a Hollywood celebrity. He told her that with her singing talent, all she needed was exposure and she could make her own breaks. Her attempt to live the life Old Granddaddy set for her brought her to the brink of madness. She makes up stories about her fame and then feels guilty afterward. Whether she tries to fulfill Old Granddaddy’s dream or acts to spite him, she is still controlled by him. Lenny is also acting out Old Granddaddy’s image of what she should be. Old Granddaddy has made her feel self-conscious about her shrunken ovary. She has become Old Granddaddy’s nursemaid. She does not know what she will do with her life after Old Granddaddy dies. He advised her to give up the one man with whom she had a relationship.

On the day of their mother’s funeral, Old Granddaddy filled them so full of banana splits for breakfast that they got sick. His attempts to fill them with the rich desserts of life has left them physically and mentally ill. Babe shoots her husband then swills down three glasses of her favorite lemonade until she is bloated. Meg tries to harden herself against life by looking at pictures of crippled children, then using money she might have donated to the March of Dimes to buy a double-scoop ice cream cone. When Lenny is filled with Old Granddaddy’s advice, she feels like vomiting.

Critics have debated whether the play has a clear resolution. Some critics believe that the final celebration signifies a change in the lives of the three sisters. The resolution, however, is uncertain because the ending is clearly linked to the sisters’ reactions to Old Granddaddy. The final scene of the three sisters laughing replicates the previous scene of laughing over Old Granddaddy’s coma. Their laughter comes more out of hysteria than joy. The scene in which the sisters stuff themselves with huge pieces of cake for breakfast reenacts Old Granddaddy’s stuffing them full of banana splits for breakfast. Although they have made discoveries about themselves, their gorging themselves with birthday cake repeats the pattern of what Old Granddaddy has instilled in them. They still seek solace in empty pleasures.

Crimes of the Heart is a well-crafted drama that blends a fine mixture of comedy and tragedy in the Southern gothic style. It blends the grotesque with the touching, the eccentric with the realistic, and the laughter of hysteria with the laughter of celebration.

Bibliography

Adler, Thomas P. Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Prize Plays as an Approach to American Drama. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987. A brief discussion of Crimes of the Heart as a play of female solidarity.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. “Beth Henley,” in their Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, 1987.

Gagen, Jean. “Most Resembling Unlikeness and Most Unlikely Resemblance: Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Chekhov’s Three Sisters.” Studies in American Drama: 1945-Present 4 (1989): 119-128. A comparison that finds Crimes of the Heart lacking in the subtlety of the Three Sisters.

Guerra, Jonnie. “Beth Henley: Female Quest and the Family Play Tradition.” In Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. A feminist study of Henley’s plays that focuses on women’s breaking away from the patriarchy in Crimes of the Heart.

Gwin, Minrose C. “Sweeping the Kitchen: Revelation and Revolution in Contemporary Southern Women’s Writing.” Southern Quarterly 30 (Winter/Spring, 1992): 54-62. Gwin argues that the play’s narrative dismantles patriarchal power and replaces it with maternal strength. She convincingly shows that the kitchen of the grandfather’s house becomes the space of empowerment for the sisters as they share joy and pain.

Haedicke, Janet V. “A Population (and Theater) at Risk: Battered Women in Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind.” Modern Drama 36 (March, 1993): 83-95. Haedicke rereads Henley as a reactionary, upholding traditional male-female relationships based on a male hierarchy. Argues that Henley trivializes violence against women in the family, hence reaffirming female victimization.

Haller, Scott. “Her First Play, Her First Pulitzer Prize,” in Saturday Review. VIII (November, 1981), pp. 40-44.

Harbin, Billy J. “Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley.” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1987): 81-94. Harbin studies Henley’s treatment of family, community, and their disintegration. He concludes that the sisters, through their endurance of pain and suffering, move toward a renewed sense of familial trust and unity.

Hargrove, Nancy D. “The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley’s Drama.” Southern Quarterly 22 (Summer, 1984): 54-70. Noting that Henley’s plays are essentially serious though presented in a comic mode, Hargrove discusses the negative themes, such as physical and emotional death, associated with Henley’s bleak view of human life. Hargrove decides, however, that this tragic vision is relieved by the sisters’ affection and solidarity.

Kachur, Barbara. “Women Playwrights on Broadway: Henley, Howe, Norman, and Wasserstein.” In Contemporary American Theatre, edited by Bruce King. London: Macmillan, 1991. Kachur examines how Henley underscores the relationship between death and comedy, generating laughter in the face of existential madness. Kachur argues that the playwright raises women above the domestic sphere, making them models of strength and integrity.

Karpinski, Joanne B. “The Ghosts of Chekhov’s Three Sisters Haunt Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. A comparison that finds Crimes of the Heart more accessible to modern audiences than Three Sisters.

Laughlin, Karen L. “Criminality, Desire, and Community: A Feminist Approach to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 3 (1986): 35-51. Laughlin examines the play against feminist theories on criminality and desire in order to determine whether the experience of the MaGrath sisters reflects female experience generally. She successfully shows that the sisters are oppressed by a patriarchal structure and that their choices are based on those of their grandfather.

McDonnell, Lisa J. “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman,” in The Southern Quarterly. XXV (Spring, 1987), pp. 95-104.

Shepard, Alan Clarke. “Aborted Rage in Beth Henley’s Women.” Modern Drama 36 (March, 1993): 96-108. Shepard explores how the fantasies of murder in Henley’s plays are strategies for coping with emotional and physical abuse while repressing rage. Shepard concludes that the sisters try to repair and preserve their lives within the seriously flawed, patriarchal system that they have inherited.

Simon, John. “Living Beings, Cardboard Symbols,” in New York. XIV (November 16, 1981), pp. 125-126.

Historical Context

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Crimes of the Heart, according to Henley's stage directions, takes place' '[i]n the fall, five years after Hurricane Camille." This would set the play in 1974, in the midst of significant upheavals in American society. Henley's characters, however, seem largely unmoved by the events of the outside world, caught up as they are in the pain and disappointment of their personal lives.

Vietnam
The war continued in 1974, setting off a civil war in Cambodia as well. U.S. combat troops had been removed from Vietnam in 1973, although American support of anti-Communist forces in the South of the country continued. Perhaps more important to the American social fabric, the many rifts caused by our involvement in the war in Vietnam were slow to heal. Students and others who had protested against the war remained largely disillusioned about the foreign interests of the U.S. government, and society as a whole remained traumatized by U.S. casualties and the devastation wrought by the war, which had been widely broadcast by the media; the Vietnam War was often referred to as the "living room war" due to the unprecedented level of television coverage.

Watergate
Perhaps the most significant event in American society in 1974 was the unprecedented resignation of President Richard Nixon, over accusations of his granting approval for the June 17,1972, burglary of Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. By the end of 1973, a Harris poll suggested that people believed, by a margin of 73 to 21 percent, that the president's credibility had been damaged beyond repair. Like public opinion over Vietnam, Watergate was an important symbol both of stark divisions in American society and a growing disillusionment with the integrity of our leaders. Less than two years after being re-elected in a forty-nine-state landslide and after declaring repeatedly that he would never resign under pressure, Nixon was faced with certain impeachment by Congress. Giving in to the inevitable, he resigned his office in disgrace on August 9.

World Crises: Food, Energy, Inflation
1974 was an especially trying year for the developing world, as massive famine swept through Asia, South America, and especially Africa, on the heels of drought and several major natural disasters. As they watched this tragedy unfold, citizens of industrialized nations of the West were experiencing social instability of another kind. In the fall of 1973, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) leveled an embargo on exports to the Netherlands and the U.S. The United States, with its unparalleled dependency on fuel (in 1974, the nation had six percent of the world's population but consumed thirty-three percent of the world's energy), experienced a severe economic crisis. U.S. economic output for the first quarter of 1974 dropped $10-20 billion, and 500,000 American workers lost their jobs. The U.S. government blamed the Arabs for the crisis, but American public opinion also held U.S. companies responsible for manipulating prices and supplies to corporate advantage. Related to the energy crisis and other factors, the West experienced an inflation crisis as well; annual double-digit inflation became a reality for the first time for most industrial nations.

Civil Rights
On the twenty-year anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision on school integration, fierce battles were still being fought on the issue, garnering national attention. The conflict centered mostly on issues of school busing, as the site of conflict largely shifted from the South to the cities of the
North. In Boston, for example, police had to accompany buses transporting black children to white schools. Meanwhile, baseball player Hank Aaron's breaking of Babe Ruth's career home-run title in 1974 was a significant and uplifting achievement, but its painful post-script—the numerous death threats Aaron received from racists who did not feel it was proper for a black athlete to earn such a title— suggests that bigoted ideas of race in America were, sadly, slow to change.

Growing out of its roots in the 1960s, the movement to define and defend the civil rights of women also continued. 1974 marked a midpoint in the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which declared: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The amendment was originally passed by the Senate in March, 1972, and by the end of 1974, thirty-one states had ratified it, with a total of thirty-eight needed. Support for the ERA (which eventually failed) was regionally divided: while every state in the Northeast had ratified the amendment by this time, for example, it had been already defeated in Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. Legislative action was stalled, meanwhile, in many other southern states, including North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

In Crimes of the Heart, the characters seem untouched by these prominent events on the national scene. The absence of any prominent historical context to the play may reflect Henley's perspective on national politics: she has described herself as a political cynic with a' 'moratorium on watching the news since Reagan's been president," as she described herself in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. It may also be a reflection of Henley's perspective on small-town life in the South, where, she feels, people more commonly come together to talk about their own lives and tell stories rather than watch television or discuss the national events being covered in the media. The South of Crimes of the Heart, meanwhile, seems largely unaffected by the civil rights movement, large-scale economic development, or other factors of what has often been called an era of unprecedented change in the South.

Regarding the issue of race, for example, consider Babe's affair with Willie Jay, a fifteen-year-old African American youth: while the revelation of it would compromise any case Babe might have against her husband for domestic violence, it presents a greater threat to Willie Jay himself. Because the threat of possible retribution by Zachary or other citizens of the town, Willie Jay has no option but to leave "incognito on the midnight bus—heading North.'' Henley has made an important observation about race relations in Mississippi, in response to a question actually about recent trends in "colorblind" casting in the theatre. Henley stated in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists that' 'it depends on how specific you're being about the character's background as to whether that's an issue." In a play like Crimes of the Heart, ' 'if you're writing about a specific time or place ... then obviously race is important because there is a segregated bigoted thing going on,"

Literary Style

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Set in the small southern town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Crimes of the Heart centers on three sisters who converge at the house of their grandfather after the youngest, Babe, has shot her husband following years of abuse. The other sisters have their own difficulties—Meg's Hollywood singing career is a bust, and Lenny (the eldest) is frustrated and lonely after years of bearing familial responsibility (most recently, she has been sleeping on a cot in the kitchen in order to care for the sisters' ailing grandfather). Over the course of two days, the sisters endure a number of conflicts, both between themselves and with other characters. In the end, however, they manage to come together in a moment of unity and joy despite their difficulties.

Beth Henley is most often praised, especially regarding Crimes of the Heart, for the creative blending of different theatrical styles and moods which gives her plays a unique perspective on small-town life in the South. Her multi-faceted approach to dramatic writing is underscored by the rather eclectic group of playwrights Henley once listed for an interviewer as being her major influences: Anton Chekhov, William Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, David Mamet, Henrik Ibsen, Lillian Hellman, and Carson McCullers. In particular, Henley's treatment of the tragic and grotesque with humor startled audiences and critics (who were either pleasantly surprised, or unpleasantly shocked). While this macabre humor is often associated with the Southern Gothic movement in literature, Henley's dramatic technique is difficult to qualify as being strongly of one theatrical bent or another. For example, Crimes of the Heart has many of the characteristics of a naturalistic work of the "well-made play" tradition: a small cast, a single set, a three-act structure, an initial conflict which is complicated in the second act and resolved in the third. As Scott Haller observed in Saturday Review, however, Henley's purpose is not the resurrection of this tradition but the "ransacking" of it. "In effect," he wrote, "she has mated the conventions of the naturalistic play with the unconventional protagonists of absurdist comedy. It is this unlikely dramatic alliance, plus her vivid Southern vernacular, that supplies Henley's idiosyncratic voice."

The rapid accumulation of tragedies in Henley's dramatic world thus appears too absurd to be real, yet too tangibly real to be absurd, and therein lies the playwright's originality. Many critics have joined Haller in finding in Henley's work elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, which presented a vision of a disordered universe in which characters are isolated from one another and are incapable of meaningful action. There is, however, much more specificity to the plot and lives of the characters in Crimes of the Heart than there is, for example, in a play by absurdists like Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Nevertheless, Henley shares with these playwrights, and others of the Absurd, a need to express the dark humor inherent in the struggle to create meaning out of life.

Henley's macabre sense of humor has resulted in frequent comparisons to Southern Gothic writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. Providing a theatrical rationale for much of what appears to be impossibly eccentric behavior on the part of Henley's characters; in the New York Times, Walter Kerr wrote:' 'We do understand the ground-rules of matter-of-fact Southern grotesque, and we know that they're by no means altogether artificial. People do such things and, having done them, react in surprising ways." Although Henley once stated that when she began writing plays she was not familiar with O'Connor, and that she "didn't consciously' ' say that she' 'was going to be like Southern Gothic or grotesque,'' she has since read widely among the work of O'Connor and others, and agrees the connections are there. Of her eccentric brand of humor Henley, quoted in Mississippi Writers Talking, suspected that * 'I guess maybe that's just inbred in the South. You hear people tell stories, and somehow they are always more vivid and violent than the stories people tell out in Los Angeles."

While Crimes of the Heart does have a tightly-structured plot, with a central and several tangential conflicts, Henley's real emphasis, as Nancy Hargrove suggested in the Southern Quarterly, is ' 'on character rather than on action." Jon Jory, the director of the original Louisville production, observes that what so impressed him initially about Henley's play was her' 'immensely sensitive and complex view of relationships. And the comedy didn't come from one character but from between the characters. That's very unusual for a young writer'' (Haller 42). The nature of Henley's dramatic conclusion in Crimes of the Heart goes hand-in-hand with her primary focus upon characterization, and her significant break with the tradition of the "well-made play." While the plot moves to a noticeable resolution, with the sisters experiencing a moment of unity they have not thus far experienced in the play, Henley leaves all of the major conflicts primarily unresolved. Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the Saturday Review assessment of the Broadway production that "Crimes moves to no real resolution, but this is part of its power. It presents a condition that, in minuscule, implies much about the state of the world, as well as the state of Mississippi, and about human chaos; it says, "Resolution is not my business. Ludicrously horrifying honesty is."

Because of the distinctive balance that Henley strikes—between comedy and tragedy, character and plot, conflict and resolution—the playwright whose technique Henley's most resembles may be Chekhov (although her sense of humor is decidedly more macabre and expressed in more explicit ways). Henley has said of Chekhov's influence upon her that she appreciates how "he doesn't judge people as much as just shows them in the comic and tragic parts of people. Everything's done with such ease, but it hits so deep," as she stated in Mississippi Writers Talking. About a production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard which particularly moved her, Henley commented in The Playwright's Art; Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists that "It was just absolutely a revelation about how alive life can be and how complicated and beautiful and horrible; to deny either of those is such a loss."

Media Adaptations

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Crimes of the Heart was adapted as a film in 1986, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, and Sam Shepard. The film adds as fully-realized characters several people who are only discussed in the play: Old Granddaddy, Zackery and Willie Jay. The film received decidedly mixed reviews but also garnered three Academy Award nominations, for Henley's screenplay and for the acting of Spacek and Tess Harper, who played the catty Chick.

In a rare example of reverse adaptation from drama to fiction, Claudia Reilly published in 1986 a novel, Crimes of the Heart, based on Henley's play.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Beaufort, John. "A Play that Proves There's No Explaining Awards" in the Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1981, p. 20
A very brief review with a strongly negative opinion of Crimes of the Heart that is rare in assessments of Henley's play. Completely dismissing its value, Beaufort wrote that Crimes of the Heart is "a perversely antic stage piece that is part eccentric characterization, part Southern fried Gothic comedy, part soap opera, and part patchwork plotting "

Berkvist, Robert."Act I. The Pulitzer, Act II: Broadway'' in the New York Times, October 25,1981, p. D4.
An article published a week before Crimes of the Heart Broadway opening, containing much of the same biographical information found in more detail in later sources Berkvist focused on the novelty of a playwright having such success with her first full-length play, and summarizes the positive reception of the play in Louisville and in its Off-Broadway run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The article does contain some of Henley's strongest comments on the state of the American theatre, particularly Broadway.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig "Beth Henley" in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beach Tree Book, 1987, pp 211-22.
An interview conducted as Henley was completing her play The Debutante Ball. Henley discussed her writing and revision process, how she responds to rehearsals and opening nights, her relationship with her own family (fragments of which turn up in all of her plays), and the different levels of opportunity for women and men in the contemporary theatre.

Corliss, Richard. "I Go with What I'm Feeling" in Time, February 8,1982, p. 80
A brief article published during the successful Broadway run of Crimes of the Heart to introduce Henley to a national audience. Corliss stated concisely and cleverly the complexities of Henley's work. "Sugar and spice and every known vice," the article begins; "that's what Beth Henley's plays are made of" Corliss observed that Henley's plays are “deceptively simple . By the end of the evening, caricatures have been fleshed into characters, jokes into down-home truths, domestic atrocities into strategies for staying alive " Henley is quoted in the article stating that "I'm like a child when I write, taking chances, never thinking in terms of logic or reviews I just go with what I'm feeling" The article documents a moment of new-found success for the young playwright, facing choices about the direction her career will take her.

Feingold, Michael. "Dry Roll'' in the Village Voice, November 18-24,1981, p 104.
Perhaps the most negative and vitriolic assessment of Crimes of the Heart in print. (The title refers to the musical Merrily We Roll Along, which Femgold also discussed in the review.) Feingold finds the play completely disingenuous, even insulting. He wrote that it "gives the impression of gossiping about its characters rather than presenting them never at any point coming close to the truth of their lives." Feingold gave some credit to Henley's "voice" as a playwright, "both individual and skillful," but overall found the play "hollow," something to be overcome by the "magical performances" of the cast.

Gussow, Mel. "Women Playwrights. New Voices in the Theatre" in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, May 1, 1983, p 22.
Discusses Henley along with numerous other contemporary women playwrights, in an article written on the occasion of Marsha Norman winning the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Gussow traced a history of successful women playwrights, including Lillian Hellman in a modern American context, but noted that "not until recently has there been anything approaching a movement." Among the many underlying forces which paved the way for this movement, Gussow mentioned the Actors' Theater of Louisville, where Henley's Crimes of the Heart premiered

Haller, Scott "Her First Play, Her First Pulitzer Prize'' in the Saturday Review, November, 1981, p 40.
Introducing Henley to the public, this brief article was published just prior to Crimes of the Heart opening on Broadway Haller marveled at the success achieved by a young "29-year-old who had never before written a full-length play." Based on an interview with the playwright, the article is primarily biographical, suggesting how being raised in the South provides Henley both with material and a vernacular speech. This theatrical dialect, combined with Henley's "unlikely dramatic alliance" between "the conventions of the naturalistic play" and "the unconventional protagonists of absurdist comedy'' gives Henley what Haller called her "idiosyncratic voice," which audiences have found so refreshing.

Harbin, Billy J. "Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley" in the Southern Quarterly, Vol. 25, no. 3, 1987, pp 80-94.
Harbin begins by placing Henley's work in the context of different waves of feminism since the 1960s.

Hargrove, Nancy D "The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley's Drama" in the Southern Quarterly, Vol 22, no 4, 1984, pp. 80-94.
Hargrove examines Henley's first three full-length plays, exploring (as the title suggests) the powerful mixture of tragedy and comedy within each.

Heilpern, John. "Great Acting, Pity about the Play" in the London Times, December 5,1981, p. 11.
A review of three Broadway productions, with brief comments on Crimes of the Heart "I regret,'' Heilpern wrote, "it left me mostly cold " It is interesting to consider whether, as Heilpern mused, he found the play bizarre and unsatisfying because as a British critic he suffered from "a serious culture gap " Instead of a complex, illuminating play (as so many American critics found (Crimes if the Heart), Heilpern saw only "unbelievable 'characters' whose lives were a mere farce. I could see only Southern 'types', like a cartoon".

Jones, John Griffin. "Beth Henley" in Mississippi Writers Talking, University Press of Mississippi, 1982, pp 169-90.
A rare interview conducted before Henley won the Pulitzer Prize for Crimes of the Heart. As such, it focuses on many biographical details from Henley's life, which had not yet received a great deal of public attention.

Kauffmann, Stanley "Two Cheers for Two Plays" in the Saturday Review, Vol. 9, no. 1,1982, pp. 54-55.
A review of the Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart Kauffmann praised the play but says its success "is, to some extent, a victory over this production." Kauffmann identified some faults in the play (such as the amount of action which occurs offstage and is reported) but overall his review is full of praise.

Kerr, Walter. "Offbeat—but a Beat Too Far" in the New York Times, November 15, 1981, p. D3.
In this review of the Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart, Kerr's perspective on the play is a mixed one. He offers many examples to support his opinion. Kerr is insightful about the delicate balance Henley strikes in her play—between humor and tragedy, between the hurtful actions of some the characters and the positive impressions of them the audience is nevertheless expected to maintain.

McDonnell, Lisa J "Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman" in the Southern Quarterly, Vol. 25, no. 3, 1987, pp. 95-104.
A comparison and contrasting of the techniques of southern playwrights Henley and Norman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama within two years of one another. The playwrights share "their remarkable gift for storytelling, their use of family drama as a framework, their sensitive delineation of character and relationships, their employment of bizarre Gothic humor and their use of the southern vernacular to demonstrate the poetic lyricism of the commonplace." Despite the similarities between them (which do go far beyond being southern women playwrights who have won the Pulitzer), McDonnell concluded that "they have already, relatively early in their playwriting careers, set themselves on paths that are likely to become increasingly divergent."

Ohva, Judy Lee. "Beth Henley" in Contemporary Dramatists, 5th edition, St James Press, 1993.290-91.
A more recent assessment which includes Henley's play Abundance, an epic play spanning 25 years in the lives of two pioneer women in the nineteenth century. Ohva examined what she calls a “unifying factor'' in Henley's plays: "women who seek to define themselves outside of their relationships with men and beyond their family environment." In Ohva's assessment, "it is Henley's characters who provide unique contributions to the dramaturgy." As important to Henley's plays as the characters are the stones they tell, “especially those stories in which female characters can turn to other female characters for help."

Simon, John. "Sisterhood is Beautiful" in the New York Times, January 12,1981, pp. 42-44.
A glowing review of the off-Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart, which "restores one's faith in our theatre."

Thompson, Lou. "Feeding the Hungry Heart: Food in Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart" in the Southern Quarterly, Vol 30,nos.2-3,1992,pp 99-102.
Drawing from Nancy Hargrove's observation in an earlier article that eating and drinking are, in Henley's plays, "among the few pleasures in life, or, in certain cases, among the few consolations for life," Thompson explored in more detail the pervasive imagery of food throughout Crimes of the Heart.

Willer-Moul, Cynthia "Beth Henley" in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 102-22.
A much more recent source, this interview covers a wider range of Henley's works, but still contains detailed discussion of Crimes of the Heart. Henley talks extensively about her writing process, from fundamental ideas to notes and outlines, the beginnings of dialogue, revisions, and finally rehearsals and the production itself.

Bibliography

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Adler, Thomas P. Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Prize Plays as an Approach to American Drama. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987. A brief discussion of Crimes of the Heart as a play of female solidarity.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. “Beth Henley,” in their Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, 1987.

Gagen, Jean. “Most Resembling Unlikeness and Most Unlikely Resemblance: Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Chekhov’s Three Sisters.” Studies in American Drama: 1945-Present 4 (1989): 119-128. A comparison that finds Crimes of the Heart lacking in the subtlety of the Three Sisters.

Guerra, Jonnie. “Beth Henley: Female Quest and the Family Play Tradition.” In Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. A feminist study of Henley’s plays that focuses on women’s breaking away from the patriarchy in Crimes of the Heart.

Gwin, Minrose C. “Sweeping the Kitchen: Revelation and Revolution in Contemporary Southern Women’s Writing.” Southern Quarterly 30 (Winter/Spring, 1992): 54-62. Gwin argues that the play’s narrative dismantles patriarchal power and replaces it with maternal strength. She convincingly shows that the kitchen of the grandfather’s house becomes the space of empowerment for the sisters as they share joy and pain.

Haedicke, Janet V. “A Population (and Theater) at Risk: Battered Women in Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind.” Modern Drama 36 (March, 1993): 83-95. Haedicke rereads Henley as a reactionary, upholding traditional male-female relationships based on a male hierarchy. Argues that Henley trivializes violence against women in the family, hence reaffirming female victimization.

Haller, Scott. “Her First Play, Her First Pulitzer Prize,” in Saturday Review. VIII (November, 1981), pp. 40-44.

Harbin, Billy J. “Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley.” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1987): 81-94. Harbin studies Henley’s treatment of family, community, and their disintegration. He concludes that the sisters, through their endurance of pain and suffering, move toward a renewed sense of familial trust and unity.

Hargrove, Nancy D. “The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley’s Drama.” Southern Quarterly 22 (Summer, 1984): 54-70. Noting that Henley’s plays are essentially serious though presented in a comic mode, Hargrove discusses the negative themes, such as physical and emotional death, associated with Henley’s bleak view of human life. Hargrove decides, however, that this tragic vision is relieved by the sisters’ affection and solidarity.

Kachur, Barbara. “Women Playwrights on Broadway: Henley, Howe, Norman, and Wasserstein.” In Contemporary American Theatre, edited by Bruce King. London: Macmillan, 1991. Kachur examines how Henley underscores the relationship between death and comedy, generating laughter in the face of existential madness. Kachur argues that the playwright raises women above the domestic sphere, making them models of strength and integrity.

Karpinski, Joanne B. “The Ghosts of Chekhov’s Three Sisters Haunt Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. A comparison that finds Crimes of the Heart more accessible to modern audiences than Three Sisters.

Laughlin, Karen L. “Criminality, Desire, and Community: A Feminist Approach to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 3 (1986): 35-51. Laughlin examines the play against feminist theories on criminality and desire in order to determine whether the experience of the MaGrath sisters reflects female experience generally. She successfully shows that the sisters are oppressed by a patriarchal structure and that their choices are based on those of their grandfather.

McDonnell, Lisa J. “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman,” in The Southern Quarterly. XXV (Spring, 1987), pp. 95-104.

Shepard, Alan Clarke. “Aborted Rage in Beth Henley’s Women.” Modern Drama 36 (March, 1993): 96-108. Shepard explores how the fantasies of murder in Henley’s plays are strategies for coping with emotional and physical abuse while repressing rage. Shepard concludes that the sisters try to repair and preserve their lives within the seriously flawed, patriarchal system that they have inherited.

Simon, John. “Living Beings, Cardboard Symbols,” in New York. XIV (November 16, 1981), pp. 125-126.

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