Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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. 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. 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. 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

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 599 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Crimes of the Heart

(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2449 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Crimes of the Heart, according to Henley's stage directions, takes place' '[i]n the fall, five years after Hurricane Camille." This...

(The entire section is 1091 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Set in the small southern town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Crimes of the Heart centers on three sisters who converge at the house of...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the destructive effects of Hurricane "Camille," which in 1969 traveled 1,800 kilometers along a broad arc from Louisiana to...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Crimes of the Heart was adapted as a film in 1986, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek,...

(The entire section is 101 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Miss Firecracker Contest (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1985). Henley's most successful play next to Crimes of the...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Beaufort, John. "A Play that Proves There's No Explaining Awards" in the Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1981, p. 20

(The entire section is 1507 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 668 words.)