Crimes of the Heart

by Beth Henley

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Themes and Meanings

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Crimes of the Heart is about the little crimes people daily commit against each other, crimes of unkindness and insensitivity, forgetfulness and thoughtlessness, fibs and white lies. Although the only genuine crime of the play is Babe’s shooting of Zackery, everyone is guilty of both little everyday sins against others, and larger, more destructive crimes against themselves.

Most obvious of the “criminals” is Chick, who has spent the last several years insulting her cousins with her putdowns, but the sisters are equally guilty. Babe is basically selfish, often thinking only of her own comfort even in the face of the family scandal that she has precipitated. She is concerned with her saxophone and picture album; because she does not want to think about what has happened, she initially refuses even to talk to the lawyer her family has hired for her. Although Meg also appears selfish, her real crime is thoughtlessness, as evidenced in her systematic foray through Lenny’s candy. Having promised to marry Doc, she had left him after his accident during the hurricane five years ago because “I thought I was choking.” The audience learns later that since their mother’s death Meg has been terrified of emotional attachments; nevertheless, her behavior underscores her inability to understand how other people might feel. Lenny’s jealousy of Meg surfaces frequently in her constant reiterations of the jingle bell story and in her readiness to condemn Meg’s treatment of Doc.

The absent Old Granddaddy is in some ways the guiltiest character in the play, because his “crimes” have precipitated the self-destructive sins of the MaGrath sisters. Overly ambitious for Babe and Meg, he has managed to force one into a loveless but socially desirable marriage and the other into lying about her career in order to win his approval. When Lenny defends the old man by saying that he only wanted the best for them, Meg counters with, “Well, I guess it was; but sometimes I wonder what we wanted.” Ironically, although Lenny is Old Grandaddy’s defender, it is she who has been the most damaged by his actions. Completely without ambition for his oldest granddaughter, he has convinced her that her “shrunken ovary” will prevent any man from loving her. Thus he gains a housekeeper and companion in his old age. Old Granddaddy is the indirect cause of their greatest crimes, those against themselves. Babe shoots her husband and attempts suicide; Meg isolates herself into a nervous breakdown; Lenny spurns the man she loves so that he will not have the opportunity to reject her for her inability to bear children. Each sister unconsciously attempts to doom herself to a solitary life.

The play is also concerned with portraying the impact of strong patriarchal forces on women’s lives. Clearly, Old Granddaddy is responsible in a large part for the women that the MaGrath sisters have grown up to be. Although he wants what is best for them, the definition of “best” is his own; neither Babe nor Meg nor Lenny is allowed any real choice—Babe must marry well, Meg must become a star, Lenny must take care of the old man.

Like all comedies, however, Crimes of the Heart has a happy finale, which offers real hope for the MaGraths. It ends in a celebration, not only of Lenny’s birthday but also of the new camaraderie the sisters have discovered among themselves. Furthermore, the three women have irrevocably removed themselves from Old Granddaddy’s influence: Babe by discarding a painful marriage, Meg by deciding to stop lying about her singing career, Lenny by calling Charlie. Physically, Old Granddaddy has been rendered ineffective—the...

(This entire section contains 635 words.)

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stroke has seen to that. More important, Babe and Meg and Lenny have taken the first tentative steps toward deciding their futures for themselves.


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Absurdity Much like the playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd, Henley dramatizes a vision of a disordered universe in which characters are isolated from one another and are incapable of meaningful action. With the constant frustration of their dreams and hopes, Henley's characters could easily find their lives completely meaningless and absurd (and indeed, each of the MaGrath sisters has been on the brink of giving up entirely). At the end of Crimes of the Heart, at least, the sisters have found a kind of unity in the face of adversity. While Lenny's vision, "something about the three of us smiling and laughing together," in no way can resolve the many conflicts that have unfolded in the course of the play, it does endow their lives with a collective sense of hope, where before each had felt acutely the absurdity, and often the hopelessness, of life.

Death Reminders of death are everywhere in Crimes of the Heart: the sisters are haunted by the memory of their mother's suicide; Babe has shot and seriously wounded her husband; Lenny learns that her beloved childhood horse has been struck by lightning and killed; Old Granddaddy has a second stroke and is apparently near death; Babe attempts suicide twice near the end of the play. Perhaps even stronger than these reminders of physical death, however, are the images of emotional or spiritual death in the play. Lenny, for example, has rejected Charlie, her only suitor in recent years, because she feels worthless and fears rejection herself. Meg, meanwhile, has experienced a psychotic episode in Los Angeles and has prevented herself from loving anyone in order to avoid feeling vulnerable. Significant transitions occur near the end of the play, individual "rebirths" which preface the significant rebirth of a sense of unity among the sisters: Lenny gains the courage to call her suitor, and finds him receptive; Meg, in the course of spending a night out with Doc, is surprised to learn that she "could care about someone," and sings "all nightlong" out of joy; and finally, Babe has a moment of enlightenment in which she understands that their mother hanged the family cat along with herself because "she was afraid of dying all alone.'' This revelation allows her to put to rest finally the painful memory of the mother's suicide, and paves the way for the moment of sisterly love at the conclusion of the play.

Good and Evil Henley challenges the audience's sense of good and evil by making them like characters who have committed crimes of passion. "I thought I'd like to write about somebody who shoots somebody else just for being mean," Henley said in Saturday Review. "Then I got intrigued with the idea of the audience's not finding fault with her character, finding sympathy for her." While Babe's case constitutes the primary exploration of good and evil in the play, the conflict between Meg and her sisters is another example of Henley presenting a number of perspectives on a character's actions in order to complicate her audience's notions of good and bad behavior. Lenny and Babe find many of Meg's actions (abandoning Doc after his accident, lying to Granddaddy about her career in Hollywood) to be dishonest and selfish, but the sisters eventually learn to understand Meg's motivations and to forgive her. Through this process, Henley suggests the sheer complexity of human psychology and behavior—that often, actions cannot be easily labeled "good" or "evil" in a strict sense.

Limitations and Opportunities Virtually all the characters, to some extent, have throughout their lives been limited in their choices, experiencing a severe lack of opportunity. Lenny, in particular, resents having had to take upon herself so much responsibility for the family (especially for Old Granddaddy). Much of Babe's difficulty in her marriage to Zackery, meanwhile, seems to have grown out the fact that she did not choose him but was pressured by her grandfather into marrying the successful lawyer. Meg, however, at least to Lenny and Babe, appears to have had endless opportunity. Lenny wonders at one point: "Why, do you remember how Meg always got to wear twelve jingle bells on her petticoats, while we were only allowed to wear three apiece? Why?!" Lenny is clearly fixating on a minor issue from childhood, but one she feels is representative of the preferential treatment Meg received. The bells are, she says to Meg later, a "specific example of how you always got what you wanted!" Meg, however, has learned a hard lesson in Hollywood about opportunity and success. Old Granddaddy has always told her: "With your talent, all you need is exposure. Then you can make your own breaks!" Contrary to this somewhat simplistic optimism, however, Meg's difficulty sustaining a singing career suggests that opportunity is actually quite rare, and not necessarily directly connected to talent or one's will to succeed.

Public vs. Private Life When Babe reveals to Meg her affair with Willie Jay, she admits that she's "so worried about his getting public exposure." This is a necessary concern for public opinion, as Willie Jay might physically be in danger as a result of such exposure. Chick, meanwhile, has what Henley characterizes as an unhealthy concern for public perception — she cares much more about what the rest of the town thinks of her than she does about any of her cousins. Immediately upon her entrance at the beginning of the play, Chick focuses not so much upon Babe's shooting of Zackery, but rather on how the event will affect her, personally: “How I'm gonna continue holding my head up high in this community, I do not know." Similarly, in criticizing Meg for abandoning Doc, Chick thinks primarily of her own public stature: "Well, his mother was going to keep me out of the Ladies' Social League because of it.'' Near the end of the play, Lenny becomes infuriated over Chick calling Meg "a low-class tramp," and chases her cousin out of the house. This moment of family solidarity is a significant turning point, in which Lenny clearly indicates that the private, family unity the three sisters are able to achieve by the end of the play is far more important than the public perception of the family within the town.

Violence and Cruelty Accompanying the exploration of good and evil in Crimes of the Heart are its insights into violence and cruelty. While Babe has ostensibly committed the most violent act in the play by shooting Zackery in the stomach, the audience is persuaded to side with her in the face of the violence wrought by Zackery upon both Babe (domestic violence stemming, as Babe says, from him "hating me, 'cause I couldn't laugh at his jokes''), and, in a jealous rage, on Willie Jay. There occur other, less prominent acts of cruelty in the course of the play, as well as numerous ones the audience learns about through exposition (such as Meg's abandonment of Doc following his injury). In the end, Henley encourages the audience to take a less absolute view of what constitutes cruelty, to understand some of the underlying reasons behind the actions of her characters, and to join in the sense of forgiveness and acceptance which dominates the conclusion of Crimes of the Heart.