Authors: Beth Henley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works

Drama:

Am I Blue, pr. 1973

Crimes of the Heart, pr. 1979

The Miss Firecracker Contest, pr. 1980

The Wake of Jamey Foster, pr., pb. 1982

The Debutante Ball, pr. 1985

The Lucky Spot, pr. 1986

Abundance, pr. 1990

Beth Henley: Four Plays, pb. 1992

Monologues for Women, pb. 1992

Control Freaks, pr. 1992

Signature, pr. 1995

L-Play, pr. 1996

Impossible Marriage, pr., pb. 1998

Family Week, pr. 2000

Beth Henley: Collected Plays, pb. 2000-2001 (2 volumes)

Screenplays:

Nobody’s Fool, 1986

Crimes of the Heart, 1986 (adaptation of her play)

True Stories, 1986 (with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky)

Miss Firecracker, 1989 (adaptation of her play)

Come West with Me, 1998 (adaptation of her play Abundance)

The Shipping News, 2002 (adaptation of Annie Proulx’s novel)

Teleplays:

Survival Guides, 1986

Trying Times, 1987 (with Budge Threlkeld)

Biography

The second of four daughters, Elizabeth Becker Henley was born to Charles Boyce Henley and Elizabeth Josephine Becker and raised in the neighboring communities of Hazelhurst and Brookhaven, locales that Henley adopted for two of her plays. Henley’s father, an attorney, served on both houses of the Mississippi legislature. A shy child plagued with chronic attacks of asthma, Henley, often bedridden, entertained herself by reading play scripts that were in production at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, where her mother, an amateur actress, regularly performed.{$I[AN]9810001187}{$I[A]Henley, Beth}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Henley, Beth}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Henley, Beth}{$I[tim]1952;Henley, Beth}

Henley attended high school in Jackson. During her senior year, she took part in an acting workshop at the New Stage Theatre, an experience that influenced her decision to become an actress. Henley enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in 1970, and during her sophomore year, she wrote her first play as an assignment for a playwriting class. The play, a one-act comedy titled Am I Blue, was produced at the university under a pseudonym in her senior year. After graduating in 1974 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Henley taught creative dramatics and acted for the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre. She supported herself with odd jobs as a waitress, file clerk, and photographer of children at a department store. In 1975 she received a teaching scholarship from the University of Illinois, where she taught acting classes while pursuing graduate studies in drama. In the summer of 1976 she acted in the Great American People Show, a historical pageant presented at the New Salem State Park.

Hoping to become an actress, Henley moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1976. When she failed to get auditions for parts, she turned to writing screenplays, but without an agent to represent her, the studios would not read her scripts. Thinking that stage plays would have a better chance of getting performed, especially in small theaters, Henley began working on a comedy set in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, about a crisis in the lives of three sisters. With production costs in mind, she deliberately limited the play to six characters and one indoor set. She finished Crimes of the Heart in 1978 and submitted it to several regional theaters without success until her friend, the playwright Frederick Bailey, entered the play in the annual drama competition of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, where it was selected as a cowinner for 1977-1978. In February, 1979, the Actors Theatre produced the play as part of the company’s annual Festival of New American Plays. The play was an immediate success. After productions in Maryland, Missouri, and California, Crimes of the Heart opened to full houses Off-Broadway on December 21, 1980. The public’s high regard for the play was matched by critical acclaim. In April, 1981, at the age of twenty-eight, Henley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama for Crimes of the Heart, the first woman so honored in twenty-three years. In the fall of 1981, after having been recognized by the New York Drama Critics Circle as the best American play of the season, Crimes of the Heart received its premiere on Broadway; it ran for 535 performances. Subsequent productions were staged in England, France, Israel, and Australia.

Meanwhile, Henley was writing a television pilot entitled “Morgan’s Daughters” for Paramount Pictures and a screenplay called The Moon Watcher about a historical pageant set in Petersburg, Illinois. She also took a small role as a bag lady in Frederick Bailey’s No Scratch, produced in Los Angeles in the summer of 1981. In January, 1982, the New York Repertory Company staged Henley’s Am I Blue with two other one-act plays under the collective title Confluence. Theater critics found weaknesses in the playwright’s student effort but also acknowledged that the comedy showed the promise of her later work.

Within the next three years, two other comedies written before Henley won the Pulitzer Prize were produced in New York City. The Wake of Jamey Foster opened on Broadway on October 14, 1982, but closed after only twelve nights, and the even earlier The Miss Firecracker Contest was staged in New York in the spring of 1984. Critics faulted both plays for their similarity to Crimes of the Heart. Undaunted, Henley continued to write for the stage. In the spring of 1985 the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California, produced The Debutante Ball, and in the following year The Lucky Spot (set in a dance hall in Pigeon, Louisiana, in 1934) received its premiere in New York City. Reviews varied, but one critic considered The Lucky Spotto be Henley’s best play since Crimes of the Heart. In 1990 Abundance, Henley’s drama about two mail-order brides whose lives become entangled in the American West of the late nineteenth century, opened in New York to mixed reviews. Later in the same year the New York Stage and Film Company staged a workshop production of Henley’s Signature in Poughkeepsie, New York; the play had its world premiere in 1995.

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, the playwright-actress also found herself in demand as a screenwriter. While continuing to write stage plays, Henley wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed film version of Crimes of the Heart, which was released in late 1986; the script for a film titled Nobody’s Fool; and a screenplay based on her drama The Miss Firecracker Contest. Henley also collaborated with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky on the screenplay for True Stories and with Budge Threlkeld on two television scripts, Survival Guides and Trying Times.

Henley’s plays have reached audiences far beyond the regional theaters for which she first wrote, making her a significant contributor to American dramatic literature. Although the plays written after Crimes of the Heart have failed to bring her the critical praise she earned with the first full-length comedy, her dramatic output as a whole reveals a consistency in tone and theme.

BibliographyBryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Chronicles Henley’s contribution to contemporary Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater in the United States. Henley discusses the creative process.Fesmire, Julia A., ed. Beth Henley: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2002. Seven essays on Henley’s plays, one of which also discusses the film adaptations of her work.Haedicke, Janet V. “‘A Population (and Theater) at Risk’: Battered Women in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind.” Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (1993): 83-95. Contrasts the representations of domestic violence in two plays, concluding that Shepard’s play is politically feminist while Henley’s is epistemologically feminist.Harbin, Billy J. “Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley.” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1987): 81-94. Examines Henley’s plays through The Debutante Ball but gives Crimes of the Heart the most attention. Recurring themes concern “the disintegration of traditional ideas, such as the breakup of families, the quest for emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and the repressive social forces within a small southern community.”Hargrove, Nancy D. “The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley’s Drama.” Southern Quarterly 22 (Summer, 1984): 54-70. Analyzes Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest, and The Wake of Jamey Foster and finds that the plays “are essentially serious, although they are presented in the comic mode” and that the value of love, especially family love, is Henley’s predominant theme. Hargrove’s is the first scholarly article to examine Henley’s work.Jaehne, Karen. “Beth’s Beauties.” Film Comment 25 (May/June, 1989): 9-12. Highlights the film version of The Miss Firecracker Contest and quotes Henley extensively. Henley’s plays analyze “the ways women conform to or rebel against standards of femininity.” Although she likes to read tragedies, Henley says “in my own writing I can’t see the situations I look at without laughing. I back into comedy. I can’t help it.”Jones, John Griffin, ed. “Beth Henley.” In Mississippi Writers Talking. Vol. 1. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982. Interviews Henley about her family background, education, and playwriting. Henley says that she likes to write about the South “because you can get away with making things more poetic.” About the meaning of her plays, Henley confesses, “I don’t think very thematically. I think more in terms of character and story.”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. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Henley is discussed in a collection of essays on the importance of female playwrights in modern drama.McDonnell, Lisa J. “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman.” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1987): 95-104. Compares Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest, and The Wake of Jamey Foster and Norman’s Getting Out (pr. 1977) and ’night, Mother (pr. 1982). Whereas both writers use the family as a framework and employ “gothic” humor, their plays differ remarkably in tone and style. Henley “writes comedy with serious dimensions, Norman, serious drama with comic overtones.”Plunka, Gene A. The Plays of Beth Henley: A Critical Study. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2005. An useful addition to the limited available scholarship and analysis of Henley’s life and work.Shepard, Alan Clarke. “Aborted Rage in Beth Henley’s Women.” Modern Drama 36, no. 1 (1993): 96-108. Analyzes the evidence of effects of the feminist movement on Henley, focusing on issues of anger, gender relations, domestic abuse, and the collapse of marriage.
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