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)
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)
Survival Guides, 1986
Trying Times, 1987 (with Budge Threlkeld)
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.
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.