Places: Crimes of the Heart

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1982

First produced: 1979, at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy

Time of work: 1974

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Hazlehurst

*Hazlehurst. Crimes of the HeartSouthern 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.

BibliographyAdler, 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.
Categories: Places