Photo by Susan
and sometime actress Beth Henley first entered the critical spotlight
in 1978 when one of her playsa black comedy about three maladjusted
sisters set in the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippiwon
the Great American Play Contest sponsored by the Actors Theatre
in Louisville, Kentucky. Crimes of the Heart went on to win
several more awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle
Award for best new American play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama,
both in 1981. Henley also received a Tony Award nomination for best
play and, five years later, an Academy Award nomination for best
adapted screenplay. The play and subsequent film version showcased
Henley as one of a new breed of American dramatists dedicated to
preserving regional voices on the stage.
Henley was born May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi, the daughter
of an attorney and an actress. Early on she dreamed of becoming
an actress, and to that end she earned a B.F.A. at Southern Methodist
University in 1974. While at SMU, she wrote her first play, the
one-act Am I Blue, which was produced at SMU’s Margo Jones
Theatre in 1973.
In 1976, she moved to Los Angeles
to live with actor/director Stephen Tobolowsky, with whom she would
later collaborate on the screenplay True Stories. After Crimes
of the Heart won its initial award and was staged in 1979 by
the Actors Theatre in Louisville, it debuted on Broadway at the
John Golden Theatre November 4, 1981. The three central characters
in the play are the Magrath sisters: Lenny, the eldest, unmarried
and desperate at age 30; Meg, just back from a futile attempt to
land a singing career in Los Angeles; and Babe, the youngest, trapped
in a bad marriage and suffering from depression. The play opens
with the news that Babe has shot her well-to-do husband because,
as she puts it, “I didn’t like his looks.” Though some critics faulted
the play because of its black humor and what they felt were stereotyped
southern traits, others saw great value in the play, comparing her
comic sense and empathetic treatments of her characters with such
other writers as Flannery O’Connor and Eudora
Welty. The 1986 movie version, for which Henley wrote the
screenplay, starred Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek
as the three sisters, with additional performances by Tess Harper
and actor/playwright Sam Shepard.
Henley followed the success of
Crimes of the Heart with The Miss Firecracker Contest,
in which a socially outcast woman, Carnell Scott, wishes to improve
her standing in her small southern town and decides the best way
to do so would be to win the “Miss Firecracker” beauty contest.
As the play opens, Carnelle is seen onstage dressed in a leotard
and draped in an American flag as she tap-dances and twirls a baton
to the accompaniment of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” First produced
onstage in Los Angeles in 1980, the play would likewise be adapted
into a Hollywood film with a screenplay by Henley.
Other plays by Henley include The
Wake of Jamey Foster, produced first in Hartford, Connecticut,
in 1982 and later that year on Broadway; The Debutante Ball,
first produced in Costa Mesa, California, in 1985; The Lucky
Spot (1987); and Abundance (1989). More recent plays
include Signature, Control Freaks, and L-Play.
Her most recent play, Impossible Marriage, debuted off-Broadway
in 1998. Written while Henley was pregnant with her first child,
the play is set in Savannah, Georgia, and tells of a young bride
named Pandora whose upcoming wedding is opposed by nearly every
other character, including her older, very pregnant sister, Floral,
played in the 1998 production by actress Holly Hunter, who had appeared
onstage (and in the film Miss Firecracker) in six previous
In addition to play-writing, Henley
has written several television and movie screenplays, including
“Survival Guides” with Budge Threlkeld for PBS (1985), the film
Nobody’s Fool (1986), and True Stories, on which she
collaborated with Steven Trobolowsky and David Byrne, the lead singer
of the rock group Talking Heads who directed and starred in the
Today, Henley lives in California
with her son, Patrick.
(Article first posted June
Related Links & Info
information about ordering scripts or applying for performance rights
is available at the Dramatists
Play Service web site.
Theatre Design Archive
web site features this
page which lnks to scene designs for Henley’s plays. (Currently,
only Crimes of the Heart is listed).
- Am I Blue. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1982.
- Crimes of the Heart. New York: Viking Press, 1982.
- The Wake of Jamey Foster. New York: Dramatists Play
- The Miss Firecracker Contest: A Play. New York: Dramatists
Play Service, 1985.
- The Lucky Spot: A Play. New York: Dramatists Play Service,
- Abundance. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1991.
- The Debutante Ball. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,
- Beth Henley: Four Plays. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann/Methuen,
- Monologues for Women. Toluca Lake, California: Dramaline
- The Debutante Ball. New York: Dramatists Play Service,
- Collected Plays: Volume I, 1980-1989. Lyme, N.H.: Smith
& Kraus, 2000.
- Collected Plays: Volume II, 1990-1999. Lyme, N.H.: Smith
& Kraus, 2000.
- Family Week. 2000.
- Signature. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2003.
- Revelers. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2003.
Listed are notable stage productions. Dates in
parentheses refer to the year of first known production.
- Am I Blue (1973). Dallas: Southern Methodist University
Margo Jones Theatre, 1973.
- Crimes of the Heart (1979).
- Louisville, Kentucky: Actors Theatre, 1979.
- New York (Broadway): John Golden Theatre, 1981.
- New Orleans: Southern Repertory Theater, 1989.
- Boston: Nickerson Theater, 1990. Denver: Littleton Town Hall
Arts Center, 1991.
- New York: Second Stage Theater, April 2001. Starring Amy Ryan,
Mary Catherine Garrison, and Enid Graham; directed by Garry
- The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980).
- Los Angeles: Victory Theatre, 1980.
- New York (Off-Broadway): Manhattan Theatre Club, 1980.
- Beverly Hills, California: Theatre 40, 1993.
- The Wake of Jamey Foster (1982).
- Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Stage Theatre, 1982.
- New York (Broadway): Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 1982.
- The Debutante Ball (1985).
- Costa Mesa, California: South Coast Repertory, 1985.
- London(?): Hampstead Theatre, 1989.
- The Lucky Spot (1986).
- Williamstown, Massachusetts: Williamstown Theatre Festival,
- New York (Broadway): City Centre Theatre, 1987.
- Chicago: Center Theater, 1990.
- Abundance (1989).
- Costa Mesa, California: South Coast Repertory, 1989.
- New York: Manhattan Theater Club, 1990.
- San Francisco: Actors Theatre, 1992.
- Washington, D.C.: Signature Theatre, 1994.
- Control Freaks.
- Chicago: Center Theater, 1992.
- Santa Monica, California: Met Theatre, 1993.
- Signature (1995).
- Charlotte, N.C.: Charlotte Repertory Co., 1995.
- Trenton, N.J.: Passage Theater Co. (Mill Hill Playhouse),
- L-Play (1996). Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Unicore
Theatre (Berkshire Theatre Festival), 1996.
- Impossible Marriage (1998). New York: Roundabout
- Family Week (2000). New York: Off-Broadway’s Century
Movie titles link to pages in The Internet
of the Heart. Dir. Bruce Beresford. Screenplay by Henley,
based on her play. De Laurentiis Entertainment, 1986.
Fool. Dir. Evelyn Purcell. Screenplay by Beth Henley.
Island Pictures, 1986.
Stories. Dir. David Byrne. Screenplay by David Byrne,
Beth Henley, and Stephen Tobolowsky. Warner Bros., 1986.
Firecracker. Dir. Thomas Schlamme. Screenplay by Beth
Henley, based on her play The Miss Firecracker Contest. Corsair
West with Me. Dir. Marleen Gorris. Screenplay by Beth
Henley, based on her play Abundance. 20th Century Fox, 1998.
- Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary
Women Playwrights. Beech Tree Books, 1987. 211-22.
- Holladay, Hilary. “Beth Henley (1952- ).” Contemporary Poets,
Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South. Greenwood
Press, 1994. 238-48.
- McDonnell, L. J. “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman.”
Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 95-104.
- Robinson, Alice M., Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger,
eds. Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary.
Greenwood Press, 1989. 417-21.
- Rochlin, Margy. “The Eccentric Genius of ’Crimes of the heart.’”
Ms. 15 (February 1987): 12+.
- Smith, Lucinda. Women Who Write: From the Past and the Present
to the Future. Messner, 1989. 90-95.
- Tarbox, Lucia. “Beth Henley.” Dictionary of Literary Biography
Yearbook. Gale, 1986.
- Walker, Beverly. “Close-up: Beth Henley.” American Film
12 (December 1986): 30-31.
Reviews and Criticism:
- Ascheim, Skip. “Spotty Production of Henley’s ‘Lucky Spot.’”
Boston Globe (9 December 1998): Sec. D, p. 18.
- Betsko, Kathleen and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary
Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.
- Billington, Michael. “A Cracked Belle.” Rev. of The Debutante
Ball. Guardian (1 June 1989): 24.
- Bradley, Jeff. “Love Soothes Disasters in Sensitive Staging of ‘Crimes
of the Heart.’” Denver Post (17 September 1991):
- Brantley, Ben. “‘Impossible
Marriage’: Fairies Adrift in Love’s Garden.” Rev.
of Impossible Marriage. New York Times (16 October 1998):
- Breslauer, Jan. “‘Firecracker Contest’ Can’t Find
Its Spark.” Los Angeles Times (10 September 1993): F16.
- Burke, Sally. American Feminist Playwrights. New York: Twayne
- Chinoy, Helen Kirch. “Here are the Women Playwrights” in Women
in American Theatre. Eds. Helen Chinoy and Linda Jenkins. New York:
Theatre Communications Group, 1987.
- Christiansen, Richard. “‘Control Freaks’ Deviates from
Taste, Subtlety.” Chicago Tribune (22 September 1992):
Sec. 1, p. 22.
- Christiansen, Richard. “Zany and Touching, ‘The Lucky Spot’
Is a Fortunate Find.” Chicago Tribune (22 November 1990):
- Dellasega, Mary. “Beth Henley.” Speaking on Stage: Interviews
with Contemporary American Playwrights. Eds. Philip C. Kolin and
Colby H. Kullman eds. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
- Dodds, Richard. “Searching for the Guilty Party at ‘Crimes.’”
Rev. of Crimes of the Heart. Times-Picayune (19 May 1989):
- Drake, Sylvie. “Henley’s ‘Abundance’ Goes West With
a New-Found Maturity.” Los Angeles Times (24 April 1989):
- Guerra, Jonnie. “Beth Henley: Female Quest and the Family Play Tradition.”
Making a Spectacle. Ed. Lynda Hart. Michigan: University of Michigan
- Gutman, Les. Review
of Crimes of the Heart (April 2001 revival). Curtainup.com
- 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):
- Harbin, Billy J. “Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley.”
Southern Quarterly 25.3 (Spring 1987): 81-94.
- Hargrove, N. D. “The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley’s
Drama.” Southern Quarterly 22.4 (1984).
- Henderson, Kathy. “Best
Beth: Playwright Beth Henley celebrates Family Week.” TheatreMania.com
(11 April 2000).
- Hoffman, Roy. “Brash New South Is Still a Stranger to Its Dramatists.”
New York Times (2 July 1989): Sec. 2, p. 5.
- Isenberg, Barbara. “She’d Rather Do It Herself.”
Los Angeles Times (11 July 1993): CAL-5.
- Jaehne, Karen. “Beth’s Beauties.” Film Comment
25 (May/June 1989): 9-12+.
- Jay, Julia De Foor. Women’s Identity Formations and the Intersecting
Concepts of Gender, Race, and Class in the Plays of Ntozake Shange,
Beth Henley, and Cherrie Moraga. DAI 56.2 (1994): 407A.
- Karpinski, Joanne. “The Ghosts of Chekhov’s Three Sisters Haunt
Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.” Modern American
Drama: The Female Canon. Ed. June Schlueter. New Jersey: Associated
University Presses, 1990.
- Kelly, Kevin. “‘Crimes’ Earnest but Without Insight.”
Boston Globe (18 January 1990): 74.
- Keyssar, Helene. Feminist Theatre. London: Macmillan Publishers,
- Kilian, Michael. “Perfect Marriage Collaboration of Playwright Henley
and Actress Hunter Brings Big Rewards.” Rev. of Impossible
Marriage. Chicago Tribune (3 December 1998): Sec. 5, 10B.
- Kirkpatrick, Melanie. “Asians in America.” Rev. of Abundance.
Wall Street Journal (9 November 1990: A8.
- Klein, Alvin. “Hooray for Hollywood? More Like ‘Horrors!’”
New York Times (12 May 1996): NJ12.
- Lyons, Donald. “Theater: No Faith in Love and Charity.” Rev.
of Impossible Marriage. Wall Street Journal (21 October
- McDonnell, Lisa J. “Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman.”
Southern Quarterly 25.3 (Spring 1987): 95-104.
- Nachman, Gerald. “Beth Henley Tries a New Region.” Rev. of Abundance.
San Francisco Chronicle (20 December 1990): E7.
- Nachman, Gerald. “Beth Henley’s Pioneer Women.” Rev. of
Abundance. San Francisco Chronicle (23 September 1992):
- Pogrebin, Robin. “Sharing a History As Well as a Play.” New
York Times (11 October 1998): Sec. 2, p. 5.
- Renner, Pamela. “The Mellowing of Miss Firecracker.” American
Theatre 15.9 (November 1998): 18-19.
- Rich, Frank. “‘Abundance,’ Beth Henley’s Revisionist
Western.” New York Times (31 October 1990: C15.
- Ringel, Eleanor. “‘Miss Firecracker’ Doesn’t Have
Spark Despite Stellar Cast.” Atlanta Constitution (12 May
- Rose, Lloyd. “‘Abundance’: Wild & Wacky West.”
Washington Post (22 March 1994): C7.
- Shepard, Alan Clarke. “Aborted Rage in Beth Henley’s Women.”
Modern Drama 36.1 (March 1996): 96-108.
- Siegel, Ed. “‘L-Play’ Is a Lifeless Lemon, Largely Lackluster,
Leaden.” Boston Globe (28 August 1996): C5.
- Smith, Sid. “Playwright’s Progess: Beth Henley Makes a Reluctant
Debut as a Director with ‘Control Freaks.’” Chicago
Tribune (20 September 1992): Sec. 13, p. 12.
- Sommer, Elyse. Review
of Family Week (New York Century Theatre/Off-Broadway, 2000).
Curtainup.com (30 March 2001).
- ---. Review of The
Impossible Marriage (New York: Roundabout Theatre Company, 1998).
Curtainup.com (18 October 1998).
- ---. Review of The
L Plays (Stockbridge, Mass.: Berkshire Theatre Festival, 1996).
Curtainup.com (25 August 1996).
- Stearns, David Patrick. “Star power can’t save Henley’s
troubled ‘Impossible Marriage.’” USA Today
(20 October 1998): D4.
- Stearns, David Patrick. “Two Powerful Tales of Greed Gone Wild.”
Rev. of Abundance, by Beth Henley, and The Piano Lesson,
by August Wilson. USA Today (25 May 1989): D5.
- Sterritt, David. “‘Miss Firecracker’ FizzlesDespite
Its Potential.” Christian Science Monitor (16 May 1989):
- Thornber, Robin. Rev. of Crimes of the Heart. Guardian
(13 June 1995): Sec. 2, p. 9.
- Wimmer-Moul, Cynthia. “Beth Henley.” The Playwright’s
Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. Ed. Jackson
R. Bryer. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 102-22.
- Wilmington, Michael. “‘Miss Firecracker’: Beauty in Bursts
of Affection.” Los Angeles Times (28 April 1989): VI-16.
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