Born Elizabeth Becker Henley, 8 May 1952, Jackson, Mississippi
Daughter of Charles B. and Lydy B. Caldwell Henley
The eldest of three daughters of an attorney and an actress, Henley started out as an actress before beginning to write plays during a dry spell in her acting career. She is one of the first women to have been acknowledged as a playwright on the national level since Lillian Hellman and Lorraine Hansberry. Henley's plays, often described as Southern gothic or grotesque, are set in the Mississippi in which she was raised; they portray women and men and their complex, tragicomic relationships both within a family and between the family and the outside society that frequently disapproves of it. Her female characters are at their indecorous best when they gleefully or grimly sabotage societal expectations, and when they manage not to harm themselves too much.
As a Southern writer whose characters are frequently grotesque and obsessive, Henley has been frequently compared with Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner. Several sources note Henley first read the work of O'Connor only after the resemblances between their work had been commented upon by reviewers.
Henley achieved early success with Crimes of the Heart (produced 1979, published 1981), which won the Pulitzer Prize and was later made into a movie. Crimes introduces several themes and characters that appear in Henley's later work: the Magrath sisters, although they argue among themselves, bond together to defend themselves fiercely against all comers. Their social-climbing cousin, Chick, is mortified by Lenny, Meg, and Babe's family skeletons (including suicides, false pretenses, and illicit sexuality); the sisters themselves are busy trying to recoup lost chances. Crimes has been compared to plays of Chekhov for its realism, its mixture of tragedy and comedy, and its portrayal of the force of the family against outsiders.
That Henley began her career as an actress may in part account for the liveliness of her characters and dialogue and for the ensemble quality of many of her plays. Her characters onstage are obsessive, identified by their quirkiness. We see them at awkward or unpleasant moments (at a wake, having lost a beauty contest), and we see them inflicting pain on themselves senselessly, while imparting to their actions a kind of logic (such as in Debutante Ball [1985, 1988] when Teddy stabs her face and legs repeatedly with any sharp object at hand). Henley's characters also tell stories of revelatory moments or formative experiences. In The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980, 1985), for example, Popeye tells the story of her nickname, which is also the story of her partial blindness and the beginning of her ability to hear voices in her eyes. Sometimes the grotesquerie or absurdity seems unfounded or unexplored, or to be only a hint at an unstated truth beneath the surface, as when Babe in Crimes explains she shot her husband "because I didn't like his looks."
Efforts by characters to change society's disapproval of them and their attempts at self-redemption recur in several of Henley's subsequent plays. Carnelle in Miss Firecracker tries to restore her bad reputation with the locals by winning a beauty pageant. Debutante Ball focuses on a woman who is determined to distract the town from her reputation as a murderess by providing her awkward misfit daughter, Teddy, with the ideal debut night. The Wake of Jamey Foster (1983, 1985) is another ensemble piece in which each character is looking for love and disappointed at his or her inability to live up to others' expectations.
Henley's later plays, The Lucky Spot (1986, 1987) and Abundance (1990, 1991), further her interest in characters' lost loves and broken dreams while moving her focus to settings beyond Mississippi and the New South, and to characters in circumstances not solely brought about by family commitments. Several of Henley's plays have been turned into movies, and she is the author of both unproduced and produced screenplays, notably as coscreenwriter with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky of True Stories (Warner Brothers, 1986) and 1988's Nobody's Fool.
Signature, written in 1990 but not produced until 1995, involves four characters who go into business with each other but end up at each other's throats. The main character finally decides he can save his life by changing his signature. Henley wrote the play after having her handwriting analyzed while she was in the midst of a depressive state. The graphologist recognized this in her handwriting, which led her to develop the character.
Henley appears to have changed perspectives to some degree in Impossible Marriage (1999). In contrast to the emotional disorder and confusion that marked the characters in her work of the 1980s, those in this tale of modern marriage have "grown up." One critic termed the shift in Henley's style to be in the realm of "Wildean satire."
Impossible Marriage revolves around two sisters, the youngest of whom (Pandora) is fast approaching her wedding day. The older sister, Flora, who is unhappy with her own situation—pregnant and feeling smothered by her narcissistic husband—plots to stop the marriage and is encouraged to do so by the girls' mother. Pandora is marrying an older man, whose son shows up unannounced, also wishing to prevent the wedding in order to save his mother, who has threatened to throw herself from a window if the nuptials take place. The play courses with Henley's slightly hysterical characters but with an underlying philosophical bent. Henley comments, "All these women are cursed with the ability to see the truth, if not live the truth."
Henley's projects at the turn of the century have included collaborating with the play's director on the casting of Impossible Marriage for its New York off-Broadway production and completing a screenplay about Canadian bank robbers.
Am I Blue? (1982). Beth Henley: Four Plays (1992). Control Freaks (1992). Monologues for Women (1992). The Revelers (1994). The L Play (1995). Collected Works, Volume I (1999). Collected Works, Volume II (1999).
Betsko, K., and R. Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987). Jones, J. G., ed., Mississippi Writers Talking (1982). Schlueter, J., ed., Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990). Smith, L., Women Who Write: From the Past and Present to the Future (1989).
CANR (1991). CLC (1983). Contemporary Dramatists (1988). DLBY (1986). Notable Women in the American Theatre (1989). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
American Theatre (Nov. 1998). Back Stage (24 Mar. 1995). Conference of College Teachers of English Studies (Sept. 1989). Southern Quarterly (Summer 1984; Spring 1987). Studies in American Drama (1988; 1989). Variety (19 Oct. 1998). Women and Performance: American Journal of Feminist Theory (1986).
—KATHRYN MURPHY ANDERSON,
UPDATED BY REBECCA C. CONDIT