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Beth Henley

Beth Henley
Born Elizabeth Becker Henley
(1952-05-08) May 8, 1952 (age 63)
Jackson, Mississippi
Nationality United States
Alma mater Southern Methodist University
University of Illinois
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1981)

Elizabeth Becker "Beth" Henley (born May 8, 1952) is an American dramatist and actress. She writes primarily about women's issues and family in the Southern United States. She is also a screenwriter who has written many film adaptations of her plays. She is known for her intertwining comic and serious moments in her pieces.

Her most famous play, Crimes of the Heart (1978), was her first produced professionally. It opened at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and then to the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1981), as well as the award for Best American Play of 1981 from the New York Drama Critics' Circle. The play also earned Henley a nomination for a Tony Award, and her screenplay adaptation for the 1986 film of the same name was nominated for an Oscar as Best Adapted Screenplay.

Henley adapted her 1984 play, The Miss Firecracker Contest, into a 1989 film starring Holly Hunter entitled Miss Firecracker. Henley's play Ridiculous Fraud was produced at the McCarter Theatre in 2006, and her play Family Week was produced at MCC Theater in 2010, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Early life

Henley was born in 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi. She was one of four sisters born to Charles Boyce, an attorney, and Elizabeth Josephine Henley, an actress. Henley attended Murrah High School in Mississippi, followed by Southern Methodist University, where she was a member of the acting ensemble.[1] While at college, Henley completed her first play, a one-act piece entitled Am I Blue[2][page needed] She graduated from Southern Methodist in 1974 with a BFA.[2][page needed] From 1975 to 1976, she taught playwriting at the University of Illinois (Urbana) and the Dallas Minority Repertory Theater.[2][page needed]

In 1976 Henley moved to Los Angeles and began work on her play Crimes of the Heart.[2][page needed]


Crimes of the Heart was Henley's first professionally produced play. It opened at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1978, where it was declared co-winner of a new American play contest.[2][page needed] The play then moved to New York and was produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club.[3][page needed] Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981, as well as the award for Best American Play of 1981 from the New York Drama Critics' Circle.[4] The play also earned Henley a nomination for a Tony Award, and her screenplay for the film version of Crimes of the Heart was nominated for an Oscar as Best Adapted Screenplay.[4] Henley has stated that growing up with 3 sisters was a major inspiration for her play Crimes of the Heart.[5]

Henley's first six plays are set in the Deep South: two in Louisiana and four in Mississippi, where she grew up.[6] Themes of her dramas are tied to small town values and the importance of love. Henley particularly focuses on her female characters in terms of identity and expression. Dominant themes include:

  • The value of love with family love providing support more often than romantic love;[2][page needed]
  • Family ties in the domestic realm and how both this and society values define and confine female characters;[6] and
  • Socially constructed desires and their impact on gender identity.[6]

Henley views her characters as examples of the repercussions of modern society and representative of the alienation, pain, and suffering that reflect the human condition. Her plays explore the dichotomy within individuals that seek happiness but are betrayed by modern civilization.[7] Henley's notion that neurotic behavior is endemic to modern civilization stems from Freud's psychoanalytic theory. Her Southern sense of the grotesque and absurd experienced in daily existence have caused some critics to compare Henley to other Southern Writers such as Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. This attitude has caused Henley to be classified in the Southern Gothic genre.[7]

Henley's writing style has evolved throughout her career. Her plays of the 1980s are characterized as naturalistic and dramatize the relationship between the interior self and the exterior world.[2][page needed] The characters are outsiders, and by virtue of their nonconformity they risk being unable to share their feelings, insights, and experiences with others because they are alone, punished for their difference. They risk being institutionally isolated in a prison or asylum because they are so alone, so outside behavioral norms, that their actions warrant their removal from society. Hope exists in the search for a kindred soul.[2][page needed] Her plays of the 1990s are considered experimental in moving beyond the traditional settings and themes of her earlier work.[2][page needed] These plays explore structure and the concepts of time with action occurring in a fragmentary way, spanning amounts of time, and/or occurring in episodic succession. This is clearly seen in Abundance, the first play not set in the South.[2][page needed] Henley applies a new technique in these plays: structuring action around a gap and subsequent references which cast doubt on the action of the absent scene. Henley begins to mix genres, such as play noir[8] and integrates repeated verbal and visual images across genres with the theme of love dominating as well as exploring the theme of denial.[2][page needed] Henley later attempts to reconcile themes of love and imagination in Revelers and employs ancient theatre techniques, such as a prologue, in the title and structure of the play. A recurring feature in all of her plays, Henley brings together a collection of individuals who cling to the self-images and experiences that give them their identity.[2][page needed]


Some critics have faulted Henley for locating her women characters within the home, arguing that this is a place that has both defined and confined women in negative ways, without offering avenues for either re-visioning or escape.[6]

Personal life

For many years Henley dated actor, writer and director Stephen Tobolowsky, whom she met while they were students at Southern Methodist University. Their relationship ended in 1988.[9]


Beth Henley's Awards
Award Year
Co-winner of the Actors Theatre of Louisville Great American Play Contest 1978
Pulitzer Prize for Drama 1981
Tony Nomination 1982
Nominated for Oscar 1987




  1. Andreach, p. 9
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Andreach, p. ?
  3. McTague, p. ?
  4. 4.0 4.1 McTague, p. 27
  5. McTague, p. 23
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Karen L. Laughlin. Perry, Carolyn, ed. "The History of Southern Women's Literature". Southern Literary Studies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press): 588–593. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Plunka, Gene (July 3, 2006). "Freudian Psychology and Beth Henley's Popular Culture Satire: Signature". The Journal of Popular Culture. 
  8. Hucheon, Linda. "The Politics of Parody", The Politics of Postmodernism, New York: Routledge, 1989. pp. 93–117
  9. Tobolowsky, Stephen. The Dangerous Animals Club, 2012, pp. 98, 102 and 139, Simon & Schuster ISBN 978-1-4516-3315-3


  • Andreach, Robert (2006). Understanding Beth Henley. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina. ISBN 1-57003-639-X. 
  • McTague, Sylvia Skaggs (ed) (2004). The Muse upon My Shoulder: Discussions of the Creative Process. Cranbury, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 0-8386-3996-8. 

Further reading

External links

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