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Who is Beth Henley?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Beth Henley is an American playwright best known for her play Crimes of the Heart. Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1952, she has won numerous awards in her life, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981. Her plays continue to be well-received and widely popular, both in professional and regional theatres throughout the United States and beyond.

From an early age Beth Henley was devoted to the theatre, and when she went to college at Southern Methodist University in the 1970s she studied theatre and eventually earned her B.F.A. in that field. During her study there she wrote her first one-act play, Am I Blue, which was produced at the college. Upon graduation she moved out to L.A. to pursue a career in screenwriting and playwriting.

Henley wrote Crimes of the Heart in 1978, and the play won the Great American Play Contest, earning her some renown. The play then went on to open on Broadway in 1981, where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play, and the Pulitzer Prize. At the John Golden Theatre the play ran for 535 performances. From that point on, Henley’s career was on its way, and she continued to write successful plays and screenplays.

Crimes of the Heart is a very dark comedy following the lives of three sisters and their reunion at their grandfather’s house in Mississippi. One of the sisters, Babe, has shot her husband, and over the course of their time together the various strains of resentment each sister has come up to the surface. All of the characters presented in the play are wrestling with their own dysfunctions and their own pasts, and the three female leads are each trying to reconcile their individual crimes of the heart.

Beth Henley is known for her screenwriting work as well, beginning with 1986’s True Stories, which she co-wrote with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky, largely as a vehicle for Byrne and the Talking Heads’ music. She went on to write three films by herself, Nobody’s Fool and an adaptation of Crimes of the Heart in 1986, and an adaptation of her play Miss Firecracker in 1989.

During the 1980s Beth Henley wrote three more minor plays, The Wake of Jamey Foster in 1981, The Debutante Ball in 1985, and The Lucky Spot in 1986, as well as reproducing Am I Blue. In the 1990s she wrote a number of popular plays, including 1990’s Abundance and 1995’s Signature. The new millennium led to a slight change in style, with 2000’s Family Week and 2006’s Ridiculous Fraud. Her work continues to play with themes of hidden lives and past damage, and often integrates these themes in the form of dark, witty comedies. Holly Hunter has worked extensively with Henley, most notably in the film version of Miss Firecracker, but also on stage in six of her plays.

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