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Mississippi Legends: Beth Henley

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

  • Mississippi’s Crown Jewel of the Theatre, critics frequently compare Henley to Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, two of the best storytellers the South has ever produced.

Jackson’s Beth Henley sprang to fame when her 1981 play Crimes of the Heart received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama even before its Broadway debut. She was thirty years old. At the time, no female playwright in the award’s 23-year history could lay claim to such a medal, and certainly not someone who had no string of previous productions to list on an impressive resume.

Who was this unknown?

Crimes of the Heart went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play, garnered a Tony nomination, and gave Beth her first opportunity to turn her play into a film.

The movie version starred Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Lange and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, it was in the Golden Globe Awards that Sissy Spacek picked up the prestigious Best Actress trophy.

Crimes was not the only successful play that Beth translated to the big screen. The Miss Firecracker Contest starring Holly Hunter was a hit in 1989.

Let’s say success could not have happened to a nicer person. Beth is funny, transparent, and insightful. No shallow person could create the complex personalities that inhabit her scripts. More than entertainment, Beth’s themes reveal poignant truths. Her stories linger in your mind after you have laughed yourself silly over the eccentricities of her well-drawn characters and shed a tear or two over their tragic situations. Those memories touch something indelible and enduring in all of us. Her plays resonate with heart and soul.

Beth has often been asked in an interview about her process. How does she come up with her themes and her characters? Without any pretense she says, “I never think about themes.” She never sets out to write something with an underlying message. And yet, she does.

She laughs as she says she never had an outline or a set pattern in coming up with her storylines.

“Chaos,” Beth says. Chaos is her method. Over many weeks of scribbling ideas in various notebooks here and there, an idea finally gels. She spends untold time searching for all those fragments here and there that have come together in her mind. Now where did she put all those pieces?

Critics frequently compare Beth to Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, two of the best storytellers the South has ever produced. The self-deprecating scriptwriter laughed, saying, “I shudder to think what those two would think about such a comparison.”

Elizabeth Becker Henley was born on May 8, 1952, the second of four daughters. Her colorful parents, Charles, a judge and state senator, and Lydy, a beloved local actress, were larger-than-life personalities. The boisterous household these two created was a hotbed of artistic originality, nurturing their children’s extraordinary creativity.

Lydy’s frequent starring roles in New Stage theatre productions meant that her four daughters, from an early age, developed a keen appreciation for the collaborative arts that brought a play to life. The darkened theatre, the elaborate sets, the audience response, and the actors reacting to the audience were vivid, electric, and mesmerizing.

Beth and her sister, C.C., frequently ran lines with her mother at home. And it was a serious endeavor. Calling her mother the most significant influence on her life, Beth says, “One thing my mother gave me was the desire to take it [acting] seriously. It was important to do it well.” Lydy was adept at practicing what she preached. Beth recalls her mother pushing her cart through the neighborhood Jitney Jungle grocery once perfecting Laura Wingfield’s limp for her role in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.

A “shy child,” Beth describes herself as the one who “liked to sit in the corner and watch and listen as people talked. “I liked to hear their stories, and I could remember actual dialogue, the words and how they said them. I think it was just my nature to be quiet, and I think that habit comes in handy for a writer.”

Beth graduated from Murrah High School in 1970 and enrolled as a theatre student at Southern Methodist University. She began college intending to act but had second thoughts when she wrote her first play, Am I Blue, as a class assignment. Others, including her professors, discovered that the quiet, unassuming Beth was quite good at playwriting.

Lacking confidence and nerve, the future acclaimed American playwright and superstar used a pen name, Amy Peach, when she wrote Am I Blue in 1972. Performed on the SMU campus in 1974, it opened off-Broadway in 1981 after Crimes of the Heart catapulted Beth Henley to fame. It received positive reviews all around.

Suddenly, the plays she had struggled to get noticed were in demand.

The Civil Rights Movement was in its heyday during Beth’s high school and college career. Racial unrest and Vietnam protests dominated headlines and newscasts day after day for a Decade. Mississippi was the focus of negative coverage. As Beth, the listener and observer, absorbed the conversations and events of that time, she had conflicting emotions and more questions than answers. Though not insulated from the stories or the grainy pictures of political demonstrations and Klu Klux Klan hate-filled acts, Beth struggled to sort through the voices telling her what she was supposed to think. “It all made me very sad,” she said.

In the end, she did sort it out. Though subtle and more sorrowful than angry, her plays often carry a social justice reference with a “sad” slant in the storyline.

Although Beth’s later plays sometimes branched out from the Southern backdrops, dysfunctional families, and eccentric but endearing characters, some of her dark humor and tragic storylines were likely part of her visceral reactions to the shaking of her foundations in the 1960s and 1970s. Within her plays, she found a space where her fictional characters grapple with the questions that plagued her for so long. In the dialogues of often quirky weird people, she hammered home stark pictures of the place she called home, but she did so gracefully. The Bible calls this art “telling the truth in love,” and Beth, maybe without realizing it, does it well.

Beth’s playwriting has been consistent since that first iconic Pulitzer Prize in 1981. With at least 25 notable plays and more awards than there is space to name, Beth Henley remains one of the most respected and prolific contemporary American theatre dramatists.

For twenty-plus years, Beth served as the President’s Professional Theatre Arts chair on the faculty of Loyola Marymount University, one of the premier theatre programs in the country. She taught courses in Playwriting and The Creative Process. With a tender spot in her heart for her undergraduates, she remained closely attuned to that unique season of life when college freshmen and sophomores decide who they are and who they will become. Beth calls those vulnerable students “adorable,” and says her mission was always to connect with them, to teach and encourage them.

At the moment, Beth has three plays on her drawing board. The names are intriguing. Pay attention to the coming press. Myth Murder, Downstairs Neighbor, and The Unbuttoning promise to deliver the humor, pathos, and soul-searching storyline that we have come to expect from our Southern playwrights.

The best news is that Beth is coming home for the MS Book Festival in September. Follow www.MSBookFestival.com to get dates and times for Beth’s presentation.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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