Beth Henley so far.
The Plays of Beth Henley: A Critical Study, by Gene A. Plunka. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005. vi, 228 pp. $39.95 softcover.
Understanding Beth Henley, by Robert J. Andreach. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. iv, 192 pp. $39.95.
THE MOST INTERESTING PUBLICATION ASSOCIATED WITH BETH HENLEY during the past several years is the collected edition of her plays, which came out in 2000. The two-volume set includes all twelve of Henley's produced plays through 1999--six from the 70s and 80s in volume I, the other six from the 90s in volume II. On the Smith and Kraus web-site the company bills itself as "America's Publisher for the Acting Community," and its publication list is impressive, including almost two dozen contemporary American playwrights (in addition to Henley, some others are Lynne Alvarez, Christopher Durang, Horton Foote, Romulus Linney, Marsha Norman, Theresa Rebeck, and Lanford Wilson). The list suggests the real service the publisher provides not only to the "Acting Community" but also to the larger community of students of the American theater.
The publication list focuses on playwrights with few if any major Broadway successes who nevertheless have managed to sustain careers as playwrights because of strong professional theaters all over the country. The decentralization of the American theater is a very fine thing in almost every respect--it occurred over the second hall of the twentieth century--but it does have one drawback. If a few of your plays are done at the South Coast Repertory near Los Angeles, another at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, others at the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Signature Theatre in the D. C. area--these are among the theaters that have premiered Beth Henley's plays--there won't be a core audience that knows the body of your work from stage presentations. Henley's national reputation was launched by Crimes of the Heart--which was introduced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, moved to the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, where it won the Pulitzer Prize in the Drama for 1980-81, then moved to a Broadway theater for a long run into 1983 and several more awards, followed by a successful motion picture version with a script by Henley. But Crimes of the Heart is the only one of her plays to receive that kind of national attention, and the only one known by most people--even people who write about her work. To get a sense of her total output, you must sit down with all the published scripts and do what you can with them. Henley has published two plays since the collected edition appeared--Sisters of the Winter Madrigal in 2003, Ridiculous Fraud in 2007--but for anyone seriously interested in the totality of her work and her development as a playwright, Smith and Kraus's collected edition is a godsend.
What distinguishes the edition from a stack of individual play scripts from Dramatists Play Service, and greatly enhances its usefulness, is Henley's introductory material in the collected edition. From it you get a feel for her as a person, and how she works, far better than from any other source short of a personal acquaintance. At the outset she says she balked at the notion of writing an introduction. "I have never liked looking back," and writing an introduction seemed like "drafting my up-and-coming obituary." So she decided "to lie down and without much thought write an impression or memory of each one of the plays. A nonliteral, associative look at the past" (I, vii). She also decided to invite similar memories from actors and directors involved in the productions of her plays and to include their responses as well. The resulting portrait of her as a worker in the theater has many facets. But despite the method of free association (lie down and write whatever comes to mind), or maybe because of it, the introductory material, like her plays, reveals a deep coherence of outlook.
Not surprisingly, some of the memories are whimsical. One of the actors in The Wake of Jamey Foster had "a little pug-type dog called Buster" who came to all the rehearsals (Buster wore "tiny yellow rain boots" when the pavement was icy). But when they tried to use Buster as the Junkyard Dog in the play, he was a failure: "It was quickly ascertained that Buster's desperate eagerness to catapult into Brad's [the actor's] arms as soon as Brad whistled was grossly out of character in the part of the tough world-weary Junkyard Dog. Buster was promptly removed from the cast" (I, xii). Other memories--her own, also those contributed by actors that she chose to include--reveal her sense of irony about herself--sometimes humorous irony. An actress in The Debutante Ball recalled a public reading of the play attended by Liza Minelli. When the mother in the play tells her daughter, "'Good then. You just keep on taking those pills, but they're going to kill you just like they killed Judy Garland, only you won't have any fame or money to show for it!,' Beth just slid to the floor. But [the actress] didn't bar an eye. And neither did Liza Minelli" (I, xiv).
Numerous memories show Henley as an intense, even driven artist. When L-Play failed "to rise from the rubble" of her notes in the way she expected, she "was distraught. I wanted to be figuring out a new play in my head. When I'm not working on a play, I get anxious in the grocery line, or numbingly bored in the shower. Life is grim when there is nothing to turn tedious moments into private creative struggles" (II, xii). And an actor in Crimes of the Heart remembers a rehearsal after the play had won the Pulitzer and was preparing for its Broadway opening. The actress playing Chick
fluffed a line. She said, "I've been on the phone all day, and you better get busy phonin' on the phone yourself!" (She was supposed to say "callin' on the phone yourself.") During our next break for notes, Beth, who was at all the rehearsals, said [to the actress], "I like the way you said that line. Leave it that way. I think it sounds kinda funny hearin' 'phone, phonin', phone' all in the same sentence." The moment struck me because I realized that Beth is always writing and rewriting, always creating ... and always aware of the details that affect the way any story is heard and understood. (I, ix)
Several memories involve the difficult work of play construction and are helpful in understanding her plays. When Henley solves the problems that inevitably arise, the result is a more powerful scene or a deepened character--as her memory of writing The Lucky Spot illustrates. The play is set in a dance hall, so music is necessary, and the music Henley wanted to use was the blues and ragtime and jazz of black musicians. But the dance hall is in rural Louisiana in the 1930s, when only "white 'marshmallow music'" would have been on the jukebox. The problem: how to legitimize black music in a white establishment during an era of deep segregation.
The solution was to have [the frustrated and angry heroine] Sue Jack shoot the jukebox to smithereens at the end of Act One, and let [the dance hall] be reduced to using [some] old face records, from the attic. That Sue Jack would be capable of such violence and destruction informed me tremendously about the despair and rage that lived inside her--unrepentant and unresolved.... By overcoming a practical dilemma, I was able to make creative headway. (I, xv)
There is a determination in Henley's nature, a hard resolve to follow her own lights that is necessary for anyone to succeed as a playwright. But because of other gentle aspects of her personality, her fundamental tough-mindedness can catch people by surprise. Such a simation is suggested by the earliest memory in the introduction, when a fellow acting student at Southern Methodist University recalls Henley as a college freshman on stage for her acting audition before the assembled theater faculty and older students. What he and others in the audience saw was "this beautiful young girl" on stage who announced "in charming Southern accent" that she would do Lady Macbeth's dagger speech, then added "in a slightly sinister voice, 'by William Shakespeare.'" The audience grew nervous. "What was coming? Maybe the worst Lady Macbeth of all times?" Then she delivered the speech "with a fierce intensity," and "for the one and only time in my experience I saw the dagger in the air. There was almost a gasp in the audience, an eerie sense of the surreal. It was an electric moment.... Beth has always been that moment to me--original, courageous, beautiful, and slightly sinister" (I, viii-ix).
A less rhapsodic reflection of the same quality comes in Henley's own memory of the inspiration for her play, Signature. She was "in a dark place and hadn't written for some time" when on a lark with a friend she let a graphologist analyze her handwriting. The verdict was that her two sentences indicated "a 'petty, selfish, measly, talentless egotist.' The graphologist added, 'I don't mean any of this as a value judgment.'" Henley went away "consumed with grief," then later began to ponder "why and how I had so eagerly given over my power, had paid ten dollars to give over to some stranger who would interpret my signature. My essence. My mark on the world." She remembered that "Keats had inscribed on his tombstone, 'Here lies one whose name was writ on water.' I thought what I'd like on my own grave was, 'Here lies one whose name was drilled in granite.' I started to write the play" (II, viii).
Given the wacky, even bizarre nature of things that crop up in Henley's plays, the memory of an actress in The Miss Firecracker Contest is very instructive about how the plays are grounded in reality. While reading through the script the actress noticed that a character in the play "told a familiar story I once told Beth." It was a story
about a midget and a dwarf who married and the tragedy of their life together. It was an odd story but my mother and I had actually attended their wedding years before when I was in college. This is an example of how Beth brings to her plays real events that might seem impossible but are based in truth. In my opinion, it is what makes her plays so strong and at the same time so fragile. The simple, painful truth in Beth's plays is the key to entering her world. And, of course, it makes me think twice about what I tell that gal. (I, xi)
Operating on outdated assumptions about the theater, Smith and Kraus arranged Henley's plays in the collected edition in the order of their New York productions, which jumbles the order of composition in several cases. Of course, the order of production of anybody's plays reflects the vagaries of the theater, many of which have little to do with the playwright in question, whereas the order of composition is intimately related to the writer's life experiences. Her commitment to her own outlook is evident when Henley mentions the problem in volume I, and lists the plays in the order she wrote them. Then in volume II, wanting "to explain something about the journey" (II, vi), she provides a longer (six paragraphs), and revealing, discussion of her writing career. The discussion traces her move westward from Mississippi to Los Angeles and relates her plays to her emotional experience when she wrote them. Her early plays, for instance, are memory plays because they deal with her concerns as a child and teenager, not the concerns of her twenties and thirties when she wrote the plays. The next two plays, The Lucky Spot and Abundance, set in Louisiana and the Wyoming Territory, are "written about parts of my life" after she got to Los Angeles, "the struggle to revive love betrayed (The Lucky Spot); the conflict between our need for love and security pitted against our desire for rapture and danger (Abundance)" (II, vi). And so forth through the twelve plays in the edition. Short on details, the suggestive discussion shows her drive to make the plays contemporary with her own experience.
The value of the collected edition is suggested by the increasing number of articles on Henley's plays and the appearance of two books on her career. The earlier of the books is Gene A. Plunka's The Plays of Beth Henley in 2005. Let it be said up front that the book is poorly written. It frequently falls back on psychological jargon in lieu of explanation. And it has trouble with the meaning of words. Not only is there frequent verbal insensitivity (using disinterested to mean uninterested is a mild example), but also a downright misuse of words (untenable, for example, in place of impossible or difficult as in "untenable for an audience to fathom," ). Despite which, the book makes some useful contributions to the discussion of Henley's work. Plunka's aim is to enlarge the prevailing conception of Henley, to rescue her from the pigeon hole of "Southern Gothic writer with a feminist bent" and establish that her work has broad cultural implications. Starting out with Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and related heavy artillery, Plunka works hard to show how Henley's plays exemplify the existential despair diagnosed by Freud as the neurosis of modern civilization. Such background works, of course, are the source of the jargon that clutters the book, but Plunka's basic point is valid, and his effort to free Henley from the Southern Gothic stereotype leads to one of the book's two strengths: a detailed analysis of almost every major character in Henley's plays. Although they are thesis driven, the analyses often contribute to an understanding of a character's behavior. The other strength is Plunka's thorough research and great care with the factual details of Henley's life and career.
Robert J. Andreach's Understanding Beth Henley appeared in 2006 in the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series from the University of South Carolina Press. Books in the series, according to its general editor, "have been planned as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers" in the hope that the studies will "prepare the reader for more profitable literary experiences" (ix) when they encounter the works under discussion. Andreach would be a better guide for his projected readers if he were more precise about the various isms that creep into his discussion. He divides Henley's career into what he calls a naturalistic period (the 1970s and 80s) and an experimental period (the 90s) that involves him in such matters as naturalism, realism, expressionism, and determinism. Literary naturalism--the only kind relevant here--is a deterministic social philosophy associated with such writers as Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It has nothing to do with Henley, whose characters are not determined by their social environments. They have the power to make independent individual choices--which is a big reason why the pattern of her plots is comic, not tragic. What Andreach means when he speaks of Henley's plays of the 70s and 80s is that her presentational aim at the time was to create an illusion of reality on stage, to make audiences feel they were watching real life in a real room, only with the fourth wall removed--the aim of the writer who, according to Henley, has had the greatest influence on her, Anton Chekhov. The name of that aesthetic aim is realism, and Andreach would have given his readers a better grip on Henley's plays if he had cut all references to naturalism and naturalistic and talked about the early plays in terms of their realistic nature. By sharpening his precision in a similar way, he could also have increased the helpfulness of his discussion of her experimental plays of the 90s.
But fuzzy abstractions, while a problem, are not a major problem here because they aren't fundamental to Andreach's aim. His forte is the old fashioned "reading"--in sync with the series purpose of making a writer's work accessible to non-specialists--and Andreach's readings of Henley's plays are good indeed--intelligent, sensitive, and clearly worked out. The discussion of Abundance is an example (53-73). In it, he focuses on the role of the imagination in establishing one's sense of self, and traces its convoluted course in the lives of the two principal characters, Bess and Macon. Important elements of all the plays get treated during the course of the book. Henley's work can be dense with images, verbal repetitions, and allusions--the sorts of thing we expect in poems. Photographs and mirrors (of one kind and another) are important images in Sue Jack's evolution, as Andreach is careful to bring out in his discussion of The Lucky Spot, (36-37). And literary sources grow increasingly important over the course of Henley's career. Concerning Impossible Marriage, her last play of the 1990s, Andreach reminds readers that, in the collected edition, she had said she wanted the play to be "something like The Importance of Being Earnest, except by me." Then he goes on to identify other important sources for that play and suggest their implications: primarily Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, but also a Dylan Thomas poem, an eighteenth century comedy by Pierre de Marivaux, and drawings by Marc Chagall and Aubrey Beardsley (144-57). Finally, the fact that he treats her plays in chronological order adds an important dimension to Andreach's study. While the readings of individual plays are helpful, a sense of Henley's whole career emerges from the book. Readers can watch her development as a playwright, a development marked by maturing thematic concerns and interesting experiments in character conception and presentational techniques.
In 1996 Henley spent a week in Chapel Hill as a writer in residence in our English department. At the time, her son was only a few months old, and she told us how the baby was effecting her schedule. Essentially, she gave the account that later appeared in the collected edition. During her pregnancy she had been reluctant to commit to a deadline for finishing a play. "I was expecting a baby in August. Being childless I had no sense of how much that might hold me up. A week? A month? Ten years?" The play was Impossible Marriage, and she managed to finish the first two acts (she calls them parts) before the baby was born. "After that I was transformed into a sleep-deprived, anxious, fearful, inadequate scullery maid. I would never finish this play or any other. Impossible, or at least very tricky" (II, xiv). Her week in Chapel Hill was good for everybody. Depending on their capacities, our writing students gained the benefits of being around someone who was succeeding in the field of their dreams. For her part, Henley had brought along a draft of the last act of Impossible Marriage, and we had arranged with our resident professional theater company for a workshop reading. The company gave two readings during the week, which helped Henley begin working out the rough spots. Although her writing schedule has of necessity slowed with the addition to her family, she is still at work. In not too many years we should expect a third volume in the collected edition of her plays with her running commentary. The edition needs to remain contemporary with her output so it can continue to encourage productions and support the study of her plays.
LAURENCE G. AVERY
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Emeritus
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|Title Annotation:||'Beth Henley: Collected Plays, 2 vols.,' 'The Plays of Beth Henley: A Critical Study' and 'Understanding Beth Henley'|
|Author:||Avery, Laurence G.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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