Crimes Of The Heart By Beth Henley

Essay, Research Paper

The play, ?Crimes of the Heart,? written by Beth Henley, is

brilliantly charming, and Henley is completely deserving of her

Pulitzer-Prize for this piece. My mother suggested I read this play

because she says that I am very much like one of the main characters

Lenny Magrath, and she said that I would be able to relate to many parts

of the story. I found that the beginning of the play was somewhat slow

and not very uplifting, but as the play progressed, I found it to be

heart-warming, intriguing, and overall very entertaining.

Henley, being from the South herself, wrote many of her plays in a

small southern town setting. The intended meaning of this play is one

that can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the reader, but what

I believe to be the meaning, that the author was trying to send across,

was to simply share the story of three sisters, who no matter how far

misunderstandings, quarrels, or rages stretch the bonds between them,

the sisters always bounce back to the core of their family which is

love. Though they go through many hardships, including sibling

conflicts, personal problems and the inevitable death of their

grandfather, through everything, family proves to be a very important

key factor in their difficult lives. The bonds formed between the

members of your own family is one of the most ?solid? things in life,

and in turn should always be something you can count on.

The plays? title ?Crimes of the Heart,? relates directly to the

play in many key ways that Henley makes evident as the play progresses.

The three sisters, all lead very separate lives and are very individual

in their characters and personalities but all, in one way or another,

commit ?crimes of the heart.? But I believe that the title is derived

directly from Babe?s situation. She has the most problems, from an

abusive husband, to trying to find love in a secret relationship with a

15 year old black boy named Willie Jay. When her husband, Zachary

Botrelle, discovers this relationship, Babe attempts to kill him and is

placed on trial for this attempted homicide. The title is thus derived.

However, it is also, I believe, a crime not to follow your heart’s

desires. The play had allot of meaning, to me in particular, because

I in a way, am like Lenny, the eldest sister. I am, as she is, the glue

in the family. I am the one who helps and puts forth much effort to

keep the family bonds strong. My brother is going through a difficult

battle with a brain tumor, and through these unimaginable and

unexplainably hard times that my family is experiencing, I have had to

be the emotionally strong one, pulling my parents together for my little

brothers? sake. Having to watch my parents come apart and lose it in

front of me, the two people who are ?supposed? to keep us, the children,

from falling apart, and be strong for us, has been a an experience which

has tested my emotional and physical limits. I am not bitter towards

them in any way, but it has been a burden that I, at 19 years old, and

being a college student, was not ready to take on, and it has been a

test of my overall strength. But I am grateful to have had my other

brother there to help ease the pain for my family when I cannot be with

them. Lenny, in the play, is the one of the three sisters, who

willingly took on the responsibility of caring for their dying

grandfather. She is also the one who has kept the three sisters

together. Her character is one that I admire for many reasons. There

is one major difference between the two of us, which is that I am not an

overall unhappy person. She made her misery her life, when it should

have just been issues that she had to deal with and move on form like

most people do. I believe that the audience can relate to many parts of

the play in one way or another. Whether it is having dealt with death

of a close family member, or a relative that shares some of the

qualities of the three sisters.

Beth Henley, was a southern woman, growing up in a small

Mississippi town. She is acknowledged as a scholar, and best known for

writing plays combining comedy and suffering, and capture the essence of

?southern living,? in settings of small towns in the South. She is also

recognized as an author that uses women as the main characters. They

are usually very misfortunate, and act in ways that are a reaction to

the role that men have had men in their lives. In this play, all these

defining qualities are shown. One of the women is repressed, one

irrepressible, and one is suffering mentally due to being the middle

child and they all are scarred by the abandonment of their father and

how it affected their mother.

?Crimes of the Heart,? was first performed by the Actors Theater

on February 18, 1979. Many things were happening at that time. One

event, though not in any way a major one, was the birth of myself.

?Crimes of the Heart,? is a play of fierce, yet tactful

complexity and its humor is somewhat unorthodox. The basic story of

this play is of three eccentric sisters who are brought back together,

when one of the sisters, Babe, shot her husband in the stomach and was

arrested. This occurs simultaneously with the last few days of life for

their grandfather. Each character has some major conflicts, all are

direct or indirect results of their father abandoning them and their

mother. Lenny, was the eldest of the three sisters, and coped with

being the eldest and the only sensible one of the three, and the only

one who deeply sacrificed for the other members of her immediate and

extended family. Lenny, overall, was very unhappy with her life. To

add to her already sad life, within the first few pages of the play,

Lenny celebrated her birthday alone, put candles on cookies, and sang to

herself. She had no boyfriend, and the only one she ever had, that she

cared deeply about, she ended the relationship with. She learned that

she had a weak ovary while in the relationship, in fear of being hurt

and abandoned by him, after he found out that she could not have

children, she left him before he could leave her. Lenny realized that

she was most likely going to grow old alone, and never get married, and

it became a major internal conflict for her. Another conflict, that is

later revealed to be major, is Lenny?s jealousy of Meg, the younger

sister, and the favoritism that was shown towards her as they were all

growing up. Meg, twenty-seven years of age, dealt with being the middle

child and suffers obvious mental problems, an obsession with death, from

being the sister to find their dead mother and cat hanged in the cellar,

a suicide not a homicide. She was also dealing with her failed o

attempt at a successful career as a singer and actress in Hollywood.

Finally there was Babe, twenty-four years of age and the youngest. She

was the most inexperienced and least intelligent of the three, and

extremely naive, which gave her a somewhat ?ditsy? quality. With all

these mental pitfalls, though, Babe managed to do the

unthinkable…murder. Babe shot her husband simply because, as she just

blatantly states in the beginning of the play, she did not like the way

he looked But as the play developed, she revealed that she shot him

because he caught her with her lover, a fifteen year old black boy, and

being that this story takes place in the South, this was something that

was not ?accepted? in society. This was also hard on Babe because she

loved this boy, although in the beginning, when this was being developed

by Babe explaining to her sister Meg what had happened, I did not get

the impression that she was in love with him, but in the end, it was

made clear.

The conflicts of each of these women were not all resolved by the

end of the play. Some were still there or just somewhat lessened.

Lenny began the resolution to her biggest problem or conflict, by

calling the man with whom she had ended the relationship with. She

explained to him that the reason she told him that they could not see

eachother anymore, was because she had a weak ovary and she could not

have children, and not because of something he had done. It turned out

that he did not like children anyway, and so her major conflict was

resolved. The conflict with her jealousy towards Meg, was not to say

resolved, but it was not something that was consuming her in the end.

She had so many things going on in her life at one time that it was easy

to let her feelings out in jealousy against her sister. Even her

birthday, which she spent alone, was amended. Her sisters bought her a

birthday cake and let her make a real wish, because as Babe said, wishes

only come true if they are made on a cake. Babe?s conflicts were hardly

resolved. The black boy was sent away as part of a plea bargain and

towards the end Zachary, her husband, goes back on his word and tells

her that he is going to have her declared insane and put away in a

mental institution. Her mental state is, I believe, quite

questionable. She has an affair with a 15 year old boy, then tries to

kill her husband. Next, came her actions following the phone call from

Zachary. She decided that the solution was to end her life. First, she

tried to hang herself on the chandelier, but it ripped out of the wall,

making her first attempt unsuccessful. Next, Babe put her head in the

oven and turned on the gas. It was not working fast enough so she

grabbed a match and was going to cause an explosion which inturn would

kill her, but right before she lit the match, she had a revelation.

She realized that her mother hung herself with her cat, because she did

not want to die alone, and Babe realized that she too did not want to

die alone. Meg was still an unsuccessful singer, but she now realized

that she had her sisters, and their love, which were more important than

anything else.

?Crimes of the Heart,? takes place in the late 70?s in the hot

summer months.. The economic conditions were what are typically

generalized about the south. Most people did not have an extreme amount

of money, but everyone seemed satisfied. Morally, I think that people

were bitter and into everyone else?s business. Social standing in the

community, and reputations were of highest importance to the people,

especially the women. A kitchen, in a little southern town called

Hazlehurst, in Mississippi, was where this entire play took place. The

kitchen was designed after Beth Henley?s grandmother?s kitchen.

Although there is no extravagance in the set, the characters and story

are enough to have you completely satisfied. Being that Henley is

Southern, she writes her plays to depict and capture the essence of the

South, and she could not have picked a better time period to do this.

It was the time of racial prejudice, and simple southern ways, which she

liked to display vividly in her writings.

If I were to put on a production of ?Crimes of the Heart,? I would

choose to do it at the Maroney Theater. It is simple, which is perfect

for the simple kitchen setting I would use for this play. It has a big

stage that can be seen clearly at every angle of the audience, so it

would be ideal. For music I would select a few classical pieces

appropriate for times of sadness and joy. I would for sure play one

song in particular. The song ?Happy Birthday? at the beginning of the

play when Lenny is singing to herself on her birthday. Some sound

effects that I might use would be: the sound of Doc?s car coming up the

driveway, the sound of Babe slicing the lemons with a big knife, the

sound of the chandelier crashing to the ground after Babe tries to hang

herself, and maybe a gun shot sound when Babe is telling Meg about the


There were may roles in ?Crimes of the Heart.? The three Magrath

sisters: Lenny, Meg and Babe were the obvious prime characters in the

play. Then there was the nosy, bad-mouthing cousin that lived next door

Chick Boyle, The Doc, who was the man that Meg left behind to go to

Hollywood, Zachary Butrelle, Babe?s abusive husband, and Willie Jay,

Babe?s fifteen year old lover.

Lenny Magrath was a character that I found to be most interesting.

I imagine her, form the descriptions and from her character throughout

the play to be a mildly attractive woman. She is in her thirties but I

imagine her to look a little bit older. She is not dressed very well.

She dresses very conservative, and in very boring earthy toned clothes.

Lenny is very uptight kind of person, keeping everything neat, getting

annoyed when things are a mess, because it makes her life seem chaotic

and she likes to be in control of everything. She gets upset easily

making it seem like all her real emotions are bottled up inside, and

only come out in lashes. Her life is not very exciting nor is it a

joyful one. Lenny does not want to grow old and be alone like her

mother felt. She ends up rekindling the relationship with the man, and

her attitude changes right away. She was acting carefree and was acting

in an almost childish manner, yelling and hopping around the kitchen.

She was not going to be alone anymore, and that made everything all

right. Calling him in the first step was a huge step for Lenny, being as

soft-spoken as she is.

The costumes I imagine are pre-eighties-looking. Not stylish in

any way at all. Very basic costumes, like sun dresses that women in the

South are thought to have worn. No bright colors mainly earth tones

were the primary colors, and the materials and patterns looked cheap.

If I were to present this play I believe I would want to keep the same

motif. The entire time I read the play, the costumes were just as I

have described and I believe it helps to get the idea and story of the

play across successfully. The story itself is quite complex and

interesting in itself, so costumes should be simple in order to keep the

audience interested. There is no need for loud, busy costumes. They

would only negatively affect the overall production of this wonderfully

intriguing play.


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