The Beth Henley's works

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Beth Henley burst onto the scene in the late 1970's creating what is now known as highly distinguished work, that commenced in her homeland Mississippi. Appearing to be the next big Southern Writer Henley was favouring her geographical roots in her work. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Henley has lived the majority of her life in the South, Moving to Dallas Texas to study an Undergraduate Degree in Acting. It was here she studied at Southern Methodist University alongside other celebrated Southern playwrights James McClure and Jack Heifner. Here she developed a passion for Playwriting, her first one act show Am I Blue written whilst at SMU. It was in 1976 she moved to Los Angeles and wrote the play that made her a well renowned Southern Female Playwright. The accolade that was 'Crimes of the Heart'

She was deemed by Donald R Noble in the Future of Southern Writing:

"the premier Southern Playwright of the 1980's" and Crimes of the Heart was described by Karen Laughlin as "A tangy variation of the grits and gothic south of Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and Flannery O Connor."

Having been compared to the likes of Williams and O Connor Henley seemed to be on track to becoming the next big female playwright. That was until she hit the 1990's.

"An atrocious amalgam of self indulgence and gratuitous sexual rage"

This is one of the reviews used to describe Henley's later work Control Freaks. But this wasn't a one off bad review. Unfortunately for Henley her other work was too reflected in a bad light. L-Play being described as:

"L-Play is lifeless, Lemon and largely Lack Luster. L-Play by Pulitzer Winning Playwright is Less Avant Garde than awful."

Critics were quick to notice the dramatic change in Henley's work, but not for the better. Having being depicted as a Southern Playwright and having loose comparisons to great writers, Critics were not expectant of this change in her work. Henley had purposely tried to branch off and re-establish herself to having a Post Southern career, one who worked hard to remove her cultural roots away from her writing. She no longer wanted to stick to the conventional rules of the Southern Milieu. Her anticipated new work was not what her southern followers were expecting. We were not in Mississippi anymore. Transported into a world much more unrealistic and removed from her native identity, critics and audiences struggle to recognise Henley as anything other than Southern. My beliefs for these appalling reviews are lack of ability to appreciate the new concerns and route Henley has chosen to take. Instead we immediately shun this work because the anticipation lead to something nobody expected. She unshackled herself from the South. Throughout this essay with emphasis placed upon Control Freaks and L-Play I will explore how and if Henley has successfully managed to move away from her Southern Writer status, that she was once so admired for. If she is now a Post Southern Writer is it true that "her south of the previous decade truly seems gone with the wind."

How can we truly define a Southern Playwright? Is it an individual that has been raised in the South and therefore writes about a specific Southern Lifestyle? Yes, to a certain extent but there are other strong themes I have acknowledged throughout Southern Literature. Southern Playwrights have become identifiably notorious during the 20th Century, particularly 1920 to 1960 when Tennessee Williams bounced onto the scene. His most prominent work was written during then. To be legitimately classified as a Southern Writer, a play should consist of, and recognise certain themes. We particularly see people ostracised from society, becoming an outsider in their own native surroundings. People are not accepted into the social order. The obvious case being blacks, women and homosexuals. We see this in Night Mother by Marsha Norman, the role of Jessie. Jessie has a long term disability that makes her believe she is not part of society, she longs to die throughout the play as there is no place for her to fit into society. The role of Classic Southern Colloquialism, humorous to native Southerners in particular is a strong recurring theme. This is apparent in Horton Foote's Trip to Bountiful in the character of Jessie Mae. The antebellum South produced the Southern Belle, most famously seen in the epic Gone with the Wind in the inhabited character of Scarlett O Hara. The neuroticism seen in the fragile beauty that is Blanche Du Bois we see in Williams 'A Streetcar Named Desire' Other themes include a strong emphasis on the family and Mother Daughter relationships which Henley writes about in Crimes of the Heart and in Jack Heifner's Porch.

Beth is known as one of the more successful contemporary playwrights, but critics seem to leave an indigenous mark upon her, her Southern Roots. Considered a Southern Gothic Writer for many years, people fail to notice her as a writer that evolves with a modern day audience.

By noticing the Grotesque in L-Play and Control Freaks I have found that not only does it reflect that of a Southern Gothic Substance , mainly through the means of Parody, It also helps to create an Absurdist and In Your Face piece of Theatre, that pushes Henley into the Post Southern bracket. The first play that I found reflected this era of movement was L-Play taken from her 1990 collection of plays.

" I finally got the idea for the play when I realised I had no idea. I felt Fragmented, decentralized, and clueless."

These are all words Henley used to describe the way she felt whilst writing L-Play. The complete lack of cohesion to the play justifies why Henley might have felt this way. The play being described by one of Beth's closest friends as

"how unlike Beth it is"

L-Play is a short play that consists of twelve scenes all beginning with the Letter L

The symbolism of the Letter L is the only thing that unites the twelve vignettes that tie the play together.

" An L is half a box. It is a letter that is searching to connect. To Link."

I believe that Henley is trying to appeal to a modern day audience by focusing on the need to connect and the necessity to want to find your place, your own self in a modern day society. Does this not take us to what Freud was saying about Henley's characters reflecting the Modern Neurosis? Gene A Plunka describes of Crimes of the Heart

I believe had Henley placed love as one of the vignettes the posed question throughout L-Play of whether we can truly connect with someone or how to find anything concrete in life would have been defeated. No emphasis would have been placed upon the quintessential loner role in the play. One of the scenes I Looked at was entitled Loser. Loser shows us the lengths one with go to find solitary happiness in a judgemental society. The character Malcolm is desperately seeking to belong in a world, anyones world. To be accepted and successful but the lack of connection in the world leads the audience to see Malcolm surrender to his modern Neurosis, caused by the confines of social institutions. Henley creates the role of the outsider like many other scenes in L-Play. All scenes have a sense of wanting to belong, fit in and connect but in a grotesque and violating manner.

One thing is for sure the change in Henley's work hasn't gone unnoticed. Critics seem to have three diametrically opposing views of Henley. Some saying Henley's work evolves as she writes, she never conforms to a regional identity. The second view is that she has snapped all ties with ever being a southern writer. And finally there are critics that refuse to remove her from the southern identity bracket, deeming whatever work Henley produces to be Southern. When asked personally if she considered herself a Southern writer Henley said. " Its like we've got that settled we don't really have to feel what shes feeling or think about what she's thinking about, because its in that tradition

L-Play is a piece that Henley deems as Post-Southern. An escapist route to leave the regional identity that Henley carries. But has she truly left the reflection of this identity that became so important in her early works, or will she always replicate in some form her heritage through her plays.

L-Play is a fragmented piece, searching for a way to connect. I believe the piece is much more creative than that of her work from the 80's not confining to Southern Settings. Only one vignette out of the twelve that assemble the piece is set specifically in the South. The play has a non linear structure and has moments that some people would see as absurdist theatre due to its tragically comic moments that lie beneath in the piece. Due to the realistic surrounding and use of predominantly naturalistic dialogue we see elements of absurdism but reflecting a representation of a normal lifestyle. Showing an audience that even in normality, we can still be subject to the grotesque.

Leo Seligsohn says of L-Play " Love is conspicuously absent as on the the L-Words but does not seem a careless omission."

I believe had Henley placed love as one of the vignettes the posed question throughout L-Play of whether we can truly connect with someone or how to find anything concrete in life would have been defeated. No emphasis would have been placed upon the quintessential loner role in the play. One of the scenes I Looked at was entitled Loser. Loser shows us the lengths one with go to find solitary happiness in a judgemental society. The character Malcolm is desperately seeking to belong in a world, anyones world. To be accepted and successful but the lack of connection in the world leads the audience to see Malcolm surrender to his modern Neurosis, caused by the confines of social institutions. Henley creates the role of the outsider like many other scenes in L-Play. All scenes have a sense of wanting to belong, fit in and connect but in a grotesque and violating manner.

L-play shows the audience how easy it is to lose your sense of happiness in a modern day society. Gene A Plunka refers to L-Play as " L-Play depicts the loss of happiness as a result of failure to connect. This connection can be construed as meaningful contact and refers to the ability to unite ID and EGO."

Siegmund Freud says the mind is split into two parts. The conscious and the Unconscious. The conscious being the mental processing that we are all aware of and the rational thoughts we have. The unconscious reflects thoughts, feelings, urges that we are not aware of. Mostly unpleasant thoughts such as pain and anxiety. Although we are unaware of this side of the mind, it still depicts and influences some of our behaviour and choices. According to Freud there are three elements of the personality. The ID, the EGO and the SUPER EGO. The Id rests in the unconscious state of minds driven by the pleasure principle, our wants and needs. The Ego represents that in out minds which understand reality. It develops from the ID but makes sure that when we act on our primal desires from the id we do it in a way that is deemed acceptable by society, as the EGO is a state of the conscious and unconscious mind. I believe what Plunka is trying to say of L-Play is that in todays modern society it can be very easy for the pleasure principle to become non existent. This makes the id passive, with only the sense of reality coming from the Ego dominating our lives. If we have no form of contentment in our lives then all we are left with is the core of our lives, the reality, the ego. This ultimately leads us to feels lost and lonely.

What became apparent in Henley's later plays are the roles of the protagonists becoming the outsider the loner striving for connection. Plunka also says "Henleys protagonists are ostracised, insecure and often physically maimed optimists haunted by the spectre of unfulfilled dreams."

"It represents Freud's notion of the modern neurosis, and the denouement effectively provides a response to the angoisse and alienation, that permeates through society and which typically prevents human beings from achieving happiness." If Crimes of the Heart reflected this premise of isolation, how far has Henley come with branching away from the South in her more contemporary writing? Some may argue that by replicating this isolation, this feeling of loss of connection, she is conforming to the role of the outsider. The outsider most commonly recognised as a traditional Southern Gothic trait. When describing her earlier work Robert J. Andreach writes:

"Her first image is the one that persists throughout most of her plays action. It is the image of an outsider, a non-conformist, a misfit that the naturalistic perception forms."

As Andreach states it is clear that Henley has worked with the role of the outsider before in her earlier work. I particularly notice it is apparent in Crimes of the Heart. The three sisters, (Ironically representative of Henley's favourite playwright, Chekhov's Three Sisters, but a much more modern/southern comparison.) show feelings of isolation and loneliness throughout. In the opening scene we see Lenny placing a candle in a cookie for her birthday alone. It just oozes with a sense of unhappiness, complete loneliness on her own birthday. If in 1978 Henley wrote dominantly about the Outsider and relating to what we know as the stereotypes of Southern Drama how can we prove she has moved into a Post-Modern based influence. What is now defined as 'Post Southern'

By looking at her later plays even the themes are obviously of a much more absurdist nature. L-Play deals with twelve quick paced scenes, no cohesion and a sporadic selection of subject matter. Control Freaks looks into the life of Sister who is suffering from a Multiple Personality Disorder, other themes include incest, rape and constant sexual gratifications we wouldn't dream of seeing in her earlier work, or other Southern Playwrights work. Henley has been described by William W. Demastes as

"What is important is her keen Southern sense of the grotesque and the absurd experienced in daily existence, a sense that has often triggered loose comparisons with her and other southern writers like 'Eudora Welty' and 'Flannery O Connor'"

Suggesting that Henley's inspiration stems from these classic Southern Writers. I think the problem that Henley faces is that having had the success that Crimes of the Heart did, Critics are lenient to remove the Southern Playwright status out from under her belt.

L-Play is described as one of Henley's 'most challenging plays' unlike any of Her previous work it seems likely that Henley is making a conscious effort to steer away from the regional identity that she is renowned for. Gary Richards says of Beth

" Henley has worked to establish herself as a post modern writer, one who has grown out of a Southern Milieu and indeed has centralised that culture in early writings, but for whom that cultural identity no longer remains pre-eminent in either the writers daily existence or her artistic expression."

Prooving this quote is quite simple when looking at the artistic direction Henley chose to take with her in her 1990-1999 collection of plays. No longer are we place in small town Mississippi that was so apparent in her earlier works for example, 'The Wake of Jamey Foster', 'Crimes of the Heart' and 'The Debutant Ball', to name but a few. We are now transported into the realms of other more commercial areas such as Los Angeles, a College Campus in Urbana and Wyoming. Not only has the locale change the dramatic thematic approach has taken a step into the Post Southern. Having directed L-Play and Control Freaks during my Contemporary Scene Module, I found I was challenging my actors to go beyond naturalism, beyond their own comfort zones, into a world of hyper-reality. Asking them to play with melodrama in order to eventually remove this and feel in a much more absurdist world, creating absurdist theatre. I relied on a minimalistic setting but used strong choreographed grotesque like movements. Focusing primarily on Control Freaks I noticed how obvious the elements of the grotesque can be, in what may initially appear to an audience as a Close Knit All American Family. We discover rapidly that these characters are filthy specimens of human beings.

"To disregard the grotesque would be to ignore a portion of the human condition, just as ignoring death would prevent us from fully appreciating life."

This quote i believe is saying that Henley is incorporating the Grotesque into her latter plays because we all have an inner aberrant side that we are not always consciously aware of. These Grotesque ways haven't been placed in Control Freaks merely to represent that of a Southern tradition. It is a way and a part of our lives.

"Her later plays while seemingly more experimental may actually be true to the full range of the human experience, by bearing witness to those chaotic and primitive forces in ourselves and in the world, that we rarely acknowledge but that exist in spite of our ignorance."

We have previously seen in Southern Literature the role of the fading beauty, the Southern Belle, The female Archetype. From Scarlett O Hara in Gone with the Wind to Blanche Du Bois in Williams A Streetcar Named Desire. Henley however paints over this stereotype of the female, casting an opaque shadow on these characters. Using the grotesque, Henley bludgeons this ideal of beauty and proves the image to be fake, one that we as a society want to believe is true. She instead replaces this ostentatious image of women with loathing characters such as Sister and Betty that manifest through their desires for sex. An example of this is shown when Betty is having an affair with the investor of the house she lives in Paul Casper.

Paul: "Give me some of you. I want some of you before I go."

(Betty sticks her hand between her legs. She gasps, then holds her wet fingers out to paul. He grabs her hand and smears her scent across his lips and nose.)

  • I noticed that sex plays a vital part in control freaks with all the characters engaging in some form of sexual activity more than once throughout the play. Unlike any of Beth's previous work the sex becomes much more heightened and sadistic, they use each others sexual rapacity to humiliate one another. I believe this is Henley's strongest post southern attribute in her latter plays. The emphasis placed upon sex. I believe Southern audience members aren't ready to see these kind of over sexualised attributes on stage. If Henley's main audience are southern followers then this could be the reason that Beth is receiving bad feedback and her newer work. Tarnishing her reputation as a southern writer by deciding to branch off into a direction much more in your face and unsubtle.
  • Ewa Kuryluck Polish painter, novelist and essayist says " the soul was conceived in the European tradition as a volatile female which added further complexity to the symbolism of the cave (the original seat of the grotesque) and led to the creation of metaphors which linked sexual drive to the exploration of ones own or another persons self."
  • The cave was notably the original definition of the grotesque, a dark subterranean grotto. " what better metaphor for penetration into a warm enclosed space, could exist than the act of sexual intercourse."
  • Freud believed in the metaphor of the exploration of the subterreanean grotto is his psychoanalytic theory. Kuryluk uses his psychoanalytic sessions when exploring the idea of the grotesque. "During the psychoanalytic sessions Freuds own office turned into a grotto of wild reverie which deeply linked the doctor to the patient and not surprisingly led them to the discovery of eroticism."
  • Is this proving that sex is at the root of the patients thoughts and mind? I believe so. I believe that what freud is therefore doing in his sessions is enabling his patients to look into their unconscious mind and face it accept what their thoughts desire. I think this theory works well when looking at the plot of control freaks and the role of sister, her multiple personality causing her to have a distressing psyche. In the ending monologue It shows her longing to have someone to show her attention and prove her place in society. She feels lost and trapped in the realms of her warped sexualised mind with all the people around her stuck in their own crazy lives.

This use of provocative sexual imagery is used throughout with a sense of sado-masochism running backwards and forwards between the males and females in the cast. Control Freaks is more heightened than any of Beth's other work, making it epitomise the Post Southern style Beth seems to be veering towards. By glamorising sex, we get a completely different attitude to the play. No longer are an audience comparing the characters to that of a classic Southern drama, we are in fact getting the opposite. Sex, at such a heightened level, appears clearly in some of the most famous assets of Southern Literature. A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth and the Southern film, The Last Picture Show, set in Wichita, Kansas. Sex in these have always seemed to an audience as sordid and immoral. Rape appears as a strong theme domineering the beautiful women in the rape scenes. Henley has instead replaced the Genteel beauties of the South, with overtly sexualised characters. I found when directing Control Freaks the closest I could relate these characters was against beasts, animals almost. I made my cast interpret the roles as animal like creatures, to really get the roles into their bodies and feel the utter foulness of these brutes. This animal instinct Henley brings to her characters is spoken of as a normality, a hidden aspect we need to accept into our lives. The grotesque is in some way part of our lives, we must not assume it is something that appears at Halloween or through Ghost Stories. As Wilson Yates describes the grotesque:

"That which does not fit into our daily lives, but is present nonetheless as a kind of subconscious, demonic force."

The grotesque speaks of some aspect of life that doesn't fit in with normality, our decorum and everyday believes. It conflicts with the world we choose as human beings to deem normal. It represents a violation in the world we have construed, whether that be social, moral or religious. Due to this we relegate the image of the grotesque to the back of our thoughts and banish it to the lower depths of our conscious mind, but it will always remain in our conscious world. This is something that is apparent in the role of sister whom banishes her multiple personality disorder to the deeper part of her mind. We only see the real side to sister when she is speaking to herself and is unaccompanied. As Wilson Yates describes the grotesque he says "That which does not fit into our daily lives but is present nonetheless as a kind of subconscious demonic force."

A Post Southern assest that Henley adds to Control Freaks is the lack of ability for the characters to notice the distorted imagery they are imposing on the audience.

"The grotesque has become a fabric of their world."

It encapsulates them completely letting the audience see this darkened side of their human psyche, that we are all capable of producing. Unlike Henley's older work the characters

"confess to their dark drives"

Different from her naturalistic plays Henley's modernist approach lets her characters unnoticeably connect with the desires they are feeling from within, and go with them. The sense of repression is much more removed and we see this in the sexual activity that takes place, i.e orgasms all over the garden, and the ferocity of language that bounces too and from the protagonists of the play.

"these characters lead us into an alien world of deformed beliefs and violent behaviours that we are forced to acknowledge and accept as our own."

Yates says: "A Monstrous caricature of itself and the characters behave in ways that are vicious and foreign to our world of self perception."

Although this vile but provactive nature of the piece may appear on the surface too hot to handle for some audience members, i think that Henley lures the audience in to watch a performance that distorts the imagery we are witnessed too in a normal modern day society. Control freaks takes a giant leap for Henley. We are no longer in the homely world of the mcgrath sisters henleys describes the los angeles performance as "a grotesquw ballet that never stops beginning in a controlled fashion but gradually erupiting into chaos."

  • In control freaks there is a substantial sense of dramatic irony. The audience see the disillusionment of the characters on stage but the characters however don't. They accept the grotesque as part of their daily lives. It has in fact become fabricated into their world. The audience are invited into the depths of their human psyche, where we see Sister's mental instability. Containing erratic behavioural themes throughout the play we see the reflection of the dark points of the human psyches. Henley's previous characters have always reflected a much more naturalistic sense admitting to their dark inhibitions. Here however these characters take us into a much more alien, provocative and deformed world.
  • Trying to break the Southern Boundaries Henley says we are now focusing on "the darker side of the human spirit and passions."
  • Wolfgang Kayser author of grotesque in art and literature says " Henley deliberately constructs a ludic world that prevents any empathy with her characters."
  • I believe these characters have no redeeming qualities through the lasciviousness and bestial ways in which Henley has chosen they conform too. We as an audience should not sympathise with them yet we should be utterly engaged in the vile nature of these characters. We see the degrading choices they make that manifest viscerally through sexual and provocative imagery and language.

"control freaks reveals a dangerous world of anarchic desires and nightmarish visions that forces the audience to contemplate the nature of evil." These subject matters show henleys abandonement of her naturalistic plays

Parody helps beth to branch into the post southern bracket, particularly in control freaks. By her using parodic imagery of the conventional south.

  • Carol Christ in 'Diving Deep and surfacing' says on women "Because patriarchal society teaches women to question their own worth, womens experiences of nothingness are inescapable.
  • I believe this is saying that women who do not conform to the social regularities set by society feel ostracised and become defeated in a male centred world. This is shown by control freaks as Carl takes the power through most of the play. Christ's theory shows that females who don't lead conventional lives can become excluded and see themselves as failures. Christ defines the term 'awakening' which is when a woman can accept nothing into her life. We can use christs structuve when defining the relationships in control freaks. Sister is continuously struggling to fit in and prove she is not just a meaningless existence. She is not only battling with her split personality she battles with what I believe and oppressive definition of herself and what we see in the final scene is her ability to become a free person and realise who she is after killing off the alpha male.
  • Henley says of her works they are " about overcoming the ghosts of the past and letting go of what other people have said you are what they have told you to be."
  • How can she ultimately be deemed completely post souther when her leading lady is known to her family as sister. Something that would only ever happen in the south. In terms of her sexualing thepieces Henley has nailed it she has the taken that extra explicit step that breaks the southern boundaries by far. But after looking at these two plays are the subject matters truly original or do they lie at the core of southern drama. Incest, violence, family matters, the role of the outsider. All themes we know to be stereotypically southern. Although beths recent work has been received badly I don't think that she has failed just not lived up the expectations created for herself after crimes of the heart. Maybe beth knew this and that determined her reason to branch into the post southern category she is hoping to have reached. Unfortunately crimes of the heart raised the bar for Henley to a height she seems unable to yet again reach.
  • "As gary Richards said: Beth Henley is a thrilling fresh young voice of a wunderkind has given way to stridency and confusion leaving high expectancy more or less unfulfilled after an initial flash of brilliance.