The hotel chandelier casts a grim, gray light over playwright Beth Henley, an unfriendly glare more appropriate for a funeral parlor. She sinks limply onto the couch, a slim figure in a $ 5 thrift shop dress, feeling the effects of a too-late night before, a dozen Coca-Colas downed through the day in an ineffectual effort to revive, and more talking than she really cares to do. Outside, a crazed percussionist maintains an obsessed, monotonous beat on some kind of drum, an aural metaphor for a killer headache.
It is not a very Beth Henley scene. In her plays the characters at least have vitality, even if they are wanted for the murder of a boring husband, dying of three different diseases or fleeing a job scraping dead dogs off the road. Many of them tread a fine line between eccentricity and insanity, but never descend into the impenetrable despair of the sidewalk drummer. And they love to talk.
Henley tries to brighten, like the well-mannered southerner she is. Despite living for nearly a decade in Los Angeles, she retains her Mississippi accent and the cheerful, if slightly glacial, politeness so characteristic of a southern girl. It is a useful skill, this southern-lady routine, an ability to create the illusion of intimate conversation without actually revealing anything. Wry optimism is a necessary component, too, as in the "tomorrow is another day" philosophy. Her characters, no matter how battered and bruised by life, reflect this modest hope for better days -- even if her frog has hopped away, as Carnelle notes in "The Miss Firecracker Contest," she still has his little pink suit.
Henley started out to be an actress, but when she won a Pulitzer Prize for "Crimes of the Heart" in 1981 at the age of 28, she started believing she was a writer. "I thought, 'If they have given this prize to me, the world is really a joke,' " she says. To have her wacky view of the world acclaimed seemed not to validate her, but to confirm the general insanity she sees in others.
Now, five years later, she is riding, somewhat uncomfortably, the crest of a Henley wave. The film of "Crimes of the Heart," starring the triple whammy of Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek, is opening. "True Stories," a movie she wrote with rock star David Byrne and Steven Tobolowsky, has recently been released, as has "Nobody's Fool," a movie she wrote before "Crimes" that she couldn't get produced at the time. (Pulitzer Prizes do help one's visibility, even in Hollywood.)
The reviews of the last two have been mixed, but not by any means awful. She finds each of the films "a joy," each extraordinary in different ways, and considers herself lucky to have worked with directors and actors who illumined her stories.
"When I was poor, to cheer myself up I'd buy real pretty wrapping paper," she said. "When I got rich I bought hats at the May Company." After the Pulitzer, she traded her $ 1,500 Oldsmobile for a new Volkswagen Rabbit. And that, she would have you believe, is about the extent that fame and success have affected her. In addition, of course, to having been able to give up her job in the parts department of TRW. "I loathe any sort of job," she said. "I used to pray that people in my family would die so I could get left some money."
She has, perhaps inevitably, been compared to Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor, but there are singular differences. Henley's outcasts, however strange, have at least one foot in the mainstream. Lenny MaGrath in "Crimes of the Heart," for example, could be compared to Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" -- both eternal wallflowers, mired in shyness caused in part by physical disabilities imagined to be greater handicaps than they are (Laura has a limp, Lenny "deformed ovaries"). Both anticipate a "gentleman caller," in Lenny's case someone she met through a personal advertisement, and both seem pathetically tied to home and destined never to escape it.
But while Laura's gentleman is clearly not going to work out, there is hope for Lenny's. And Lenny has her two sisters -- however troubled each of them is, their relationship is a locus of stability that keeps them from disintegrating.
Henley's plays are also conspicuously, if not broadly, comic, an element she claims is more or less accidental. "All these things that I feel inside are desperate and dark and unhappy. Or not unhappy, but searching," she says in "Interviews With Contemporary Women Playwrights," a soon-to-be-published collection by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. "Then they come out funny. The way my family dealt with hardships was to see the humor or the ironic point of view in the midst of tragedy. And that's just how my mind works. I don't think the plays are hilarious, though I'm glad they're not somber because that would be real boring."
At times her predilection for the grotesque overwhelms the more subtle emotional themes. One example from "Crimes of the Heart" is Babe's response when asked why she has tried to shoot her husband. "I didn't like his looks," she says, in a line so often cited that deeper reasons -- her husband's physical brutality and her unbearable loneliness in his overpowering family -- seem like self-conscious afterthoughts. The idea that Popeye, the seamstress in "Miss Firecracker," learned to sew by making those pink suits for frogs tends to obscure her pathetic yearnings for love and make her a figure of fun.
The characters in Henley's plays talk about things like pigs exploding from a combination of gluttony and constipation, or how a dead relative, in an experimental treatment for cancer, had exchanged her pituitary gland for a monkey's and then developed simian characteristics. In "Nobody's Fool" the heroine, on being told by the boyfriend who has impregnated her that he does not intend to marry her, stabs him in the neck with a fork in the middle of a Chinese restaurant, while wearing a Halloween costume of balloons and a hat shaped like a candle.
"I've always been attracted to split images," Henley says in the book. "The grotesque combined with the innocent, a child walking with a cane; a kitten with a swollen head; a hunchback drinking a cup of fruit punch. Somehow these images are a metaphor for my view of life; they're colorful. Part of that is being brought up in the South; southerners always bring out the grisly details in any event."
She grew up in Jackson, Miss., the second of four sisters. Her father, a lawyer, died in 1978, before she won The Prize. Her mother acted in community theater, a pastime her sensitive, asthmatic daughter found dazzling. She was fond, too, of eavesdropping on the grown-ups, sometimes pretending to doze off so they would think she wasn't listening.
By the time she got to high school Henley was a full-fledged loner, joining no clubs, participating in no activities, spending her afternoons cutting out pictures from magazines and pasting them into a scrapbook and listening to Chopin, "Porgy and Bess" and the sound track to Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet."
"I used to collect rocks and bottles, too," she told one interviewer. "I wasn't a good collector because I felt sorry for rocks and bottles that weren't pretty, so I'd keep them. I'd keep dead flowers, because I thought just because flowers are dead you shouldn't throw them out. I kept a goldfish that died once. Just left it in the water with my other goldfish that was alive. Course, eventually it killed that one."
Jackson had just begun to desegregate its public schools, and Henley recalls those high school years as chaotic. "It was a zoo ... The students took ungodly advantage of the situation. The teachers were crying all the time. I'd just go over to the Totes 'Em and eat Twinkies. I'd just not come back after lunch. I didn't take my books out of the locker for a whole semester."
She got into Southern Methodist University and became a theater major, and life began. She played everything she could, from Greek tragedy to comedy. She wrote her first play, "Am I Blue?," for a play-writing class when she was a sophomore, and it was produced at the school two years later. She enrolled in graduate school at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where she also taught acting classes. "I was hopelessly inept," she says now. One summer she spent in an outdoor theater there, performing in a play about Abraham Lincoln. The experience is reflected in "Nobody's Fool," in which a traveling Shakespearean troupe offers the idea of a new life to the sad little waitress who is the central character. "They changed the location from Illinois to Arizona because the weather isn't good for movies in Illinois," Henley said. "And making it a Shakespeare troupe instead of Lincoln was a great idea."
Facing the choice of pursuing her acting career in either Los Angeles or New York, she chose L.A. All she knew to do was to read the trade papers and go to open auditions, getting nowhere. "I had an agent who was selling umbrellas at a department store on the side," she said.
So she decided to write a movie -- "Nobody's Fool," originally called "Moonwatcher" -- and sent it to producers.
"But they didn't want to see it unless they came through an agent, and the agents would say they weren't taking on any more clients, and if you sent it to actors you thought would be good in the parts, they wouldn't look at it unless you already had the financing."
So she turned back to her first love, the theater. She wrote "Crimes of the Heart" with a view toward getting an Equity-waiver production, which is a way to do a play with professional actors without paying full union wages. "I was so conscious of writing for a low budget -- I had only one set, not too many characters. At first I didn't even have them cut into the birthday cake at the end because I thought it would be too expensive to get a new cake every night," she said.
A friend who had won the Actor's Theatre of Louisville play-writing contest urged her to send it there, and with his influence "Crimes of the Heart" was read. And then produced. Other regional theaters mounted productions, and then New York's Manhattan Theatre Club got into the act. "Crimes" became the first non-Broadway production to win a Pulitzer Prize, although it subsequently moved downtown for a comfortable run.
Her next play, "The Wake of Jamey Foster," was produced on Broadway in 1982, and ran a week. "I was stunned after 'The Wake,' but as a woman from the South, I was ready for it," she says in the Betsko-Koenig book. "I thought, 'You can overcome this! You can live with this! $ *&% what everybody else thinks. You're alive!' When people praised 'Crimes,' I felt like I had to be so self-effacing it wasn't any fun. I felt I had to say, 'Ah ... it's really nothing. I didn't mean to write that ... I was really writing a grocery list. When you have a flop, you can fight. I must say I did love 'The Wake.' I was exalted the whole week it ran after the reviews came out."
"The Miss Firecracker Contest" was produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club and has had numerous productions elsewhere, including here at Olney Theatre, which has also produced "Crimes." "The Wake" has been produced at the Studio.
She has two new plays scheduled. "The Lucky Spot," her first play not set in an aging family home, takes place in a seedy dance hall on Christmas Eve, when the wife of the owner returns after spending three years in prison to find that her husband has taken up with a 15-year-old girl, who is pregnant. "The Debutante Ball" is her first play to deal with people who have some wealth. It is a murder mystery, she said, which contains violence, lesbian love scenes and a miscarriage. "It's not a very good play," she said. "It has problems I hope I'll solve."
She speaks longingly of returning to her office, an apartment not far from the house in Los Angeles she shares with Tobolowsky. "I love to work," she says. "Although sometimes I can spend whole days doing nothing more than picking the lint off the carpet and talking to my mother on the phone."
She is a methodical writer, composing long biographies of her characters and extensive plot outlines before she tackles the dialogue. "I keep asking myself, 'What is this about? Anger? Revenge?' You keep searching for the answer, and hopefully it won't be about any one thing."
She eats rice cakes for lunch and goes to an exercise class in the afternoon. She has remained fervently antidomestic, refusing to learn to cook or sew, or to be tied down with children. She sees herself as a feminist, but finds politics irrelevant.
"I don't really feel like changing the world," she once said. "I want to look at the world ... I'm cynical ... about politics. So now I think, 'Don't be rude to people in stores, don't litter, remember to send your grandmother flowers on her birthday, enjoy the trees, write what you write -- that's all you can do -- try to be kind from day to day.' "
Carnelle, who wanted so much to win the Miss Firecracker Contest in order to redress the unfortunate reputation she had acquired from spending too much time in the back seats of cars with too many men, but who was humiliated when her tap dancing act was practically hooted off the stage, sums it all up a little differently:
"It's just I was upset about not being able to leave in the blaze of glory. Of course, I know it doesn't matter. I mean the main thing is -- well, the main thing is ... Gosh; I don't know what the main thing is. I don't have the vaguest idea." She starts enjoying the firecracker display in the distance. "Gosh, it's a nice night."