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Reviewed by:
  • Understanding Beth Henley
  • Gene A. Plunka
Robert J. Andreach . Understanding Beth Henley. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. 192. $34.95 (Hb).

Robert J. Andreach's Understanding Beth Henley is part of the University of South Carolina Press's Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. The book consists of a brief introduction, followed by three lengthy chapters that break down Henley's oeuvre into three periods: the naturalistic dramas of the 1980s, the initial breaks with naturalism of the 1990s, and the experimental plays of the mid- and late 1990s. Andreach treats the plays chronologically, but at times the intertwining themes lead the discussion back to earlier plays, which fills in some of the gaps. The book concludes with a bibliography that provides the premiere date of each of Henley's twelve plays, a list of the published interviews with Henley, and an annotated list of the major critical essays on Henley. The bibliography also includes a much-too-abbreviated list of annotated, "select" performance reviews of each play – inadequate because no more than two theatre reviews are ever listed for any of the plays, but perhaps excusable because of the parameters set by the series requirements.

Chapter two begins with a one-paragraph biographical précis and then delves into Henley's plays of the 1980s: Am I Blue, Crimes of the Heart, The Wake of Jamey Foster, The Miss Firecracker Contest, The Debutante Ball, and The Lucky Spot. Andreach argues that these naturalistic plays dramatize the relationship between the interior self and the exterior world, as Henley's socially isolated characters submit to a patriarchal culture that is seen to repress their vitality. These marginalized heroines can survive so long as they can share "magical moments" with other friends; their mutual support engenders an epiphany, one that allows them to understand that they are capable of loving and being loved despite the dominant culture. Examining the early plays thematically allows Andreach to make useful connections among them; however, the plays are not treated equally. Am I Blue and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Crimes of the Heart are discussed too cursorily, for example, and the fuller discussion of The Miss Firecracker Contest fails to mention anything substantial about Popeye or Delmount, two of the six characters. The other major problem is that The Lucky Spot does not quite fit with either Henley's other early dramas or Andreach's thesis because there is no definitive epiphany for Sue Jack, the protagonist. Andreach, [End Page 411] thus, rightly characterizes The Lucky Spot as a transitional play between Henley's early dramas and the initial experiments of the 1990s.

Chapter three focuses on Abundance, Signature, and Control Freaks – plays that move away from the traditional linear narrative of naturalism and also deviate from the southern settings of the earlier dramas. Andreach argues that in these plays the protagonists empower themselves through their own imaginations rather than through magical moments of sharing. In Abundance, Bess, a mail-order bride who is kidnapped by Indians and then lives five years with their tribe, codifies her experience by writing a novel and empowers herself by telling her story on the lecture circuit; in doing so, she discovers herself through imagination, unlike her friend Macon, who, as a domesticated mail-order bride, lacks "subjective self-understanding" (71) and thus finds no potential in herself for anything beyond managing a home. In Signature, Henley's satirical play set in Los Angeles in 2052, Boswell, the art philosopher, is forced to choose between love, which depletes his emotional energy to create, and his art; through the help of a graphologist named Reader, Boswell is led to adopt the creative experience that "releases the unruly, irrational subsurface into the ruled, rational surface" (87). In Control Freaks, the surface is Carl's patriarchal culture – shared by his wife Betty – while the unruly subsurface is represented by Sister's fragmentation into two disparate interior voices named Spaghetti and Pinkie. In this play, love might be seen merely as acts of domination and submission. Instead, Andreach argues, Sister's divided personae represents a turn inward toward the imagination that allows her to find...


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