Playwright and screenwriter Elizabeth Becker Henley was born on 8 May 1952 in Jackson to Charles Boyce Henley, a lawyer and Mississippi political figure, and Elizabeth Josephine Becker Henley, an amateur actress. Beth Henley showed an interest in the theater even as a child; she often accompanied her mother to rehearsals at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre and enrolled in an actor’s workshop there. Henley attended Jackson’s public schools and then went to Southern Methodist University, where she received a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater in 1974. Though Henley’s primary interest was acting, a one-act play she wrote for a class assignment, Am I Blue, was produced at Southern Methodist in 1973. Hoping to pursue a career as an actress rather than a writer, she spent a year as a graduate student in the theater department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign before moving to Los Angeles in 1976.
Unable to land the types of acting jobs she wanted, Henley turned to writing. Her first full-length play, Crimes of the Heart, was a dark comedy focusing on the relationship of three adult sisters in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. The play was first staged in at the Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1979. It was produced on Broadway in November 1981 and garnered a Tony nomination, the 1981 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play, and the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Henley the first woman to win the Pulitzer for drama in twenty-three years. Henley’s play, which contains several well-drawn, colorful, and somewhat eccentric characters, also elicited a number of favorable comparisons to the works of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Henley’s plays generally tend to explore the comedy inherent in human relationships.
Although Henley’s next few plays—The Miss Firecracker Contest (first produced in 1980), The Wake of Jamey Foster (1982), and The Debutante Ball (1985)—were set in small Mississippi towns, several of her other plays explore life far away from her native state. Most notable among those are perhaps The Lucky Spot (1986), which takes place in the Old West, and Signature (1995), set in Hollywood in the year 2052. Henley’s other plays are Abundance (1989), Control Freaks (1992), L-Play (1995), Revelers (1996), Impossible Marriage (1998), Family Week (2000), Sisters of the Winter Madrigal (2003), and Ridiculous Fraud (2006). The Jacksonian, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2012, is set in the playwright’s Mississippi hometown. Her most recent play, Laugh, had its premiere at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., in March 2015.
Henley has also written for the screen, including the adaptations for her plays The Miss Firecracker Contest (1989), Abundance (1998, released as Come West with Me), and Crimes of the Heart (1986), for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Her other screenwriting credits include Nobody’s Fool (1986), True Stories (1986), which she wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky (with whom she was also romantically involved for more than two decades) and rock musician David Byrne, and the PBS teleplay Survival Guides (1985), which she wrote with Budge Threlkeld.