The Miss Firecracker Contest
The Miss Firecracker Contest is a two-act play that was originally produced in Los Angeles in the spring of 1980. It was the first play that Beth Henley wrote after Crimes of the Heart, but it was already in production before Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize. Eventually, both plays were produced on Broadway and made into movies with screenplays also written by Henley. Holly Hunter played the lead role in both the Broadway and movie versions of The Miss Firecracker Contest. It became available in book form in 1985 from the Dramatists Play Service.
This story belongs in the group of Southern Gothic comedies for which Henley is best known. Its heroine, Carnelle, is an irrepressible young woman who thinks that winning the local beauty contest will restore her soiled reputation and make her somebody in her small Mississippi community. The family and friends who help her along the way are a dysfunctional bunch who tackle life in their own peculiar ways. There is a former beauty queen cousin, Elain, who comes to offer advice and to run away from her husband and children. Elain's brother, Delmount, has come home from the mental institution to sell the family house and provide Carnelle another way out. Wandering into the chaos as Carnelle's seamstress is sweet and strange Popeye, who falls in love with Delmount. The general conclusion the characters reach is that, even if the real Page 162 | Top of Article you is not the fulfillment of your hopes, you will be more at peace if you learn to define and accept your own self.
Beth Henley's birthplace and upbringing have determined the subject and setting of many of her plays. Born in Jackson, Mississippi on May 8, 1952, Elizabeth Becker Henley is the second of four daughters of an attorney and state senator, Charles Boyce, and an actress, Elizabeth Josephine Henley. As a child, she attentively watched her mother's work in regional theatre and followed this interest to a fine arts degree at Southern Methodist University in 1974. Although she aspired to be an actress, she wrote her first play Am I Blue while in college. She taught at the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre for a year after graduation, studied and taught for another year at the University of Illinois-Urbana, then moved to Los Angeles.
She soon realized that breaking into acting was a futile effort and turned to playwriting. Her second play, Crimes of the Heart, was first produced in 1979 and went on in 1981 to be the first play ever to win a Pulitzer Prize before it appeared on Broadway. It was also the first Pulitzer given to a female playwright in twenty-three years. Subsequently, the play won a Tony nomination for best play, as well as an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay when the movie version was produced in 1986. The Miss Firecracker Contest, another Henley play that was produced in 1980, was also made into a movie in 1989.
In addition to her continued work in playwriting, Henley has written screenplays and television scripts. In most of her work, Henley gives the lead roles to women. Most of her works can be classified as Southern literature because they are set in the South and expertly reproduce Southern dialect and colloquialisms. Further, they can be considered Southern Gothic because death and freakish disaster permeate the plots, adding to a comic style that has the audience laughing at the humor and wincing at the pathos at the same time. Her characters tend to be misfits who, like real people, are not always successful in overcoming their flaws. Nonetheless, Henley treats them with compassion and optimism.
Act 1, Scene 1
As The Miss Firecracker Contest opens, Carnelle Scott is practicing her talent routine for the upcoming Fourth of July beauty pageant in Brookhaven, Mississippi. A seamstress, Popeye Jackson, arrives and Carnelle hires her to make a pageant costume. As Popeye takes measurements, she tells Carnelle that she got her sewing start making outfits for bullfrogs. Popeye comments that the house is scary, and Carnelle explains that it belonged to her recently deceased Aunt Ronelle. Carnelle adds that her aunt's cancer treatment involved a pituitary gland transplant from a monkey that resulted in Ronelle "growing long, black hairs all over her body." The dialogue continues to reveal how Carnelle was orphaned and grew up with her aunt, uncle, and the two cousins she adores. Popeye notices a picture of Carnelle's cousin Delmount and falls in love immediately. Carnelle reveals that Delmount has recently been released from a mental institution.
Then Carnelle's other cousin, Elain, arrives unexpectedly. Elain won the town beauty contest fifteen years earlier. In discussions of the pageant, it is revealed that Carnelle has a promiscuous past that might keep her from winning. Elain admits that she has left her husband and two sons. Popeye comes back to find Delmount and explains to him how she got her nickname. Delmount tells Carnelle that he has returned to sell the house but will give her half of the proceeds to help her move away from Brookhaven. Carnelle gets the idea of winning the contest as a way to leave in a "blaze of glory." Delmount also lashes into Elain for not helping him to get out of the mental hospital.
Act 1, Scene 2
The next Saturday, Carnelle awaits the phone call that will tell her she has made it into the contest finals. While they wait, Elain takes a phone call from her husband and tells him that she is not coming home. Delmount is thrilled though he knows that Elain never follows through on her plans. They fight over memories of their mother. Popeye arrives, and since the phone call is well past due, everyone assumes that Carnelle did not make the Page 163 | Top of Article finals. Popeye reveals to Elain and Carnelle that she is in love with Delmount. Elain tells Popeye that Delmount is unstable. Popeye tries to talk to Delmount about his poetry and his nightmares, but he leaves with a headache. Elain tries to console Carnelle and Popeye. Then the phone call finally comes announcing that Carnelle has made the pageant finals. A celebration ensues, which Delmount fails to appreciate.
Act 2, Scene 1
At the pageant, Carnelle talks over the different contestants' chances with the pageant coordinator, Tessy. Then, Carnelle's former lover, Mac Sam, drops by her dressing room but leaves when Delmount arrives excited about the success of the auction of his mother's things. They also discuss the contestants before Carnelle reveals that Popeye is in love with Delmount. Elain arrives to announce that she has been asked to give a speech about her life as a beauty queen. Delmount and Mac Sam hunt down Popeye to repair the dress Elain has loaned to Carnelle. A wild scene ensues as Carnelle, way behind schedule, frantically tries to get dressed as everyone offers advice.
Act 2, Scene 2
The pageant unfolds. Carnelle trips and falls on her face. The crowd laughs, calls her "Miss Hot Tamale" and throws things at her. Delmount attacks the worst tormentor but is pelted with rocks until Mac Sam rescues him. Popeye and Elain comically try to treat his wound, then discuss how Popeye lost her job. Mac Sam proceeds to do smoke ring tricks, and Delmount follows by wiggling his ears. Carnelle returns to the stage just as Elain receives flowers from her husband. She has decided to go back to him because she knows she is used to the life he can give her. Carnelle's dance routine is a hit with the crowd, and her expectations are raised again. However, she comes in last in the contest. Although the others tell her she does not have to suffer more humiliation by following the float in the parade, Carnelle insists that she must follow the rules.
Act 2, Scene 3
Carnelle runs off to hide after she spat and screamed at rude bystanders during the parade. Elain goes off to meet Mac Sam for a once-in-her-life fling. Delmount and Popeye go to see the fireworks together. Carnelle sneaks back into the
dressing room to retrieve her things, but Mac Sam finds her there and asks her for one more night together. She declines, planning to go home, but Delmount and Popeye talk her into joining them. As they watch the fireworks, Carnelle confesses to not knowing the point of it all, but they all agree it is a nice night out.
Popeye is the seamstress who makes Carnelle's costume; she becomes involved in the pageant madness while adding further strange elements to the story. A funny character with a hard life, Popeye got her nickname from a childhood prank that caused her eyes to bulge, but left her with the ability to hear through her eyes. She is a semi-literate, naïve, and always out-of-luck young woman who learned to sew as a child by making outfits for bullfrogs because she didn't have any dolls. Popeye is sincerely Page 164 | Top of Article kind and curious about everything. Popeye falls in love with Delmount just from seeing his picture. Popeye is rewarded with Delmount's returned affection; this theme is perhaps the heart of the play.
As the beauty contestant coordinator, Tessy is supposed to keep Carnelle on schedule and cue her appearances on stage. Tessy's ugliness makes her another misfit at the beauty contest. Her past scandalous tryst with Delmount adds one more bizarre twist as she flirts with him anew.
Elain is Carnelle's cousin, and she is everything that Carnelle is not. Although they grew up together, Elain was the spoiled beauty and Carnelle the misfortunate orphan. Elain won the Miss Firecracker contest when she was just 17, while Carnelle is 25 and pushing the eligibility limits. Elain did everything her mother told her to do by going to junior college and parleying her beauty into marriage with a wealthy man. To Carnelle, it appears that Elain has everything: the big house in the big city, a husband and children, beauty, and class. Elain, however, feels suffocated by her life and comes back home with the intention of leaving her husband and two sons because she doesn't like them. Naturally, she is asked to give a speech at the town's Fourth of July festivities about her life as a beauty. Delmount accuses Elain of never being able to go through with any of her threats. As predicted, she gives in to her husband's pleadings and decides to go back to him because, she says, "I need someone who adores me." Her selfishness enables her to dismiss the needs of her family, but doesn't allow her to leave the luxuries to which she has become accustomed.
One of Carnelle's former lovers, Mac Sam seems to truly care about her, even if she did give him syphilis. The carnival's balloon vendor, he cheers on Carnelle as she competes in the beauty contest. Mac Sam is tubercular, drinks heavily, and hasn't bothered to get his syphilis cured because he is tired of life—but not so tired that he doesn't ask Carnelle to spend the night with him. When she declines and says goodbye, he remarks: "I'll always remember you as the one who could take it on the chin" and then he leaves to meet Elain for a wild night.
The play revolves around Carnelle's attempt to win her town's annual Fourth of July beauty contest. She is 25 years old, works in a jewelry store, and is known around town as "Miss Hot Tamale" for her promiscuous past. However, Carnelle is trying to change all that. She got her syphilis cured, joined a church, volunteers for the cancer society, and invites an orphan to dinner every week. Carnelle is insecure and has low self-esteem. After Carnelle's mother died when Carnelle was an infant and her father abandoned her at age nine, she grew up with her aunt who favored Carnelle's older cousin, Elain. Her father came back after her Uncle George died, but soon her father died as well. Shortly before the time of the story, Carnelle's mean Aunt Ronelle dies. Having been surrounded by death all her life, Carnelle is trying to make sense out of life and find her own identity. Carnelle sees the Miss Firecracker contest as a way to redeem herself and to be somebody. She doesn't understand that the social system will never permit her to win, that dyeing her hair bright red will look ridiculous instead of patriotic, or that stomping her feet to music is not tap dancing. Once her cousin Delmount offers to give her enough Page 165 | Top of Article money to start a new life elsewhere, Carnelle further imagines that being Miss Firecracker will allow her to go out in a "blaze of glory." Instead, after working really hard to prepare, she is humiliated by the crowd and finishes in last place. Although she has enough integrity to fulfill the duties of the person in last place, she spits and screams at the people who taunt her during the parade and then hides. Carnelle's tenacity evokes the loyalty of family and friends. They admire Carnelle's spunk and the indomitable spirit that enables her to spring back, even after the mortification of the pageant, to enjoy the night's fireworks.
After he has spent time in a mental institution and worked at a job scraping dead animals off the road, Carnelle's cousin and Elain's brother, Delmount returns to town to sell his mother's house. He intends to use the proceeds to go to college to study philosophy, but he offers half the proceeds to Carnelle to enable her to leave town and start a new life. Although perhaps more realistic than the rest of his family, Delmount is unstable and has a history of rash actions, such as rushing out to beat up the guys who taunt Carnelle during the pageant. He also has an obsession with exotic beauty that always gets him into trouble and results in gruesome nightmares about women's dismembered bodies. Yet, Delmount has a sensible disdain for the phoniness of the beauty pageant. He doesn't respect Elain's life choices either, especially the one that left him in an asylum when she could have gotten him out. However, he always forgives her transgressions. Delmount is amazed to learn that Popeye is in love with him, having been entranced with his ability to wiggle his ears and write poetry. But he then falls for her, too, and therein might be Delmount's redemption.
A common theme in the works of Beth Henley is that her characters are seeking their identity, particularly the female lead seeks her identity as a woman outside of her family and her relationships with men. In The Miss Firecracker Contest, Carnelle is trying to find an identity other than orphaned cousin, other than "Miss Hot Tamale," and other than the ugly loser she sees herself to be. She does not find her identity in a beauty title, but she may yet find it with the help of her family and friends and her resilient nature. Elain is seeking an identity as her real and complete self as a woman rather than that of the proper wife and mother. However, Elain doesn't have the courage to leave her security for any longer than a one-night fling. Her identity is tied up with being adored; therefore, she must go back to the life that sets her on a pedestal—a miserable pedestal, but a pedestal nonetheless. Delmount is also seeking a new identity. He wants to go to college to study philosophy and try to find a new life away from the Page 166 | Top of Article claims and labels put on him by his hometown. His new identity, though, may be a reflection of Popeye's love. It is typical of Henley that, although some of her characters succeed in their quest for identity, they usually do so only partially and with compromises.
True beauty, and the only kind that should count ultimately, is internal. Unfortunately, internal beauty is hard to discern, and an awful lot of fuss is made over the external kind. Consequently, Carnelle, who has worshipped her beautiful cousin since childhood, and witnessed the perfect life that beauty has supposedly brought to Elain, thinks that physical beauty is all that matters. Carnelle says, "I feel sorry for ugly people, I really do." So, she is intent on proving her beauty even though she worries that she is actually ugly herself. As a teenager, she sought affirmation from men, only to discover that they were after her "carnal" beauty. In a desperate effort to redeem her reputation, Carnelle again tries to prove that she has physical beauty as well as the other features that the community finds attractive. When that fails, Henley gives ample evidence of the beauty of friendship—through Mac Sam's tribute when he says that Carnelle can really take it on the chin and through the comradeship that Carnelle finds with Delmount and Popeye as they watch the fireworks. In the process, Henley pokes fun at the culture's vanity while simultaneously showing the insidious harm that it does. For example, Elain's speech about life as a beauty makes it seem that she doesn't have to be anything else; she has an excuse for not following other dreams. Elain has found sufficient power in being beautiful to satisfy her needs, but she is stuck with being Miss Firecracker all her life. Carnelle has escaped that label, albeit painfully, and is still free to mature as a woman.
The Need to be Loved
Carnelle has a desperate need to be loved. She grew up without the love of parents and with the disdain of her aunt. Consequently, she looked for love in one sexual affair after another. Once she realized that promiscuity brought her only disgrace and the nickname "Miss Hot Tamale," she sought a form of love through acceptance. Carnelle wants to belong to her community, so she joins a church and does charitable work. The ultimate sign of acceptance, though, would be winning the Miss Firecracker Contest and becoming queen of Brookhaven, Mississippi.
Elain also has a need to be loved, but not in the form of admiration for her beauty or the silly infatuation of her husband. Unfortunately, Elain has only a brief exposure to this awareness before she decides that her greater need is to be adored and pampered as the icon of Southern femininity that she has set herself up to be. Delmount also has a need to be loved, but he is so frightened and confused by his sexual fantasies that he doesn't realize his need to be loved until he is confronted with the true love of Popeye. Luckily, Delmount seems to instantly succumb to the power of innocent love, indicating that there might be hope for him.
A foil is a character whose personality or physical qualities obviously contrast and thereby emphasize those of another character. Elain serves as the foil to Carnelle. Carnelle thinks that Elain has everything that a woman could want: beauty, a rich husband, a big house, pretty clothes, a place in the best social circles, and the title of Miss Firecracker. Carnelle worries that she is ugly while Elain can give a speech on her life as a beauty. Elain has done everything according to propriety, while Carnelle has made herself a social outcast because of her promiscuous past. Carnelle is single, lives in her aunt's house by the charity of her cousins, and apparently has trashy taste. In the end, however, Carnelle has achieved more personal success than Elain because Carnelle has dared to take a risk while Elain feels trapped in her life.
The Miss Firecracker Contest fits into the genre of Southern literature because it is about the Southern United States and is written by a playwright who was reared in the South. The play uses Page 167 | Top of Article Southern voice and dialect, which Henley accomplishes precisely. In addition, a characteristic of Southern literature that applies to this play is the importance of family: Carnelle lives in her aunt's house and idolizes the two cousins who are important characters in the play. Another characteristic is a sense of community: Carnelle's whole world is the town of Brookhaven, Mississippi, as well as her reputation in it, and her efforts to gain acceptance through one of the town's biggest community events, the annual beauty contest. A sense of human limitation or moral dilemma is also characteristic of Southern literature. The story of The Miss Firecracker Contest is built around the limitations of its characters and their search for their identities.
Critics often discuss the elements of Southern Gothic in Henley's work, i.e., stories that include grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents. In the case of The Miss Firecracker Contest, there are numerous references to incidents such as Aunt Ronelle's hairy illness, the bizarre ways Carnelle's uncle and father died, Popeye's eyes and her frog costumes, Delmount's bloody dreams, the Mahoney sisters' deformed kittens, and so on. In Henley's hands, these elements are used for comic effect, but they also serve to point out the sad and pathetic nature of the characters' lives, as well as their resilience.
The 1970s was a period of recovery, as well as continued turmoil, for the American people. The 1960s had been violent, troubled times that saw three major political assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and anti-war demonstrations. The pendulum swung back towards conservatism with the election of Richard Nixon for president in 1968. However, his administration was riddled with scandal, resulting first in the resignation of the vice-president and eventually in the resignation of the president himself. The Watergate investigation led the headlines for months while Gerald Ford, the first president ever to serve without having been elected to the office, or even that of the vice-president, tried to restore normalcy. Ford was replaced by Jimmy Carter, the first Southern president since before the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Carter was successful in negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel, but wasn't successful in getting the American hostages freed from Iran until the day he relinquished his office to Ronald Reagan in 1981. The sexual and technological revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as integration, changed the culture of the United States. In the process, the job market developed more openings that could be filled by women just as women were demanding more opportunities.
The Climate for Women Playwrights
In the 1970s, Beth Henley wrote her first plays, including The Miss Firecracker Contest, which is set in no particular time period. This play needs little adjustment, if any, as the times change. By 1980, Henley had two plays going on stage. In 1981, she won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama, but she was the first woman to do so in twenty-three years. The situation for women playwrights was paradoxical. In the 1930s to the 1950s, the only female playwright of note was Lillian Hellman. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a noticeable proliferation of young women playwrights. Women were "in" to the point that plays by women of the 1960s were resurrected. However, their subjects were not necessarily about women or from a woman's perspective, as women writers tried to fit into the male-dominated mainstream. Despite the number of women writing plays, few were getting them produced on Broadway or in regional theatres. One had to look to Off- or Off-Off Broadway to see a play written by a woman. Although two more women playwrights won Pulitzers in the 1980s (Marsha Norman in 1983 and Wendy Wasserstein in 1989), by the end of the decade only 7 percent of the plays on stage nationwide were written by women. This male dominance continues into the 2000s. Another three women won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama around the turn of the century (Paula Vogel in 1998; Margaret Edson in 1999; Suzan-Lori Parks in 2002). Despite this, only 17 percent of plays in production in America in 2002 were written by female playwrights.
The Culture of Beauty Pageants
Beauty pageants, although held across the country, are more of a Southern phenomenon, perhaps because the image of a Southern lady can be taught through these events. As anthropologist Robert H. Lavenda explained: "Small-town pageants are about social class, achievement, community values, and femininity in a small-town context, and they are training for the social positions toward which many of the candidates aspire." Furthermore, and this is a Page 168 | Top of Article point that Carnelle didn't realize in the play, "The pageant is not designed to select the most beautiful young woman in town, but rather a suitable representative for the community." Often, suitability is determined by the importance of the candidates' families. Carnelle kept going over the list of finalists and comparing herself to the others in terms of beauty. She thought she had a real chance to win because she was sure she was prettier than the others. Realistically, however, as Elain feared, Carnelle came in last due to the bad reputation, which made her the least representative of the values of the community. Young women enter these contests, as Carnelle does, because they have something to prove, or because they need to be loved and think adulation will be a sufficient substitute. Fortunately for Carnelle, she realizes, albeit too late, that such a contest can be ludicrous when one has the love of friends and family.
Critical reactions to The Miss Firecracker Contest have been mixed. Among the favorable reactions is Page 169 | Top of Article a 1994 English Studies article that praises The Miss Firecracker Contest for the "depths in even the most objectionable characters and the enormous toughness in some of life's apparent losers." Furthermore, the article asserts that Henley "puts most faith in friendship … Brutal conditions cannot destroy their victims as long as emotional support comes from somewhere."
In contrast, Harry Bowman, writing for the Dallas Morning News declared that The Miss Firecracker Contest has no heart and no point. The reviewer found the characters to be "strange and weird" caricatures who fail to become human. "Carnelle becomes just another simpleton. And not a very appealing one at that. She has a strident edge that keeps snagging on the viewer's sensibilities." Patrick Taggert, the reviewer for the Austin American-Statesman, admits that "You either love [Henley's] grotesque characters and frenzied action or you hate them," but he also said that she carves "up Southern manners and archetypes" in The Miss Firecracker Contest. Moreover, her characters
seldom speak below a loud roar, never know a subtle gesture. She cartoonishly savages her characters, all the while making feeble attempts to show how innately noble these poor pieces of trash really are. How does she illuminate this nobility? With the occasionally insightful line of dialogue or a phony, late-hour epiphany, as when Carnelle realizes she doesn't have to belong to anything, least of all her crazy community.
Ironically, Carnelle's realization about the value of independence comes after she has pursued fitting into her community by conforming to its values. It is a feminist lesson, but feminists have not been certain that Henley's plays are feminist. Yes, they have strong female lead characters, but Elain's attempt at rebelling against social conventions fails, and she resigns herself to her stereotyped role. Carnelle, instead of asserting a lesson learned or a life transformed, says at the end of the play, "I don't know what the main thing is. I don't have the vaguest idea." A discussion about The Miss Firecracker Contest in Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition concludes that the play conveys "nostalgia for the traditional family" and an admiration for "a determined, if pathetic, quest for and celebration of female identity." Furthermore, Henley parodies female sexuality: "Carnelle suffers for illicit sex and finds affirmation only in family at play's and quest's end."
Paul Rosenfeldt, writing in The Absent Father in Modern Drama, a book that examines "the pattern of the absent father" that appears to span
"the scope of modern drama," finds this pattern in Henley's works. Certainly, in The Miss Firecracker Contest this absence is emphasized. Carnelle's father leaves her with relatives. After Elain and Delmount's father dies, Carnelle's father returns, but he also dies soon after. However, it should be noted that the mothers, too, are both deceased. Further, this book purports that, "Unlike the American son, the American daughter of the absent father lives in a world where there is no possibility of escape through space and distance." In The Miss Firecracker Contest, Henley implies that Carnelle may yet escape.
Other criticism about Henley's plays as a body of work runs the gamut from positive to negative. The Austin American-Statesman declared that Henley's works are "heavy-handed, offensive and alternately sickly sweet and sneering," while other critics comment on Henley's clearly delineated characters, heartwarming stories, compassionate portrayal of human failings, and optimistic endings. The New York Times review expresses the confusion of elements that may be the cause of the varied reactions:
We hear about midgets, orphans, and deformed kittens—and they're the fortunate ones. Other characters, Page 170 | Top of Article whether on stage or off, are afflicted by cancer, tuberculosis, venereal disease, and most of all, heartbreak. Even so, the evening's torrential downpour of humor—alternately Southern-Gothic absurdist, melancholy and broad—almost never subsides.
Generally, the critics talk about Henley's place in Southern literature. She has been compared to Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner. However, Richard Schickel, writing for Time speculates that
Though [Henley's] territory looks superficially like the contemporary American South, it is really a country of the mind: one of Tennessee Williams' provinces that has surrendered to a Chekhovian raiding party, perhaps. Her strength is a wild anecdotal inventiveness, but her people, lost in the ramshackle drams and tumble-down ambitions with which she invests them, often seem to be metaphors waywardly adrift. They are blown this way and that by the gales of laughter they provoke, and they frequently fail to find a solid connection with clear and generally relevant meaning.
As a living author who continues to write steadily, Henley and her works cannot yet be fully assessed. However, William Demastes, author of a book on the new realism in American theatre, is probably right to assume that Henley will continue to "draw from and build upon her small-town world of Mississippi and use her uniquely trained eyes to perceive in that microcosm the modern absurdities of existence."
Kerschen is a freelance writer and adjunct college English instructor. In this essay, Kerschen shows how Henley uses each character and bizarre anecdotes to create both the comedy and the message in this play.
A constant litany of the bizarre runs through Henley's dialogue. Her plays are sometimes called tragi-comedies, or black comedies, because the humor is achieved through eccentric characters who have experienced strange incidents in their lives. These incidents, often involving violence and death, are sprinkled throughout the play for their comedic effect and for what they reveal about the characters. Some critics find this technique to be too much, but others appreciate the creativity and enjoy the anecdotes that range from the merely unusual to the outright ludicrous. Nothing is anywhere near normal for Henley's characters: Carnelle has dyed her hair bright red, Delmount can wiggle his ears, Popeye has bulging eyes, Mac Sam is riddled with diseases, and perfect Elain is emotionally frigid and completely self-centered. They can't even find plain ice to put on Delmount's wound. Instead they use a purple snow cone—they were out of cherry, Popeye explains, as if that makes perfect sense.
The element of death is introduced early when Carnelle gets acquainted with Popeye and tells her matter-of-factly that "people've been dying practically all my life. I guess I should be used to it by now." Carnelle's mother died when she was barely a year old. After Carnelle came to live with the Williams family, her Uncle George fell "to his death trying to pull this bird's nest out from the chimney." Then her father "drops dead in the summer's heat while running out to the Tropical Ice Cream truck." Popeye commiserates by telling how her own brother died when he was bitten by a water moccasin.
Aunt Ronelle is an influential character in the play, even though she is also dead. Robert Andreach, in a book about creating the self in contemporary drama, explains that Aunt Ronelle reared Carnelle to feel "inferior to her two cousins. To compensate, [Carnelle] concentrated on the one area where she felt that she could excel: with the males in the town." Aunt Ronelle's importance to the characters is evident from the number of times she and her fatal illness are mentioned. Carnelle tells Popeye about Aunt Ronelle in the opening scene when Popeye observes that the house is scary. It seems that her aunt had cancer of the pituitary gland, so surgeons replaced it with one from a monkey. The transplant lengthened her life only a month or so and had the "dreadful" side effect of causing her to grow long, black hairs all over her body just like an ape. This event is a source of conflict between Elain and Delmount, who have the typical sibling argument about who Mama loved best. Delmount thinks their mother had the embarrassing transplant just to be mean to them. But Elain ennobles the experience by repeating as an adage, in various forms throughout the play that "Mama was enlightened by her affliction."
According to critic Patrick Taggert, writing for the Austin American-Statesman, Delmount "seems to serve no other purpose than to permit Henley to have at least one character yelling and throwing things." While that is not exactly the case, it is true that Henley tends to use her male characters to Page 171 | Top of Article catalyze the action of the female characters. In that light, Delmount has a problem with women. His confusion fits in perfectly with the women around him, who are also confused about themselves. Delmount claims that he has "a weakness for the classical, exotic beauty in a woman. I've been a fool for it. It's my romantic nature." Yet he has dreams about dismembered women. Linda Rohrer Paige in Feminist Writers speculates that "Delmount's imagination can envision women only from a limited, warped, or distorted perspective." Delmount is conflicted by the patriarchal image of women; this is the image he has been taught to use as a standard of beauty. This is at odds with his intuitive understanding that there is more to beauty than the cultural stereotype. Consequently, when a woman doesn't fit into his preconceived mold, in his dreams she becomes, as Paige surmises, "violently fragmented, disembodied, a portrait of beauty aborted."
Delmount's problem may be cured by Popeye. She isn't a classic beauty, or even a beauty, and it could hardly be said that her bulging eyes are "exotic." However, Popeye's love for Delmount may be just what he needs to get over his unrealistic expectations about women. It is poetic justice that he should fall in love with someone so outside his image of a beautiful woman. Perhaps by breaking away from the confines of his rigid expectations, he will break free from a number of his neuroses. One thing that Delmount and Popeye have in common is that they are both social outcasts who cannot imagine what is so important about the Miss Firecracker contest.
Popeye may be a calmer, more down-to-earth person than the others in the play, but her anecdotes reveal her off-kilter perspective. First we learn that she practiced sewing as a child by making clothes for bullfrogs because she didn't have any dolls. At one time she had a boyfriend who wanted her to meow and purr and liked to pet her as if she were a cat. Fortunately, Popeye recognized that behavior as weird. The reason for her name is a tragic tale in itself. Her brother threw some gravel into her eyes and then treated the stinging pain with ear drops instead of eye drops. From that point on her eyes bulged out, so people started calling her Popeye. Page 172 | Top of Article She may have to use a magnifying glass to see up close, but she can now hear voices through her eyes, a unique talent indeed.
The character of Delmount further deals with the problem of beauty in his relationship with his sister. In large measure, Delmount gets his image of beauty from Elain. But he sees how messed-up beauty has made Elain and that adds to his confusion about beauty. Delmount loves his sister, but she left him in a mental institution when she had the power to get him out. He hates her for that, but as he says, he always forgives her for everything she does. "You'd think," he complains, "after you left me in that lunatic asylum, I'd know better than to trust you." Does he forgive her because she is his sister, or because beautiful people always get away with the harm they cause? Delmount, like the rest of society, may give latitude to some people just because they are beautiful. But he is left wondering how far anyone can trust beauty. Perhaps that is why Delmount falls for Popeye—her trustworthiness is ultimately more attractive than physical beauty.
The part of Mac Sam is a small one; he doesn't even appear until the second act. Nonetheless, he, too, is a male character who is useful to the plot. His most important purpose is to deliver the line to Carnelle, "I'll always remember you as the one who could take it on the chin." He also catalyzes the action by bringing the frog to Carnelle, thus letting her know that Popeye is somewhere nearby. Mac Sam provides a sympathetic male ear for Delmount, serves as Carnelle's biggest cheerleader, but he is also a link to her promiscuous past. Mac Sam also provides Elain with her one reckless night under the wisteria trees.
The story that Popeye tells about the midgets is a perfect example of Henley's style. It starts out as a cute story about two midgets, Sweet Pea and Willas, who marry and move into a darling little house made for their size. Then the story turns tragic: their child is born "regular size" like all their relatives and soon outgrows their "mite sized furniture." Consequently, they have to relinquish their child to Sweet Pea's mother to rear, and their hearts are broken. With this anecdote, the audience is moved from sweetly funny to sadly painful. Perhaps this anecdote is a mini-lesson in the midst of the running message that Henley wants the audience to understand: that being different, ugly, odd, or quirky can be difficult at best and excruciatingly demoralizing at worst. Henley may exaggerate the strangeness of her characters, but the point is that we all have our odd traits, yet we are still lovable, worthwhile people.
This technique is used in reverse in Carnelle's story. She was an unwanted child abandoned by her father with nothing but a pillow case full of dirty rags. She had ringworms all over her head, so Aunt Ronelle shaved off her hair to treat the sores. Carnelle went around wearing a yellow wool knit cap pulled down over her head. Delmount said she was an ugly sight and never did attain any self-esteem. He says she had to "sleep with every worthless soul in Brookhaven trying to prove she was attractive." With the beauty contest, Carnelle has once again chosen the wrong way to prove herself and winds up with just more humiliation. Instead of a yellow wool cap, she wears a faded red dress that doesn't fit and then she trips on the hoop skirt and falls flat on her face. Nonetheless, her natural resilience is already bringing her back to hopefulness within a few hours after the pageant. On one of the worst days of her life, Carnelle looks up at the fireworks and says, "Gosh, it's a nice night." She still has no idea what it all means, but the audience is left with the impression that she will keep trying to find out.
Henley's signature is not only her weird humor but also her optimism. The anecdotes may often be sickening and sad, but they make a point while also somehow being funny and upbeat. Some of her characters may fail temporarily in their attempts to solve their problems, but in The Miss Firecracker Contest, the band of strange underdogs has taken steps forward together that may get them there someday.
Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on The Miss Firecracker Contest, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Catherine Dybiec Holm
Holm is a fiction and nonfiction writer and editor. In this essay, Holm looks at how Henley treats the theme of appearance in this play.
The Miss Firecracker Contest is a play about appearances. Appearances, literal and figurative, drive the lives and the motivations of these characters. Appearances make or break these people. The effects of appearances in these characters' pasts continue to haunt them and direct their choices and thoughts. It is no doubt intentional that the title of the play, and the event that the title refers to, is a beauty and talent contest. Even more interesting is the fact that this could easily have been a play about one main character's struggle with her own appearance. But in this play Henley gives her reader lots to think about. Even the secondary characters in this play change as a result of the Miss Firecracker contest and its consequences.
Carnelle starts out as a terribly insecure character who is utterly convinced that the Miss Firecracker contest is the one and only way to erase her "hot tamale" past. Her insecurities are apparent in the first few pages of the play. Carnelle badly wants Popeye to know how special and important the upcoming Miss Firecracker contest is. When Popeye hesitates in her responses or does not respond the way Carnelle expects, Carnelle gets uncomfortable. Carnelle is interrupted in the middle of her routine by Popeye's arrival, and it almost seems as if Carnelle wants, or hopes, for glowing accolades from Popeye. Popeye, on the other hand, seems unconcerned with appearances or affectations; her answers and her dialog throughout the play are usually direct and to the point.
Carnelle: Wheew! Oh, and please excuse the way I look, but I've been practicing my routine. It's coming right along.
Carnelle (after an awkward moment): Well, I guess what I should do is show you some sketches.
Carnelle seems to overreact with exaggerated disappointment when Popeye admits that she has never heard of the contest. However, Carnelle is almost ridiculously relieved when Popeye admits that she has only been in town for a few weeks and probably would not have known about the contest.
Carnelle is so insecure that she cannot bear the thought that her world and her efforts might actually be small and inconsequential. Based on her hopes for her looks, Carnelle hopes to put her past behind her, win the contest, and leave the town and her old life behind in a "blaze of glory." The power of firecrackers and the power that Carnelle might achieve if she is indeed able to leave in a "blaze of glory" is alluded to in several different ways. The color red indicates fire, or a blaze. Carnelle is referred to as "Carnation." Carnelle wears a red dress of Elain's during part of the contest. Carnelle spits and hisses like a firecracker when she is heckled cruelly by the crowd. Carnelle does leave "in a blaze," though it is not the blaze she originally imagined.
Carnelle is also not confident about her looks and seems to take comfort in talking about how other people think she could have been a model. She is so lost in her own reverie that she is startled when Popeye tries to get her to relax.
Carnelle: They say, "You should be up in Memphis working as a model. You really should."
Popeye: (Trying to get Carnelle to relax her tightly tucked in stomach) You can just relax.
Carnelle: What? Oh, I'm fine. Just fine.
When Popeye tells of sewing clothing for bullfrogs, Carnelle tries to make a joke of it, but her insecurity about her appearance leaks through again. Popeye, who is unfettered by any worries about her own appearance, completely misses the fine line that Carnelle walks between attempted humor and sad insecurity.
Carnelle: Well, I certainly hope you don't think of me as any bullfrog.
Carnelle: I mean, think I'm ugly like one of those dumb bullfrogs of yours.
Popeye: Oh, I don't.
Carnelle: Well, of course you don't. I was just joking.Page 174 | Top of Article
Carnelle (suddenly very sad and uncomfortable): Are you about done?
Brought face to face with her insecurities about her appearance and her life, Carnelle throws in a spontaneous kick, knowing it is one thing she can do better than others can do. Throughout the play, Carnelle continually compares herself to the other contestants. Missy is ugly but can play the piano. Another girl is pretty but has yellow teeth. The reader gets the sense that Carnelle is hanging onto what little esteem she can carve out for herself. Carnelle achieves her esteem at the end of the play through the catharsis of her own anger and the realization that "I was trying so hard t'belong all my life."
It is interesting that the two least outwardly attractive characters in this play seem completely unconcerned about their appearances. Popeye wears thick-rimmed glasses and eccentric and non-stylish clothes but seems to move through the world innocently and removed from society's judgement about appearances. Mac Sam unselfconsciously coughs up clots of blood in all kinds of company and jokes about taking bets on which of his body organs will disintegrate first. Both of these characters have a compelling inner quality, however, that Carnelle and Elaine and Delmount do not realize within themselves until the end of the play.
Popeye is described as a "small glowing person." There is a compelling quality to Popeye that makes the reader take notice of her, even though she is plainer than Carnelle and Carnelle's extended family. Popeye hears voices in her eyes, and she is aware enough to be scared by the feeling inside Carnelle's house, even though Popeye knows nothing of the tumultuous history in that home. Popeye looks at a picture of Delmount and knows instantly that she is in love. Popeye seems to be guided by an inner clarity that the better looking characters in the play lack.
Mac Sam, for his stooped appearance, constant cough, and emaciation, still has eyes that are "magnetic and bloodshot at the same time." Mac Sam is "extraordinarily sensual," which makes him interesting in this play. He manages to be attractive in spite of his looks.
Delmount is so obsessed with appearance that he will not make advances toward any woman who does not possess "at least one classically beautiful characteristic." He alternately dreams of beautiful women and ugly women and, in a moment of confusion, seduces the town's ugly twins, Tessy and Missy. Delmount is also obsessed with repressing his own insanity, symbolically represented by his attempts to straighten his wild and curly hair. Elain calls him on his own internal struggle, when both Delmount and Elain are close to making important realizations about themselves.
Elain: So why do you straighten your wild hair? Why do you have horrible, sickening dreams about pieces of women's bodies? Some all beautiful, some all mutilated and bloody. I hate those dreams. They scare me.
In the end, Delmount dreams a magnificent dream of Popeye, a woman who he would have formerly not given a second look. Delmount falls in love with Popeye, somehow managing to bypass his former obsession with perfection in appearance. Popeye, with her own unerring inner voice, seems as if she knew that eventually her love for Delmount would be returned.
Elain's dialog takes a leap into a more honest realm as she finally leaves the superficial level that she had inhabited for so long and makes plans for a tryst with Mac Sam. "I'm gonna be a reckless girl at least once in my dreary, dreary life," she says. Elain has taken her own journey from her original role as a beauty queen. In the beginning of the play, Elain feels burdened by her pretty face and her own good looks. Even so, she is thrilled to be chosen to speak about beauty at the contest. After the fiasco at the Miss Firecracker contest, Elain ruefully admits that Carnelle probably will not have much reason to admire her anymore.
Mac Sam is less concerned with appearance than Delmount, Elain, and Carnelle start out. All Mac Sam likes is a woman who can "take it right slap on the chin." This foreshadows Carnelle's experience in the Miss Firecracker contest, when she is taunted, heckled, and pelted with peanuts. She reacts by fighting back and spitting like a firecracker, giving a double meaning to the title, and an allusion to a new strength that Carnelle has found inside herself.
Carnelle: I'd never been so mad as I was. And I spit out at everyone. I just spit at them. Oh! That's so awful it's almost funny!
Later, Mac Sam refers to her with real affection and alludes to his original mention of what he prefers in a woman, over appearances. He says to Carnelle, who has just departed, "Goodbye, Baby. I'll always remember you as the one who could take it on the chin."
The dichotomy that runs throughout this play is a theme of inner versus outer beauty. Surprisingly, Elain sums this up in reference to her own deceased mother, recalling that "Mama was at her most noblest when she was least attractive." The reader never meets this character but can easily picture the abusive mother who, for some reason, turned saint-like after an operation that left her with freakish side effects. Perhaps Henley is trying to say that unmarred by outer beauty, a character's inner beauty may more easily shine through to the surface. The Miss Firecracker Contest uses the themes of outer and inner appearances to guide these characters' journeys toward a realization of true beauty.
Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on The Miss Firecracker Contest, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Linda Rohrer Paige
In the following excerpt, Paige examines how the film version of The Miss Firecracker Contest focuses primarily on Carnelle and how the story is changed and cleaned up.
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Robert L. McDonald
In the following essay, McDonald explores the impetus behind characters seeking public attention in The Miss Firecracker Contest.
Tennessee Williams, perhaps as sensitively as any writer we have had, expressed the conflicts arising from the public tidiness, the emphasis on image, that southern culture has traditionally demanded of its gentlemen and women. Williams himself felt the scrutiny of the public eye immediately with the success of The Glass Menagerie, and succumbed to what he later called "the catastrophe of Success," a life founded more on image than substance. It took a while for him to discover and admit the hard lesson about self-abnegation, about the falseness of "the public Somebody you are when you 'have a name,"' as he put it. Many of his characters, particularly the women, seem controlled by the need to keep "the public Somebody" intact, even as the real self—what Williams called "the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath"—begins to atrophy. Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and even Maggie the Cat: these women seem tragically obligated to the mythology of the Southern Lady, ever conscious of the preeminence of the unruffled public persona.
In the world of Williams's spiritual heir, fellow Mississippian Beth Henley, we are offered a different understanding of the importance of image. In plays such as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams treats the disintegration of the southern aristocracy and the consequent socioeconomic and moral decline of the family. Henley's characters inhabit the spaces—exemplified by the abandoned, dilapidated ancestral homes we see in Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest—where Williams left his fallen, broken gentility. Her primary characters are the next generation, the less pretentious blue-collar sons and daughters of the New South. They are rougher around the edges in speech, action, and appearance, without the kinds of masks worn by Williams's characters, because they are farther away, in both time and spirit, from the ideals that required them. Henley's characters live in a more contemporary South that is, for better or worse, a less self-conscious South, one less inhibited by social forms and thus less restrictive of individualism.
In Henley's world, all the seams show, at times almost defiantly so. Impulse, if not instinct, seems often to govern a character's actions. We see this in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Crimes of the Heart Page 182 | Top of Article when Babe explains her reasons for shooting her husband, Zackery. Really, she has grown weary of their relationship and acts out of fear of Zackery's increasingly violent attitude toward her—which has included physical abuse—and his threats concerning her young black lover, Willie Jay. For the first half of the play, however, Babe is allowed to explain her actions by saying she shot her husband "'Cause I didn't like his looks. I just didn't like his looks," as she tells an unnerved but accepting Lenny. Here, propriety registers as unconventional and individually determined, with an implicit assumption that what people will say, or what reason might dictate, is less important than how legitimate the action feels to the actor. Henley once remarked, in fact, that her South was a place where the individual was permitted not just to exist but to insist upon expression:
Individuality or independence is applauded in the South much more so than in other places.… There's a wildness in us [humans generally] that we are always trying to subdue. It's important to have the ability to tell stories and do outrageous things like throw steaks out your plate-glass window.
Expressing that "wildness" or "outrageousness" has become Henley's trademark, particularly in her creation of young female characters who, in another generation, might have been demure southern ladies but who are now unapologetic for their tendency to draw attention to themselves with the unpredictable things they say and do. In Henly's world gaining attention is not only permissible, it can be admirable as evidence of a character's right to assert her individuality, her specialness. Again in Crimes of the Heart, for example, the MaGrath sisters' cousin Chick is alarmed that "today's paper" detailing Babe's shooting of Zackery is going to cause "some mighty negative publicity around this town," something she has called Babe's attention to in order to exact an acknowledgment of the humiliation the whole affair is sure to bring. But because Babe compares her predicament to the fabulous saga of her mother, who years earlier had mysteriously hanged herself and her old yellow cat in the basement, and had gotten "national coverage" for it, there is something closer to envy than to remorse in her reply to Chick: "I told her, 'Mama got national coverage! National!' And if Zackery wasn't a senator from Copiah County, I probably wouldn't even be getting statewide." Like her Mama, Babe had "had a bad day. A real bad day," and she had expressed it in a spectacle that would, in an oddly satisfying way, affirm her ability to act and not simply conform to a life that was unsatisfactory. If the community will be scandalized, the people who matter most to Babe, her sisters, are both just amazed (albeit in different ways):
Meg: … So, Babe shot Zackery Botrelle, the riches and most powerful man in all of Hazelhurst, slap in the gut. It's hard to believe.
Lenny: It certainly is. Little Babe—shooting off a gun.
Meg: Little Babe.
If the mantra of polite women in the South of Tennessee Williams was "to keep hold of myself," in Blanche's "faint" words to herself at the beginning of Streetcar, and to avoid at all costs any public attention other than platonic appreciations of beauty and grace, Beth Henley's characters operate in another South altogether. For there, participating in spectacle, even beckoning the spotlight by some flamboyance, is presented as a very natural means of developing and articulating self-worth, a means of transforming a character like "Little Babe" into a force to be reckoned with. One of the most artfully conceived sources of Henley's darkly offbeat humor is her characters' often desperate contrivances to draw attention to themselves, to whoop up some notice, a bit of publicity, in the name of confirmation and self-advertisement.
The very best example of this in Henley's corpus is The Miss Firecracker Contest, a play brimming with people demanding that we pay attention to them: from Popeye's weird life stories about how she got her name to Elain's generally supreme Page 183 | Top of Article presence as a beauty, "the most beautiful thing in the whole wide world," Tessy Mahone exclaims. There is even the asserted and oddly revered memory of Elain and Delmount's deceased mother, Carnelle's Aunt Ronelle, who is remembered not so much as a person—because she was, at best, an unpleasant one if you listen to her children—but as "a famous medical case." As Carnelle explains to Popeye, her aunt had experienced "dreadful side effects" when doctors tried to treat her cancer of the pituitary gland by replacing it with the gland of a monkey. It was a verifiable "tragedy," Carnelle says, definitely qualifying Aunt Ronelle as "A saint or an angel; one or the other," because she bore the burden publicly—a world away from the inviolable rule of keeping-up-appearances that hides Amanda Wingfield's desperation, keeps Miss DuBois's disintegration in the shadows, and installs the face of connubial bliss on the very frustrated Maggie Pollitt.
For Henley's characters, the public arena is a place of magic, to be exploited rather than avoided for its potential to reveal what might otherwise remain hidden and silent in their private lives. In fact, Carnelle's admiration for the way Aunt Ronelle handled herself during the trial of her illness, even emerging as something of a local celebrity, points to her own basic motivation for wanting to enter The Miss Firecraker Contest: to provide for a similar kind of public metamorphosis, replacing her well-worn (and admittedly well-earned) vernacular title of "Miss Hot Tamale" with something more appropriate to her newly uplifted self. When the legendary Elain insinuates that her cousin should not get her hopes up about the pageant, Carnelle responds bluntly:
I know why you're worried. You think I've ruined my chances, cause—'cause of my reputation.… Well, everyone knew I used to go out with lots of men and all that. Different ones. It's been a constant thing with me since I was young and—.… I just mention it because it's different now, since Aunt Ronelle died and since—I got that disease.… Anyway, I go to church now and I'm signed up to where I take an orphan home to dinner once a week or to a movie; and—and I work on the cancer drive here just like you do in Natchez.… My life has meaning.… Everything's changed. And being in that contest—it would be such an honor to me.
In preparation, Carnelle has dyed her hair an intense bright red and has been earnestly putting together her talent, which she describes as a "kind of a tap-dance-march-type-a-thing" choreographed to "The Star Spangled Banner." When the curtain rises, we see her practicing the routine, using a wooden spoon and stainless steel knives instead of the actual roman candle and sparklers she will ignite for the real performance. As she goes through the motions, she shouts, "'Pow,' each time she imagines [the roman candle] goes off."
Carnelle looks absurd—the dependably honest Delmount offers that her hair makes her "look like a bareback rider in the Shooley Traveling Carnival Show"—and her character might immediately dissolve into caricature if Henley had not endowed her so persuasively with a dream. From the first time we see her, even in the mania of the play's opening moments, there is something in Carnelle's earnestness that makes her come alive as one of those people who has drawn a line in her life between a desperate past and a gloriously imagined future. She stomps and parades and tries very hard to master the dancing and twirling of her talent routine. And she fairly twinkles when she tries to explain to Popeye, a seamstress who has just moved to town, exactly what the Miss Firecracker Contest is. Popeye thinks Carnelle must want such a flashy costume, made of red, silver, and blue silky material, for a dance contest, but the ebullient aspiring queen corrects her: "Well, no; … it's for the Miss Firecracker Contest.… It's the beauty contest. They have it in Brookhaven every Fourth of July. It's a tradition. It's a big event. It's famous." Carnelle wants the kind of costume that her imagination conjures for an occasion of this magnitude, "something really patriotic. Kinda traditional. You know, noble, in a sense." She is unimpressed by Elain's dismissal of the whole affair as "trashy," especially since Elain herself won the contest fifteen years before, forever impressing little Carnelle, then a recently abandoned sickly nine-year-old, as "a vision of beauty riding on that float with a crown on her head waving to everyone." "I thought I'd drop dead whe she passed by me," Carnelle recalls.
Elain maintains that "there's nothing to" the contest, possibly because she knows that Carnelle does not stand much of a chance of winning and wants to head off the heartbreak, but also, certainly, because she understands that there is in fact not much to the kind of confirmation that winning a beauty pageant brings. By all accounts, Elain has a lush life in Natchez, with a nice house, a decent husband named Franklin, and two children, but she has decided to leave all of this in pursuit of something more fulfilling, we presume. In the end, she chooses to go back home—to that life of "beautiful clocks," as she summarizes her world in an offhanded comment to Carnelle—but she nevertheless Page 184 | Top of Article seems to understand what her "life as a beauty" has done to her. A commentator on the film version of the play characterized Elain as someone who might be only "passably beautiful, but [who] radiates her right to rule in life as Astonishingly Beautiful as she ruled on the parade float. She's mastered Inner Float." With echoes of Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois, that is exactly Elain: beaming the image of a life of utter composure—lovely but very, very exhausting. Even though Elain wishes for a more honest way of life, and even samples a grotesque version of it with the emaciated Mac Sam in a last-night rendezvous under the wisteria, she has grown accustomed to "the limitations [being beautiful] brings." And in the end, confirming what she has always known about herself, Elain discovers that the superficial pleasures afforded by life as Mrs. Franklin Rutlege of Natchez are just too much to give up. As she tells Delmount, sounding pitiful but certain, "I need someone who adores me."
If only in theory or appearance, however, Elain at least has a choice: she can go, she can stay, she can leave again if and when she wants. She has status, class, complete mobility, and any "limitations" of that life seem negligible, even laughable, when compared to those of being plain, damaged-goods Carnelle Scott. That is Carnelle's perception of Elain's situation, at least, and it is the reason she is uninterested in any lessons that might emerge from a more careful examination of her cousin's life. Carnelle wants the feeling as well as the reality of a similar choice, and this means more than simply the opportunity to leave Brookhaven in pursuit of a new life to match her new self-image of respectability. She wants to leave, as she says over and over, with stars in her eyes, "in a blaze of glory … in a crimson blaze of glory!" She wants the citizens of Brookhaven to see her up on the stage and then maybe even riding on the float—crown, sash, and scepter—as irrefutable evidence that Miss Hot Tamale has remade herself. She wants a sparklerand-roman-candle display of publicity for the new Carnelle Scott, on her way out of town and up in the world. She wants nothing less than a spectacle for her departure and is not at all dampened by Delmount's description of the pageant as "a garish display of painted up prancing pigs." Ignoring him and any other effort to deter her, Carnelle remains firm in her belief that the opportunity to participate in the contest will mean nothing less than the chance to create "visible proof" of her new self.
Delmount speculates, no doubt correctly, that behind Carnelle's all-consuming desire to enter The Miss Firecracker Contest is the fact that the circumstances of her childhood prevented her from "attain[ing] any self-esteem." "Had to sleep with every worthless soul in Brookhaven trying to prove she was attractive," he comments to Elain. Some of the hilarity and all of the poignancy in this play derive from the fact that we can see so clearly what Carnelle cannot about the mechanism she has selected for unveiling the worth she has at last discovered within herself, indeed, from the fact that she feels she must be so public about it at all. She must ultimately be disappointed—as she is when she comes in not first, not third, but fifth out of five contestants—because she hopes to change her image in a peculiar, insular world where images take hold as virtual absolutes. Carnelle thinks change is just a matter of publicly registering an image of difference. She does not recognize what all the others—Elain, Delmount, and even Mac Sam—seem to understand: that what we often have is only the illusion of the opportunity for change. (Again, witness Elain's ultimate "decision" to return to Franklin and her life of face cream and "beautiful clocks.") This is a truth that does not change in the transition from the South of Williams's characters to that of Beth Henley's: identities remain very much socially constructed, and in the static categories of small-town southern life, that means that the power to remake a public image lies beyond individual motivation. What is different is that Henley makes her central character so willfully public in her determination to ignore this fact. By subjecting herself to the pageant as a community-sanctioned agency of confirmation, thereby asking for the community worse, further humiliation. After all, her judges, representing their constituency, are a notoriously unforgiving lot. When Carnelle allows some consideration for the odds-on favorite Caroline Jeffers's discolored teeth—"I hear she took medicine for seizures that she had as a child and it scraped off most of her tooth enamel"—Tessy Mahoney, the pageant coordinator, replies curtly: "I heard that too, but it doesn't matter.… I really don't think the judges are interested in sentimentality—just the teeth themselves."
Funny, yes, but also painfully true, aud another moment of potential insight that floats past Carnelle because she is not interested in it. Entering the contest, the new Carnelle Scott is the ultimate unflappable optimist. Minutes before she has to be on stage for "the opening Parade of Firecrackers"—when she is running late, she is sweaty, her "makeup is running right down [her] face," and her Page 185 | Top of Article dress does not fit—she is still ready to go on, because despite it all, she says, "my head is ready." The fact that Henley creates her as such a wonderfully sympathetic character suggests that she admires Carnelle for the effort she is willing to make, for her boldness in trying to launch herself in that "blaze of glory." She prefers Carnelle's loud and obvious failure to Elain's resignation and retreat, and so, probably, would most of us.
In a compelling resolution, Henley transforms Carnelle and grounds her as a realist during the play's last act. The transformation begins with Carnelle's sense that things are not exactly going well when she fails down in her pageant dress, which inspires a rowdy crowd to begin chanting "Miss Hot Tamale," bringing her as close as ever to tears: "It's awful! It's so awful! They never forget! They never do!" It is Henley's realization of the possibility of exposure that looms for so many of William's characters, with a crowd of Stanley Kowalskiesque figures in possession of the "truth" and quite enthusiastic about revealing the charade. But rather than shrink from it, Carnelle takes the blow and builds it into a resolve, a firm assertion that since she lost she will do what the losers do, tote an American flag while following the winner's float on foot: "Look," she tells Delmount, "if you come in last, you follow that float. I took a chance and I came in last; so, by God, I'm gonna follow that float!" By the very last scene, Carnelle has calmed down and realizes that losing the contest "doesn't matter," because "the main thing is—well, the main thing is … Gosh; I don't know what the main thing is. I haven't the vaguest idea." The truth that she thought she understood about what it would mean to live life as a verified "beauty" has vanished; it has been replaced by what sounds less like stoic acceptance than it does a comfortable acceptance of life as spontaneous, with human agency tuned to the moment. Carnelle's last line is a simple expression of a simple appreciation, signaling a refreshing kind of personal growth: "Gosh, it's a nice night," she is able to say, watching the fire-works show at the end of the frightful contest day. Such a resolution would have been unthinkable for most of Williams's women, trapped as they were in a life that required a predictable, visible sameness of both action and response.
Carnelle's transformation from dreamer to realist can be read as evidence of what Billy J. Harbin calls Henley's "grave vision masked by and realized through a depiction of the ludicrous." But this in not a pessimistic play—and neither should it be trivialized by dismissing Carnelle as a "desperate southern-sexpot figure" and the whole play as one which, like too much of Henley's writing, in the opinion of one critic, "regrettably does not break through masculinist/modernist assumptions" about female sexuality and autonomy. What happens in this play concerns a woman's constructive reimagining of what is possible in her life. Indeed, the entire action revolves around a theme of liberation—with the main event occurring, not incidentally, on the Fourth of July—and the possibility for one person to claim significance by her own deliberate action. She may look silly in the process, and she may fail with great pain and even embarrassment. But again, we must admire her for the effort—the noisy, dazzling spectacle of her failure, as well as the maturity of her acceptance that she will have to try another time, another way. There is a certain satisfaction in witnessing Carnelle's effort, collapse, and then small signs of recovery that is not available in the interior tragedies of Tennessee Williams's women. Those lives often merely wither, or implode. Henley's heroines—Carnelle, the MaGrath sisters in Crimes of the Heart, and Marshael in The Wake of Jamey Foster all qualify—show no obligation to the old social requirement that surfaces remain pleasant even when the inside is dissatisfied or sick. Instead, they play the messiness of life out publicly, on the stage of the world. In fact, perhaps what The Miss Firecraker Contest finally, most profoundly reveals is a message that the flamboyant or "the ludicious," to use Harbin's term, can be read as a sign of life, as evidence that a character is big enough to dream beyond the confines of what passes for reason and acceptability.
Robert L. McDonald, "'A Blaze of Glory': Image and Self-Promotion in Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter 1999, pp. 151–57.
Alan Clarke Shepard
In the following essay, Shepard explores the effects of the feminist movement on the female protagonists of Henley's plays, in particular examining the recurring images of homicide and suicide.
Beth Henley's tragicomedies study the effects of the feminist movement upon a few, mostly proletarian women in rural Mississippi, who are more likely to read Glamour than Cixous and Clement's The Newly Born Woman. We are invited to sympathize with isolated heroines whose fantasies demonstrate the difficulty of conceiving female subjectivity while entrenched in patriarchal epistemes, whose resilience Page 186 | Top of Article is expressed in their canny, survivalist compromises with the codes of passive southern womanhood. Their compromises may be precisely located in the recurring imagery of homicide and suicide that pervades Henley's scripts. Take Elain in The Miss Firecracker Contest (1979), for example, an aging beauty queen in flight from a suffocating marriage and motherhood. When her estranged husband worries that she may kill their children in a fit of fury, Elain answers him by quashing the idea of her repressed rage spiraling murderously out of control: "Oh, for God's sake, Franklin, no one's going to bake them into a pie!" Franklin, borrowing from classical tragedy, baits Elain to circumscribe, even to annul her anger and her flight. One subtext of his inflammatory trope of filicide is that Elain's bid for greater autonomy threatens to incite a domestic "tragedy." Yet the word "tragedy" is Elain's own assessment of impending doom. Though Franklin makes her "ill," without him she is "feeling nothing but terror and fear and loneliness!" And so, after a few minutes of "reckless" infamy under the wisteria bushes with an alcoholic carnival hand, she expects to return to her "dreary, dreary life." No Medea she, Elain occupies the periphery of Miss Firecracker, but the arc of her brief rebellion illuminates a paradigm of female surrender running through Henley's plays. The southern heroines populating her tragicomedies frequently erupt in anger toward those (including themselves) who engineer or sustain the emotionally impoverishing circumstances of their private lives; and just as often, they retreat from the schemes of violence bred by that anger. They relish murderous and suicidal fantasies, they repudiate them. The problematics of their rage is my subject.
The shadow of violent death is diffused across Henley's landscapes At times it is treated with the sprezzatura of black comedy. Accidents of nature abound, wacky in their studied randomness: Carnelle's father has died chasing "the Tropical Ice Cream truck," her Uncle George fell "to his death trying to pull this bird's nest out from the chimney"; Popeye's brother has been fatally bitten "by a water moccasin down by the Pearl River"; Lenny's horse Billy Boy has been "struck dead" by lightning; Jamey Foster has been fatally "kicked in the head by a cow"; an orphanage has burnt, blood vessels burst, cars and pigs exploded. Katty observes that "life is so full of unknown horror."
But at other times the half-baked threats of homicide and suicide swerve toward the rant of revenge tragedies. Unlike accidents of nature, these threats have knowable if not justifiable causes, reactions to betrayals and injustices made visible as the plays unfold. Yet the fantasies of murder entertained by these heroines signify no commitment to the principle that drives revenge tragedies, namely that revenge is an heroic prerogative of the wronged party, for traditionally revenge has been a masculine mode, from which these heroines mostly draw back. The fantasies secreted in Henley's texts are indeed not so much retributive as palliative. They are strategies of coping with the residual scars of emotional abandonment, or with a fresh crisis of the same, a recurring motif in Henley's art. Consider those of the widow Marshael in The Wake of Jamey Foster (1982). Estranged from her husband Jamey, who eventually dies from being filliped in the head—by a cow—during a pastoral tryst with his mistress Esmerelda, Marshael is abandoned a second time in a thunderstorm by family friend Brocker Slade, to whom she has turned in her grief, as they are travelling home from the hospital bed of her then-critically-ill husband. Slade later surfaces at Marshael's house to launch a half-hearted campaign to cajole her into forgiveness, cooing, "God, M., honey, […] I'm about ready to run jump into the Big Black River." To his self-pity she replies coolly, "Well, don't forget to hang a heavy stone around your scrawny old neck" (47–48). But recommending his suicide is as far as Marshael's rage goes. It rapidly devolves into despair, with Marshael vesting herself in the role of invalid. The particular stresses of earlier days, inscribed in the "purple and swollen" ulcers on her gums, the rash on her knuckles, have now become general and overwhelming: she is, she says, "sick of betrayal! Sick!", echoing Elain's sentiment in Miss Firecracker that her husband Franklin makes her "ill." Yet as in Firecracker, again it is a man who is both the source and the cure of a heroine's disease. The Wake of Jamey Foster ends in a tableau of Slade soothing Marshael to sleep with the lullaby "This Old Man Comes Rolling Home," in whose refrain (of the same words) Marshael takes comfort from its implicit promise of Slade's enduring paternal presence. He is redeemed, no longer a "scrawny old neck," but an "old man" (my emphasis). As the cure suggests, then, Marshael's rage against betrayal is not a liberating or even die-breaking action signalling her escape from heterosexist oppression, but a conservative, paradigmatic strategy for recuperating an emotionally dysfunctional man.
The embryo of this pattern of repudiated rage appears in Am I Blue (1972), the first of Henley's Page 187 | Top of Article plays to be staged. Am I Blue investigates the pressures of gender relations, specifically of sexual initiation, felt by two adolescents, Ashbe and John Polk (or J.P.). They meet in a seedy New Orleans bar, return to the apartment Ashbe shares with her always absent father, and, compromising, agree to dance until dawn. Against our gendered expectations that men are always the sexual aggressor, it is the younger Ashbe who presses J.P. to have intercourse. When he refuses fearing that Ashbe would "get neurotic, or pregnant, or some damn thing," she retaliates—she feigns having poisoned his drink dyed a suspicious blue: impulsively she hypothesizes his murder, only to recant the fiction immediately, then internalizes her anger, which, though tied to J.P.'s refusal, speaks of larger rejections and wounds.
Yet more striking than Ashbe's threat of the mickeyed highball are the fantasies of murder entertained by both teenagers. Enroute to the apartment, Ashbe, scooping up a stray hat from the street, wonders aloud whether it might not have been "a butcher's who slaughtered his wife or a silver pirate with a black bird on his throat"; J.P. fears that she "probably [has] got some gang of muggers waiting to kill me." While he registers the practical risks of picking up a stranger in a bar, she romanticizes murder; the pirate Blackbeard roams the interstices of her imagination. In Ashbe's terms, a pirate's violence both creates and signifies his autarkic self; and Ashbe, virtually alone in the world, vicariously produces one, too, through her well-developed fantasy life, which privileges the swashbuckler mode, where violence is glamorous, sovereign, and artificial. But other fragments of her fantasy life belie her pose of nonchalance toward violence. They show Ashbe grappling with feelings of inexplicable rage, inexplicable to her because she possesses only an adolescent, even nascent, sense of herself as an autonomous being. For example, she describes visiting a grocery to smash bags of marshmallows, an act of rage comically diverted from its true object; she claims to have stolen ashtrays from the Screw Inn (it discriminates against the helpless, she says pointedly), and to have practiced the passive-aggressive art of voodoo against a clique of schoolmates. From all this, J.P. avers that Ashbe is "probably one of those people that live in a fantasy world." In the most bizarre flight of fancy, she holds out hope of having sex with J.P. so that she might conceive, then travel to Tokyo for an abortion, explaining that she is "so sick of school I could smash every marshmallow in sight." Mary Field Belenky and others have observed that oppressed women who are reconstituting themselves as autonomous subjects sometimes use "the imagery of birth, rebirth and childhood to describe their experience of a nascent self." But Ashbe's struggle to develop as a subject results only in the cross-eyed impulses to smash marshmallows and to conceive only to abort. The latter mirrors the pattern of repudiated rage: she imagines internalizing, then expelling not only a fetus, but also the pressures of conventional commitments imposed upon young women to reproduce; to please and serve men, whatever the cost (recall Ashbe's imaginary butcher who slashes his wife's throat); to disavow the aggression typically associated with the masculine sphere. In the end, however, like Marshael, Ashbe abandons her resistance and, encircled by J.P.'s arms, dances to Billie Holiday. Relinquishing the murderous power of a blue mickey for "the blues" as soon as a man's company is even provisionally secured, Ashbe goes passive toward her own pain. Even the play's interrogative title serves notice of her surrender to the external regulation of her own feelings: Am I Blue?
Henley's heroines who have passed beyond adolescence do not similarly romanticize the murder and mutilation of women in later texts, where the playwright explores relationships between men's abuse of women and women's surprising, apparent diffidence or even absence of rage in return. Breaking the conspiracy of silence that surrounds domestic abuse, a conspiracy once silently tolerated, then contested, by Babe in Crimes of the Heart (1981), for example, whose medical history narrates the injuries inflicted by her husband Zackery, these texts map out the cycle of emotional and physical battering. The abuse comes first; and though bids Page 188 | Top of Article for greater subjectivity sometimes follow a sudden escalation of the abuse, enduring, transformative rage seldom does, for that is largely a privilege of "autarkic selfhood," about which Henley's women, like Ashbe, seldom more than fantasize. If it is true, as George Mariscal has said, "that all forms of subjectivity are conceived in a bitter struggle for power and hegemony," then the absence of rage or its diffident expression by Henley's abused women invites us to study the strategies by which the men organize, control, even amputate the heroines' "bitter struggle."
Key moments expose the violence against women inscribed in the institutions of marriage and motherhood in Henley's plays. Two marriages near the brink of collapse—one peripheral, one central to a plot—illustrate their strategies. In The Wake of Jamey Foster Katty and Wayne Foster arrive to mourn Jamey's sudden death. The wake itself Henley depicts humorously; it is the spectacle of Wayne's treatment of Katty that transforms comedy into tragicomedy. Like Delmount in Miss Firecraker, who dreams at night of women's bodies dismembered, Katty and Wayne live in a violently phallic universe. Wayne, who calls Katty a "twat," sexually harrasses his sister-in-law Collard, confident that men are entitled to control women's bodies: calling her "Charlotte," imposing his preference for her "proper name," he lifts her chin, marking her as his sexual property. Collard protests: "Lifting my chin up like that—you're making me feel like some sort of goddamn horse—[…] Oh, so you do like your women dirty?" Katty witnesses this exchange, and immediately moves to protect her own claim to Wayne's twisted affections: "Just because I lose those babies is no reason to treat me viciously—no reason at all! You know I can't help it!"—as if it might be possible ever to justify such abuse. Falsely blaming herself, Katty fails to see, as Collard does, how he is titillated by dehumanizing women into chattel. Yet what Katty has seen precipitates a household crisis. She barricades herself in shame in an upstairs bath, emerging much later to announce, in sorrow and frustration,
I hate the me I have to be with him. If only I could have the baby it would give me someone to love and make someone who'd love me. There'd be a reason for having the fine house and the lovely yard.
Of course the same impulse that has driven Katty to mold herself to Wayne's desire for a submissive wife keeps her from reconfiguring her life. She remains committed to their marriage, answering Marshael's inquiry into her next move with numb resignation: "Why, nothing. That's all I can do. I don't have children or a career like you do. Anyway I don't like changes." Katty takes refuge behind the "incompetency 'demands' of the conventional feminine role."
What makes Katty interesting as a specimen of rage repudiated is not her response to Wayne's cruelty but a childhood experience she confides during an intimate talk with the other women, who have congregated in Marshael's bedroom to comfort and cheer her as she mourns. The lights go up on them in the midst of their trading stories of the cruellest thing they have ever done. The segue to Katty's story suggests its dramaturgic importance:
KATTY (Pulling at her hair with glee.) Oh, it's so awful! It's too horrible! You won't think I'm sweet anymore!
COLLARD We don't care! We don't care!
PIXROSE No, we don't care! Tell us!
Collard and Pixrose function as a Greek chorus. They deliver the judgment of a community of women—"We don't care! We don't care!"—that sharply contrasts with the conventional commitment to sentimentality imposed upon women by the male characters in these texts. Moreover, it is possible to hear in Pixrose's "Tell us" a resemblance of a similar moment in Portrait of the Artist in which Joyce may be punning on the Greek noun telos. Like Stephen Dedalus, who is engaged in challenging the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to establish the ultimate purpose of life, Katty challenges with her story of girlhood violence the authority of men to establish the telos of women:
KATTY One Easter Sunday I was walking to church with my maid, Lizzie Pearl. Well, I was all dressed to kill for in my white ruffled dress and my white Easter bonnet and carrying my white parasol. Well, we had to pass by the Dooleys' house, and the Dooleys were always known as white trash, and that bunch really despised me. Well, Harry and Virginia Dooley came up and shoved me down into a huge mudhole.[…] [Later that day] […] Lizzie Pearl and I sneaked back over to their back yard and yanked the chirping heads off of every one of their colored Easter chicks—We murdered them all with our bare hands!
It is difficult to reconcile this portrait of Katty with the other that prevails. In Wayne's absence, she paints herself "with glee" as fully capable of retaliating violently against indignities she has suffered. In Wayne's presence, however, she regresses to the role of a child, even using baby-talk to soothe Page 189 | Top of Article him as he pretends to grieve the loss of his brother: "Why we're all gonna do every little bitty thing we can do to unburden poor, old Papa Sweet Potato."
Katty's regression is intriguingly linked to her apparent inability to carry a fetus to term. Because Wayne reduces Katty to a "twat," he continuously snuffs out her adult interiority, where interiority signifies not simply an emotional and physical readiness to bear children but also a mature knowledge of the terrain of one's own imagination, memory, and will. This link between male sexuality and the death of female interiority is reiterated elsewhere in The Wake when Collard abruptly propositions Slade: "Brocker, honey … you gonna leave me forever unravished?" With his eye on Marshael instead, Brocker Slade refuses, and Collard, affronted, strikes back: "Oh, Marshael. Right, Marshael. Well, that's all right then. 'Course she's nothing like me. She doesn't caress death and danger with open legs." Here Collard represents heterosexual intercourse as an act of heroic bravado, a potentially fatal sacrifice on the woman's part. (The metaphor also evokes the literal risk of death that women face during childbirth.) Later, her observation that sex with men threatens the death of the female subject is explicitly linked to Katty's instinctive regression. As Slade serenades Marshael from outside her window, Collard, protecting her sister as well as herself, throws a nest of bird's eggs at him, then assigns him responsibility: "Look! Now you've made me murder these baby eggs! I've done murder!" Just as Collard sacrifices the embryonic lives of birds in a feeble attempt to ward off the dangers of Slade's predatory and at this time unwanted sexual advances toward Marshael, so Katty has killed Easter chicks to signify her resistance to the conventions of feminine obsequiousness, perhaps even to the expectation of motherhood. It is no accident of the text that Katty remains childless, her body expelling the embryonic fruits of her sexual relations with Wayne to preserve what little interiority is left her by their marriage. She controls her uterus if nothing else.
Although these narratives of "murder" intuitively link Katty and Collard, Collard is distinguished by openly resisting the imposition of patriarchal conventions. As we have seen, she furiously rejects sexual harassment from her brother-in-law Wayne, and in another memorable scene, as he insists that Marshael attend Jamey's wake, like it or not, Collard mocks him: "Look, just because you'll always have the taste of leather in your mouth, doesn't mean the rest of us have to." Turning upon Wayne the equestrian metaphor previously applied to herself, Collard scorns him for having accepted the patriarchal bridle. Reversing the sign, she emphasizes the double standard by which men profit, and women suffer, from submitting to patriarchy—we know that Wayne has become a powerful smalltown banker, Katty his slave. Yet it is also Collard who most articulates the toll of women's resistance against patriarchy. Ambivalent toward Slade, whom she once invited to "ravish" her, Collard is even more ambivalent toward her own reproductive freedom. In a magnetic scene, she recounts for the other women the aftermath of her abortion, which she imagines to be a violent act:
I went out and ate fried chicken. Got a ten-piece bucket filled with mashed potatoes and gravy, cole-slaw, and a roll. First it tasted good and greasy and gooey. Then I felt like I was eating my baby's skin and flesh and veins and all. I got so sick—
In contrast to Ashbe's flippant scheme to parlay an abortion into a Tokyo vacation in Am I Blue, this painful memory illustrates the anguishing material consequences of Collard's resolve not to be bridled. It leaves her not simply "sick," but nightmarishly guilty. Again Henley records the cost of women's liberation in graphic images of animal dismemberment. Associating the fetus and the fried chicken, which is the third appearance in The Wake of Jamey Foster of the trope of fowl destroyed (Easter chicks/bird eggs/fried chicken) as a sign of challenge to the conventions of gender, especially of the obligation to nurture, Collard imagines herself feeding off her own interior: "I felt like I was eating my baby's skin and flesh and veins." From another point of view, though, Collard is not a cannibal but a survivor. In this instance, to reject the fetus is to preserve her nascent claim to self-determination. Perhaps it is that claim that produces as much guilt as the abortion itself.
If Henley's plays collectively forecast the high price yet to be paid by virtually everyone for the manifold inequities long borne by women, the most expansive treatment of this idea is in Crimes of the Heart. Not the fairy tale of female bonding that Lorimar made it out to be in its 1986 production, Crimes of the Heart studies the origins and effects of domestic abuse, tracing the rise and fall of its principal heroine's rage, fingering the female conspirators of culturally sanctioned violence against women, exposing the link between sexism and racism, suggesting the often grave costs of women's coming to know themselves as wholly volitional beings.
Hovering over the MaGrath family in Crimes of the Heart is a curse as particular as any in Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, or Sam Shepard, and as general as post-classical Western culture itself: long ago, the matriarch of the MaGrath clan, in fury and despair, hanged herself and her cat in the fruit cellar of the family home. Her suicide affirmed for her daughters the ideological link between women's exercise of self-determination and Death, a link dating at least from early Christian constructions of Eve's primal disobedience. Crimes of the Heart dramatizes its continuing damage to the next generation, especially through the fallout from Babe and Zackery Botrelle's exploded marriage. Long physically abused by "the richest and most powerful man in all of Hazlehurst," Babe has denied the significance of her own fractures and bruises, breaking free only after watching Zack maul Willie Jay, her fifteen-year-old African-American lover. Although Babe is enraged by Zack's racism and his consequent physical abuse of Willie Jay, Babe's first response is to think of suicide, as her mother had done, then epiphanically to reject suicide as a viable response to explosive anger:
Why, I was gonna shoot off my own head! […] I thought about Mama … how she'd hung herself. Then I realized—that's right, I realized how I didn't want to kill myself! And she—she probably didn't want to kill herself.
Instead, fittingly, she shoots Zack in the belly, inflicting quid pro quo an ironic even if uncalculated revenge on a "bully" who had threatened to cut out Willie's "gizzard." Though Babe is no avenger, her shooting Zackery might seem to presage a heroine's decisive new commitment to self-determination. But near the end of Crimes of the Heart Henley dashes that hope, having Babe comically regress toward suicide. Without success she tries to hang, then to asphyxiate herself in a gas oven. Babe suffers the by-now-familiar arc: once vented, her rage boomerangs. In effect she mentally implodes, just as her compatriot Marshael does in The Wake Recall that Marshael, though liberated by her husband's sudden death from one cycle of emotional neglect, is still furiously angry at him, confessing that she feels as if "a hole's been shot through me, and all my insides have been blown out somewhere else."
In earlier plays, heroines abort their rage or, what amounts to the same thing, turn it inward, for obliquely palpable reasons that spectators must infer. In Crimes, however, the playwright delivers a direct cause of Babe's reversal, namely Zackery's intention to commit her to the Whitfield psychiatric hospital. His plan disorients but also catalyzes Babe, who "slams the phone down and stares wildly ahead: He's not. He's not. […] I'll do it. I will. And he won't." The indicative verbs here signify that Babe again turns to suicide as the only gesture of self-determination available in a universe otherwise controlled by those such as her estranged lawyer-husband, who is ominously confident that psychiatric clinics stand ready to isolate, punish, and perhaps reprogram women who, in their rage, repudiate the hegemony of men. Zackery is obviously a "total criminal," as Babe's defense lawyer claims. Yet Henley insists we not dismiss him as an aberrant loner, but see him as an integral member of a community that permits, even expects, men to abuse women, and that expects women to cope with it by clinging to the theorem of female martyrdom. That theorem is best expressed in a colloquial commonplace by Elain, the ex-beauty queen, who counsels Camelle on her loss of the Miss Firecracker title: "Just try to remember how Mama was enlightened by her affliction." Though none of the women in Crimes of the Heart has in so many words similarly advised Babe to tough out Zackery's abuse, Babe has nevertheless learned well not to expect others to validate her supposedly unfeminine rage, neither before nor after she shoots Zackery. Thus when her sister Lenny and cousin Chick question Babe as to motive, she is virtually mute, offering only that she "didn't like [Zackery's] looks." Obviously ridiculous, this red herring intensifies her silence. Elizabeth Stanko observes that abused women's silence "is linked to an understanding of [their] powerlessness; it is a recognition of the contradictory expectations of femaleness and probable judgments others commonly render about any woman's involvement in male violence." Henley sharpens her critique of women who collude with oppressive forces by depicting Babe's attorney Barnette Lloyd as steadfastly supportive of his accused client, suggesting how little one's gender necessarily dictates one's politics.
Indeed, in small ways and large, Lenny and especially Chick reproduce the inequities of gender that have been insinuated into every social discourse. Lenny, for example, anticipates Zack's psychiatric prescription, telling Meg, "I believe Babe is ill. I mean in-her-head ill." Lenny fails to see how her diagnosis reinforces a double standard of provocation, in which men's "retaliatory behavior is acceptable," and women's is not. But it is cousin Chick, who works the system well enough to have Page 191 | Top of Article been accepted to membership in the Hazlehurst Ladies' Social League, who is Zackery's far more malignant if still unwitting conspirator. Deploying the concept of "shame" to police other women, Chick consistently attacks what she takes to be the MaGraths' lack of obedience to a code of womanhood that emphasizes decorum, not subjectivity; submission, not independence. She is not simply a watchdog, but a burlesque obsessed by "the skeletons in the MaGraths' closet," her anger rising as the sisters' violations mount. After spying Meg returning from a night with Doc, for example, Chick bashes Meg in order to recruit Lenny into conscious alliance with the model of suffocating female subjectivity endorsed by the Ladies' Social League. Chick pities not Meg but Lenny:
You must be so ashamed! You must just want to die! Why, I always said that girl was nothing but cheap Christmas trash! […] Meg's a low-class tramp and you need not have one more blessed thing to do with her and her disgusting behavior.
When Lenny refuses to concede Meg's depravity, Chick explodes, inadvertently revealing the root of her anger:
I've just about had my fill of you trashy MaGraths and your trashy ways: hanging yourselves in cellars; carrying on with married men; shooting your own husbands! […] [Turning toward Babe] And don't you think she's not gonna end up at the state prison farm or in some-mental institution. Why, it's a clear-cut case of manslaughter with intent to kill! […] That's what everyone's saying, deliberate intent to kill! And you'll pay for that! Do you hear me? You'll pay!
"Manslaughter," from the lexicon of law, aptly describes Chick's judgment of the MaGraths' violations, their budding refusals to "pay" into a patriarchal discourse that brands women "cheap Christmas trash," that blames the victim for spouse abuse, that again insinuates death as the inevitable consequence of women's self-determination ("you must just want to die!"). In Chick's eyes, resistance is indeed man/slaughter.
Against Chick's slavish dependence upon pernicious communal values, Henley juxtaposes Meg's apparently fierce independence. Faced with the artifacts of her sister's medical history, for example, which records the consequences of Zack's spousal violence, Meg rants, "This is madness! Did he do this to her? I'll kill him; I will—I'll fry his blood!"; in the Senecan image Meg boldly claims the prerogative of revenge abdicated by most of Henley's other heroines. And later, she quells Babe's self-recriminations by erasing the privileged line between sanity and madness, declaring, "Why, you're just as perfectly sane as anyone walking the streets of Hazlehurst, Mississippi"; in Meg's circuitous compliment we may hear an indictment of the citizenry for continuing to tolerate domestic violence.
In these moments of bravado Meg seems stronger than Babe for openly resisting the forces under which Babe has long suffered, but elsewhere Henley suggests that Meg likewise suffers from deep ambivalence about the scope and strength of her own freedom. Feigning heroic indifference toward the dangers of smoking, for example, she reiterates the link between women's self-determination and death that led her mother to hang herself in the fruit cellar: "That's what I like about [smoking], Chick—taking a drag off of death. […] Mmm! Gives me a sense of controlling my own destiny. What power! What exhilaration! Want a drag?" Unlike Lenny and Babe, who seem glued to Hazlehurst, Meg has attempted to wrest her destiny away from the Ladies' Social League by exiling herself to Los Angeles, a move that demonstrates autonomy and mobility. In L.A., though, she has met failure. Once an aspiring singer, she has succumbed to clerking for a dog food company, and in her words has recently gone "in-sane," winding up in the psychiatric ward of L.A. County Hospital. The cause, as we gradually come to see, is the residual effects of her mother's suicide. Much like Carnelle in Miss Firecraker, who laments that "people've been dying practically all my life," and "I guess I should be used to it by now," Meg has stoically attempted to block out the pain of having been the one to discover her mother's body. Yet Babe recalls that during girlhood outings to the public library and the Dixieland Drugstore,
Meg would spend all her time reading and looking through this old black book called Diseases of the Skin. It was full of the most sickening pictures you've ever seen. Things like rotting-away noses and eyeballs drooping off down the sides of people's faces, and scabs and sores and eaten-away places. [At Dixieland Drugs, examining a crippled-children poster, Meg would say] "See, I can stand it. I can stand it. Just look how I'm gonna be able to stand it."
The memory illustrates Meg's resolve to steel herself against loss, an early decision that continues to sabotage her life as an adult. Reversing the usual pattern in Henley's plays, it has been Meg who abandoned her sometime lover Doc, rather than vice versa, during Hurricane Camille: returned from L.A., she confesses to him, "It was my fault to leave you. I was crazy, I thought I was choking. I felt choked!" Meg's fear of "choking" not only recalls her mother's suicide by hanging, but also illuminates Page 192 | Top of Article what is for her virtually a synaptic link between romantic alliances with men and the potential snuffing out of her own life. But, she tells Doc, "I was crazy." Apologizing, labelling her earlier perceptions of risk as signs of mental illness, Meg now repudiates her own intuition and thus repatriates herself into the Hazlehurst community. À la Elain in Miss Firecracker, she too "comes home."
Meg's maneuver is consonant with the pattern of surrender that is woven through Henley's scripts. We may conclude that these heroines engage in quasi-feminist rebellion, if they engage in it at all, for psychological rather than political motives. Babe makes the point best when she refutes what is to her the alarming possibility that she intended her inter-racial liaison with Willie Jay to be a political statement: "I'm not a liberal! I'm a democratic! I was just lonely! I was so lonely. And he was so good." Babe's verbal slip—an adjective for a noun—reveals an inarticulate command of the political, at least disqualifying her from playing the conscious iconoclast. As in this instance, Henley's heroines seem not to recognize as such the feminist awakenings that bubble to the surfaces of their consciousnesses, as they seek to repair and preserve their lives within the system they have inherited. Yet they come to life inside Henley's crucible of populist tragicomedy, in which regressive comic fantasies and tragic aspirations collide; osmotically the heroines have absorbed some of the energies of the feminist movement, and in their own ways, they grope toward liberty.
Alan Clarke Shepard, "Aborted Rage in Beth Henley's Women," in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 1993, pp. 96–108.
Andreach, Robert J., Creating the Self in the Contemporary American Theatre, Southern Illinois University Press, 1998, p. 129.
Bowman, Harry, "Firecracker Pops, Sputters at Stage No. 1," in the Dallas Morning News, September 20, 1985, p. 1c.
Demastes, William W., Beyond Naturalism: A New Realism in American Theatre, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 144.
——, ed., Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, University of Alabama Press, 1996, p. 208.
Lavenda, Robert H., "Minnesota Queen Pageants: Play, Fun, and Dead Seriousness in a Festive Mode," in the Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 101, 1888, p. 175.
Paige, Linda Rohrer, "Henley, Beth," in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.
"A Review of Four Plays," in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 3, May 1994, pp. 259–61.
Rich, Frank, "Firecracker, A Beth Henley Comedy," in the New York Times, May 28, 1984, p. 11.
Rosenfeldt, Paul, The Absent Father in Modern Drama, Peter Lang, 1996, p. 11.
Schickel, Richard, "The Miss Firecracker Contest," in Time, Vol. 123, June 11, 1984, p. 80.
Taggert, Patrick, "Grotesque Characters Dampen Miss Firecracker," in Austin American-Statesman, May 12, 1989, p. E1.
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, "Beth Henley," in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, William Morrow, 1987, pp. 211–22.
This interview covers Henley's creative process, her involvement in the production of her works, her family, themes, and literary goals.
Bryer, Jackson R., ed., "Beth Henley," in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 102–22.
This interview was conducted in October of 1991 and examines Henley's techniques as a playwright, the influences on her work, her interaction with the theatre, and her challenges as a writer.
Evans, Everett, "Beth Henley's Play at Alley: Miss Firecracker Author Gets a Bang out of Being a Southern Writer," in Houston Chronicle, January 12, 1986, Zest, p. 8.
This article is a summary of Henley's career as well as an interview with her about the creation of The Miss Firecracker Contest.
Murphy, Brenda, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
This volume is a history of American women playwrights up to the end of the twentieth century. Each chapter covers one or more playwrights in a topical context such as comedy, melodrama, or feminism.
Neimark, Jill, "Why We Need Miss America," in Psychology Today, Vol. 31, September–October 1998, p. 40.
The cultural ideals and conflicts that are reflected in the Miss American pageant are examined in this article.
Renner, Pamela, "The Mellowing of Miss Firecracker: Beth Henley—and Her Impetuous Characters—Are Undergoing Transformations," in American Theatre, Vol. 15, Issue 9, 1998, p. 18.
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This article discusses the recent changes in perspective in Henley's works, such as softer tones and more mature characters.
Son, Diana, "Girls Just Want to Write Plays: Reflections on the Theatre's Double–x Chromosome History," in American Theatre, Vol. 20, May–June 2003, p. 52.
This history of female playwrights briefly covers the 1600s to the early 2000s and offers solutions to the problem of women's obscurity in the theatre.