Beth Henley

Crimes of the Heart

  • 22-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 3 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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Crimes of the Heart Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 22-page guide for “Crimes of the Heart” by Beth Henley includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 3 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Loneliness and Mental Illness.

Plot Summary

Crimes of the Heart is a three-act play by Beth Henley. It opens five years after Hurricane Camille, in a Mississippi town called Hazlehurst. The entirety of the play takes place in the kitchen of the house belonging to the Magrath sisters: Lenny, Babe, and Meg.

The play begins on Lenny’s thirtieth birthday. Lenny and Chick, a first cousin, are taking about an unspecified piece of terrible news that will be appearing in the newspaper. It has something to do with Babe. Lenny has sent Meg a telegram, asking her to come home to help deal with the problem. This perturbs Chick, who says that Meg’s promiscuous reputation will not help with the public relations problem they’ll soon be facing.

Once the sisters are together, they begin discussing the fact that their mother hung herself after being abandoned by their father. She hung a yellow cat at the same time, which brought national notoriety to the case. Through the dialogue and the erratic actions of the sisters, it is clear that, whatever wrong has been done to them, all three of them suffer from at least some degree of mental illness.

It is soon revealed that the terrible piece of news is this: Babe shot her husband, Zackery, in the stomach. He will live, but unless something drastic changes, she will go to court and there is no reason to think she will not be found guilty. After Babe comes home, she admits to shooting Zackery, but initially refuses to divulge her reasons for doing so. As the sisters try to understand why Babe shot her husband, and to navigate the ominous legal proceedings to come, they reveal secrets about themselves that illustrate the terrible effects that their mother’s suicide and their father’s abandonment have had on each of them.

Over the course of the three acts, each sister confronts her own demons and finds the possibility of change. Crimes of the Heart is an indictment of improper parenting, an illustration of the devastation of suicide, and a rallying cry in support of the mentally ill. Themes of loneliness, isolation, and humor as the greatest weapon of self-defense take center stage throughout. Ultimately, it is a play about the need people have to share their stories with others. It carries the messages that “family” means the people who are always there, whether they are blood relatives or not, and that as long as there are secrets, there will be shame.

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Act 1