Our resident book chatters, Pearl and Myrtle, have just read Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley and are ready to chat about it! All opinions are theirs, those crazy ladies!
Myrtle: I have seen the movie of Crimes of the Heart probably 20 times, at least, and my mother is fond of quoting from it, so I read this being very familiar with it and really fond of the characters. What was your experience?
Pearl: I’d never read this play or any other by Beth Henley. The only experience I have with her is that my grandmother had a non-speaking role in the Miss Firecracker movie. Haha! So I came at this with no prior exposure really.
Myrtle: And what was your impression?
Pearl: I like the premise of the play. As we established with The Scribe, Pearl loves a good murder. So I liked that we didn’t know exactly why Babe shot her husband. But I thought all of the characters acted like children. All 3 sisters seemed very emotionally immature. I think my favorite character might have been Chick. She was awful, but we all know someone like her. I feel like almost every family has one. So she, in a strange way, kind of grounded the whole play in reality for me.
Myrtle: I can see that! In the movie, she smacks her gum a lot and has a tight perm, and those two things really sum up the mid-80s for me. Chick is especially awful to Lenny, I guess because Lenny takes it the most. The part where Chick tells her that the polka dots fell off of the dress Lenny bought her daughter kills me. She says something like, “I just don’t want you spending your money on that cheap make of dress.” Chick! Smacking that gum and Lenny around, too. But I so love when Lenny has just HAD IT and chases Chick around with the broom.
Pearl: Me too! I actually giggled at that part. Chick is so familiar. It just seems so Southern to couch something catty in false concern. It’s worse than just saying the horrible thing outright.
Myrtle: Before, you said that you thought all the sisters acted like children. I think you’re right about that, and I wonder if they do so outside of their family unit, or if they revert back to their previous roles when they get together. Meg and Babe are definitely selfish (Meg eats all of Lenny’s brithday/Christmas candy!) and Lenny takes on the role of the caretaker. I also wonder if they act childish because of their childhood trauma?
Pearl: That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that. I could totally understand them just reverting back to the roles they had as children with one another. I mean, they clearly have adult lives. Babe with her husband and her affair, etc. Meg with her singing career that failed to launch. I would like to see them interact outside of the house.
Myrtle: I think that’s an interesting limitation of a play. In a novel, these characters would go about their lives outside of the kitchen and we’d get much more information about their behavior and personalities. But in a play, we have to rely on what they say (their actions are also limited), and that is the burden of the author.
Did you personally identify with any of the characters?
Pearl: Not really. I didn’t see any of myself in any of them. I saw pieces of other people I know, but none of them like me. They’re so emotional! Everything is an emotional decision! I needed one rational character, but there wasn’t one. Maybe the attorney? But I didn’t like him much.
Myrtle: I identify the least with Meg–I just don’t really like her, and nothing about any of her decisions makes sense to me. Babe reminds me of friends–kind of dreamy and childish but then she makes these really adult choices and the combination of that is weird (plus her name…if she was named Shirley or Rita we’d expect grown-up behavior, but when someone named “Babe” has an affair and shoots her husband in the stomach, it’s weird!). Lenny is my favorite by a million miles. I just love her sad sack martyr life, with her shrunken ovary and her crumbly little birthday cookie.
Pearl: I like Lenny the best too. She was the only one of the sisters that I felt bad for. She seems like an innocent. She’s an adult, but seems somehow untouched by the real world. Her cookie stressed me out. Don’t pour wax on a cookie! And she just always seems to get the short end of the stick by no fault of her own. The other two have problems that they created, but bad things just happen to Lenny.
Myrtle: Pearl, next time I see you I will sing you the version of “Happy Birthday” Lenny sings to herself in the movie.
What about how the sisters (and Chick, for that matter) fit into the expected gender roles? I think this play was written in the late 70s. Who follows the rules and who doesn’t?
Pearl: Hmm. Chick probably lives up to the expected role the most. 2 children. Blames her clothes being too small on the make of the clothes and not the fact that she might actually have gained a little weight. She just seems very prim. The bit about the phone calls to notify family and friends about the grandad. All of that seems very expected. But it also doesn’t seem natural for her. She’s definitely not a picture of grace or anything. She’s just trying really hard to be perfect and it makes her mean and snobby. I think Meg kind of conforms in a different way. She TOTALLY fits the role of a female black sheep. Attractive, gets everything, doesn’t care about marriages, etc. Babe and Lenny are harder for me to pin down. What do you think?
Myrtle: I think Babe tried to conform, and got married to a state senator (I think that’s what Zachary is?), but it didn’t work for her so she chose to run that off the rails, big time. And Lenny fits the mold of a spinster perfectly, but it sounds like Old Granddaddy primed her for the role by harping on her shrunken ovary. (Not to criticize but why would Old Grandaddy know her ovarian biz? I tend to keep my gynecological news away from my grandparents!) Old Grandaddy needed someone to stay home and take care of him and he created that in Lenny. However, with a little encouragement, Lenny calls up that guy and rekindles her romance without much of a thought.
Pearl: I wondered if Granddaddy made up the whole shrunken ovary thing. Maybe it was just something he told her whole life and she believed him. That’s true about the romance. Do you think it’s because Grandaddy was so sick and she knew he might not make it and then what would her life be?
Myrtle: I think she felt like she might be able to be free of him if he finally died–the same thing you’re saying, but more like “here’s my chance!”
Do any of the characters change or develop throughout the play? At the end, are the characters the same as when we met them?
Pearl: I think Meg is the same. And I think Babe is, too. Lenny is the only one that really shows much development. She grows a little backbone and stands up to Chick. She accepts her shrunken ovary and decides maybe someone could love her.
Myrtle: Lenny does change, but I think Babe does, too. When she’s attempting to kill herself, she realizes that their mother (who hung herself AND her old yellow cat, which got national attention) didn’t hang the cat because she hated him, as they thought. She hung him because she didn’t want to be alone, and Babe feels that, too. Meg is still Meg. I recommend she see a therapist to work out her issues.
Pearl: I think they could all benefit from a little bit of therapy! That’s true about Babe. I hadn’t thought about that.
Myrtle: They could also use a meal that’s not pure sugar. There’s the birthday candy, the sad crumbly cookie, the lemonade (so much sugar!), the banana splits that Grandaddy bought them after their mother’s funeral, and the big cake Meg and Babe buy for Lenny at the end. I used to be an English teacher so I have to ask: what’s symbolic about these foods?
Pearl: There are also a few Cokes. I actually made a little note about them being a source of comfort. It seems like anytime anyone is getting too worked up, another character offers them something sugary to drink.
Myrtle: Hey, and Blanche asks Stella to run to the corner and get her a lemon Coke in A Streetcar Named Desire, our next selection! I was wondering what they would have in common, and there it is: COKES.
Pearl: I noticed that, too! And it was actually because it’s a tactic my grandmother used on me and my sisters when were young. Work up a few tears and you’d have a Coke in your hand in no time. The fizz is calming, you know.
Myrtle: I’m a believer.
We have a book club set of Crimes of the Heart for libraries and schools to check out–how do you think a play is going to go over in a book club setting?
Pearl: I think a play could be a lot of fun. There’s a lot to discuss, but you also have the added option of having members read/act out scenes that they liked.
Myrtle: That could be fun. Let me know if you want me to chase you around with a broom!
Pearl: Lord knows I could use a little exercise! Active reading!