20 November 2014

Beth Henley and 'Ridiculous Fraud'

by Kirk Woodward

[Frequent ROT guest-blogger Kirk Woodward this time contributes a rumination on the dramaturgy of Mississippi-born playwright Beth Henley, focusing in particular on her 2007 play, Ridiculous Fraud.  Aside from a discussion of the play itself, which Kirk believes is underappreciated by critics and theater artists alike, Kirk, a playwright himself and a native of Louisville, Kentucky, also examines what it means to be a “Southern playwright.”  As I usually promise in my prefaces to Kirk’s ROT postings, I know you’ll find his remarks informative and provocative.  ~Rick]

Some time ago I was invited to write an article about the playwright Beth Henley (born in 1952). The project never got past the draft stage, but it did introduce me to Henley’s plays. In particular, it introduced me to a play I think deserves more attention than it’s gotten, so I’m going to do my bit for it here. 

Beth Henley was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1952. She is often referred to as a “Southern playwright.” Most, but not all, of Henley’s plays are set in the South, including the majority of works in her two volumes of Collected Plays, and two later plays, Ridiculous Fraud (2007) and The Jacksonian (2013). (Her most recent play, Laugh, first produced in 2014 and scheduled for its premiere by the Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C., in March 2015, seems not to be specifically related to the South.) Her best known plays, both of which have been turned into movies, are Crimes of the Heart (1978) and The Miss Firecracker Contest (1984), both, again, set in the South. 

I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and when I was growing up, the idea of “regional playwriting” interested me. How would a play that reflected, say, life in Louisville differ from any other play, other than in its setting? That’s not to say that there was much regional drama around to experience at the time. Kermit Hunter (1910-2001) wrote one of his “symphonic dramas,” Bound for Kentucky (1961) for the city of Louisville, but it wasn’t a success. My father admired and introduced me to Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (1930), a lovely play that tells the story of the Old Testament in what would then have been called Negro dialect – but Connelly was from Pennsylvania, and for decades Pastures has been impractical to mount, so I (and most people today) have never seen it. As for Tennessee Williams, he was only a slightly disreputable name to me while I was growing up. 

Today the situation has changed, and the South in particular is associated with a number of playwrights. Williams, Horton Foote (a Texan, actually), and Marsha Norman (from Louisville, Kentucky) come to mind; another is Beth Henley. What does it mean, exactly, to be a “Southern” playwright? We can try to answer that question while looking at Henley’s play Ridiculous Fraud, both because it provides a good basis for a discussion of what makes a play “regional,” and because I think it’s a worthwhile play, much more interesting and worthy of production than one would guess from its history and, in general, reviews. 

About the play: Ridiculous Fraud takes place in Louisiana. Its action moves from the family home in New Orleans, to a farmhouse in the backwoods, to a cabin deep in the swamp, hidden from civilization, and then, at the end, back to New Orleans, not to the crowded part of the city but to a cemetery. The plot of the play is a little complicated. In Act One Scene One, which takes place in the summertime, the Clay family, including brothers Andrew and Kap; Andrew’s wife, Willow; and their uncle, Baites (who has picked up Georgia, a one-legged homeless woman, that same day) are reacting to the collapse of the wedding of the youngest brother, Lefcad, who ran away before the ceremony. Lefcad turns up, and, scared that he’ll get beaten to a pulp for his cowardice, runs away again. Scene Two, set in the fall, finds Lefcad hiding out in his uncle Baites’s cabin, surrounded by plenty of other family turmoil: Willow is having an affair, Baites’s girlfriend seems to be robbing him, and nobody likes Andrew. 

Act Two Scene One finds the family still deeper in the woods, in Kap’s cabin. Georgia has left Baites. Kap and Andrew taunt him about it, Andrew accidentally stabs Lefcad with an arrow and has a fistfight with Kap, who also gets his face cut with a knife by Willow’s father. In Scene Two the family, gathered at its cemetery plot after the death of the brothers’ father, finds that Georgia has returned to Baites, Willow’s affair is over, Andrew has learned a bit of humility, and the brothers seem more determined to tolerate each other. Even Lefcad seems to be in a better mood. 

I wonder how this plot summary will strike someone reading about the play for the first time. Obviously I’m leaving out many details, but my description probably makes it clear why Henley’s plays are sometimes described as “gothic,” which can be critical shorthand for “violent.” I hope my summary also gives an idea of the complexity of the story and the importance of the relationships in it. What I can’t summarize quickly is the quality of the experience of the play, so I’ll try to describe that. 

First, though, about the history of Ridiculous Fraud: It was first performed at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, from May 5 through June 11, 2006. Later that same year, in November, it was performed in Costa Mesa, California. I haven’t found evidence of any other productions of the play, and the reviews for these two were mixed to poor, including the New York Times, where Charles Isherwood called it “confused… all cracks and precious little comedy” (May 16, 2006). On the other hand, Naomi Siegel (in the Sunday Times) did call it “splendidly acted and directed . . . an affirmation of Family with a capital F” (May 21, 2006). Similarly divided reviews greeted the Costa Mesa, California, production, and in general the play’s reception seems to have been grim. Emily Mann, the Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre, wrote me in an email: “I think Beth is an authentic southern voice and except for a couple of her plays, northerners don’t get it. I love this play . . . It was in some ways a rocky first production with some cast problems so I think we would have gotten much further with the production if that had not been true.”  

I haven’t seen the play in performance. Just from reading it, though, I feel it more than deserves a further look. I find the elements of the play both interesting and deeply dramatic.  

First, something about the title. I’m not certain it’s appropriate, although Fraud does include an element of literal fraud – the unseen father of the family has gone to jail for it. There are definitely metaphorical elements of fraud – that is, deception or self-deception – in the actions of the three brothers, Lefcad, Andrew, and Kap, whose lives form the center of the drama. What I’m not sure about is how the term “ridiculous” applies to the mounting complexity of the relationships of the three brothers and their wives and in-laws, as they attempt to navigate their unfortunate family dynamics that drive them, both symbolically and literally, deeper and deeper into a dark woods, and ultimately to a cemetery, possibly the loneliest setting of all. The characters have ridiculous aspects to them, I suppose; but they and the play are by no means silly. 

Where does Ridiculous Fraud fit in the realm of dramaturgy? For any Southern playwright, comparisons with Tennessee Williams are inevitable; we seem to hear the cadences of Williams’ dialogue, for example, in this speech from another of Henley’s plays, Lucky Spot

An extravaganza! This was supposed to be an extravaganza! Instead it’s a farce, it’s a flop. A dream so shattered I can’t even remember what the pieces are.  

But Ridiculous Fraud brings one earlier playwright in particular to mind. It’s not the one I think of in connection with Henley’s better known plays Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. Those both tell a more or less straightforward story, in the course of which at least one major secret is revealed. That’s a pattern of drama associated with the later “social” plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), and an extremely influential pattern in drama today – a climax in which something deeply hidden comes to light. This kind of dramatic device has been central to Western drama at least since the social plays of Ibsen were first performed; it informs the plays of writers as different as Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward, and of course is a staple of television drama as well. 

Secrets are also revealed in Fraud, but not in the sense of startling revelation as much as of a developing understanding of the characters, as the action of the play carries them increasingly further into the murky places of personality. Secrets imply history, and the South is a land tightly linked to history, retaining memories of its formative years, of the Civil War, and of the period following that stretches all the way to today. Much of the resonance of Henley’s plays comes from a sense that history exists in close relationship with the present.  

The playwright that Ridiculous Fraud brings primarily to mind is the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The form of Fraud is Chekhovian – definitely an American version of it, but still, like many of Chekhov’s mature plays, a family portrait, in which the events of the play do not overshadow the significance of the family unit itself, including the family’s comic elements and its inability to advance itself in the way it feels it ought.  

The Chekhovian tone in Fraud is unmistakable: 

I can’t believe I’ve lied to him. My own brother. Everything’s falling apart. I’ve been lying. I’m not a liar; so it’s impossible. But love makes you do the things you do. 

Fraud tells a story unified by a movement from assumptions to reality. The characters make assumptions about themselves and their worlds, and they attempt to force those assumptions on others, but in the end they find that reality imposes different conclusions. This pattern also can be labeled Chekhovian. The resolutions of the play are not completely beneficent or healing, any more than it is in Chekhov’s major plays. But in general, Henley’s characters tend to retain at least a bit of hope as they move into the clearer realities of their futures, and as a result these plays may be categorized in some sense as comedies, bittersweet comedies, or semi-comedies. However, the movement from assumption to reality in these plays is arduous, and the realities are none too comforting. All these comments can be applied to Chekhov’s plays as well. 

Writers, it is frequently said, write about what they know. (Henley set her more recent play The Jacksonians in the town where she grew up.) One may be tempted to say that Henley’s plays criticize, or even make fun of, the South. This view is not necessarily fair. Any playwright is going to choose difficult moments to write about – that’s the nature of the art. Just because a play presents a particular group of people in a conflict situation, may not imply an unfavorable opinion; no one thinks of Hamlet as a critique of the Danes. A playwright may set a drama in a particular region, not for the purpose of criticizing that region, but for the purpose of using it to emphasize the humanity of its truths. I would say that Henley is writing about conflict among characters she has imagined, using whatever instruments are available to her, including locale, characterization, ways of speaking, and so on. In other words, she’s not a reporter but an imaginative artist.  

In Ridiculous Fraud Beth Henley does make its regional – in this case, Southern – character clear. Beginning with the obvious, the Southern settings of Henley’s plays give an occasion for colorful names that appear to be more likely to be encountered in the South than elsewhere: Lafcad, Willow, Kap, Georgia, and the child affectionately (perhaps) known as Little Butterball. Fraud is full of telling social details related to what we may assume is life in the deep South, like a practical joke in the play that involves “eating a bug,” or the duck hunts that Kap stages for people with money who want the primal feeling of hunting. We hear people refer to “Daddy” and “red neck bubba.”  

The South is not shown as a necessarily poor environment. However, the physical South that Henley portrays is not a financially upbeat area like the Atlanta suburbs, but a more primal area, less protected by social conventions, more representative of basic emotions. The family home we see in Act One of Fraud is genteel, although definitely not lavish. But the backwoods farmhouse in Act Two is a basic sort of structure, and Kap’s cabin in the woods in Act Three is downright primitive. This progression of settings suggests a reality in the play that becomes increasingly gritty. (Race relations however are only peripherally present in the play, as in a casual comment that Lefcad, the brother who fled his own wedding, will probably be “lynched.” Henley isn’t preaching about social problems. However, she is clearly aware of them.) 

Poverty is by no means unique to the South, but setting the play in that locale does add complexity to the social background in the sense that having almost no money may not be a barrier to social acceptance, as shown in the way Andrew is trying to win respect for his family through his political career. A character can be down at heel and still hope for social redemption and a return to an assumed deserved station in society. The importance of family is another significant social element in the plays under consideration. In many areas of the South, family can be a defining characteristic both of individual identity and of social standing. In Fraud the father is in jail, and as noted Andrew wants to raise the family’s prestige by running for State Auditor. If his family problems provide him with a goal, they also give him his burden, since no one else in the family, including but not limited to his father, behaves in any way like a model citizen. In particular his brother Lefcad, scheduled to be married to a woman he doesn’t love, abandons her at the altar and hides out with the family. “I must hold this family all together myself without glue,” Andrew says, but he can’t. 

Much of the energy, and the comedy, in Henley’s plays come from the unsuitability of family members for each other. She presents the South as a place where eccentricity can seem normal. Many of her characters simply seem unsuited for their chosen tasks. In Fraud we meet a duck hunter inept at shooting ducks, a bridegroom who is possibly homosexual, and a new girlfriend who seems to have no history and no trace of dependability. Some reviewers have suggested that Henley arbitrarily places her characters in inappropriate roles that they would not assume in real life. On the other hand, it may be the case that in the more marginal areas of the country, round pegs do not always have to fit into round holes. A relaxed social atmosphere may make it possible for people to exist for years in ways of living that are unsuitable for them. Henley’s characters frequently are not only unsuited for their states of being by their interests and ambitions, but also by their personal characteristics. The backgrounds of many characters include behavior that is worse than eccentric, but in fact is close to dangerous and destructive, as shown by the violence in Fraud

Every family has a history. In Fraud an important family member (the father) is in jail, to the distress and embarrassment of the others. That’s a major part of the family’s history. Behind family specifics, forming a background, is the history of the South, which Henley indirectly, by reference and evocation, in the sense of decline and decay that surrounds the characters, and the sense that something more worthwhile used to exist and that now “the storm’s coming.” There are suggestions that the past was more glorious, and that its remnants exist today, for example in the code of revenge that Ed feels he must follow when he cuts Kap’s face over Kap’s involvement with his wife, a sort of half-remembered code of honor. But those remnants are isolated, floating in space; they are not part of an intelligible code but strange survivals of a previous and more primal era that can now hardly be understood. 

A sign of the hollowness of history in Henley’s plays is the pretenses of her characters. A major motivation in many of her plays is the desire to seem different than one really is – in particular, to seem more socially prominent than one is, as if social prominence could somehow make up for a damaged past. Henley’s characters frequently let the past drive their behavior, rather than learning to live in the moment as much as possible. That past is often presented as problematic, yet it shapes the present, often in destructive ways. This kind of presentation of the hand of history on the life of people of today is surely easier to dramatize in a setting soaked in history like the South. Henley uses the tradition-remembering, family-linked South to evoke how heavy the hand of the past can be. 

On the other hand, a prominent characteristic of Henley’s characters is that in the face of grievous and overwhelming difficulty, they retain hope for a better existence. The family in Fraud that wants to hold up its name goes from bad to worse. Still the characters dream of and plan for a future. Obviously hope is not always realistic. The family in Fraud is not notably benefited by Andrew’s success in politics, which seems to have been made possible by voter indifference more than widespread acceptance of the family. But love, or what passes for love, can and often does bring hope, even if that hope is not likely to be realized. 

Why do people continue to fight and strive for a happy life against overwhelming odds? Henley’s play raises this question but doesn’t answer it. Instead it leads us to look at the mystery that lies behind our refusals to accept defeat and give up entirely. The play’s shadowy settings, like the forest where Kap’s cabin is located in Fraud, hint of mystery, and life at its heart, Henley seems to suggest, is most definitely a mystery. Mystery is mystery because it offers no pat answers. It may lead to confusion and bewilderment. It may lead to Andrew’s bewildered sense in Fraud that life is a dream. Sometimes, though, it may also lead to rebirth, as in the sense of giddiness pervades the last scene of Fraud despite all the disaster and the literal presence of death in the graveyard where the family has gathered. In the midst of death, we are somehow in life. We keep going. 

I hope this look at Ridiculous Fraud makes it clear why I think the play deserves further attention. I think the South provides a rich and useful background for a playwright who wants to capture the varied and contradictory natures of individuals struggling with the mysteries of life. Other geographic or cultural areas perhaps offer similar opportunities for a playwright; as already noted, Henley has written plays set in other areas of the United States. But the South, with its rich history and its evocative spaces, offers unique opportunities for a playwright like Beth Henley to give us provocative evocations of the strangeness of our existence. 

[Kirk’s last contributions to ROT are “Bertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players,” posted on 21 October, and “Bullets Over Bullets Over Broadway,” 29 August.  He also has some work in progress for upcoming postings, so come back often to catch his latest.]


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