Abundance & Beth Henley

Beth_Henley_565The regional theatre movement, which began in this country in the 1960s and 70s, had many positive ramifications: it brought quality theatre to a vast and largely underserved population, it created a regular theatre going public, and it introduced many to the great works of theatrical literature. It also had some interesting and unanticipated consequences. It created a new and unusual class of playwright – those writers who have made a career writing for this new audience, but who haven’t received the kind of national recognition that, say, would be given to writers whose work appears regularly on Broadway. For when a playwright’s work is presented in production in Louisville, KY and Washington DC, and Costa Mesa, CA, for example, a central core audience is never created. Such is the case with the work of Beth Henley.

Elizabeth “Beth” Hecker Henley began her theatre career as an actress, earning a BFA in Acting from Southern Methodist University in 1974. While still an undergraduate student, she penned her first play, Am I Blue, which was produced at SMU in 1973. Henley’s national reputation was launched with her second play, Crimes of the Heart­ which was introduced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, then moved to the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, where it won the Pulitzer Prize in the Drama for 1980-81. It then moved to Broadway’s John Gold Theatre for a run of over 500 performances, closing in 1983 with several more accolades including a Tony Nomination for Best Play. The Broadway run was followed by a successful motion picture version, for which Henley received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Despite this success early in her career, Crimes of the Heart is her only play to receive significant national attention, and the only one commonly known by most people.

While many of her plays remain unknown even to theatre aficionados, Henley continues to be a prolific writer with sixteen stage plays, including The Miss Firecracker Contest, Abundance, and most recently in 2013, The Jacksonian. She also has seven screenplays and screen adaptations to her credit, including the screen adaptation of Crimes of the Heart, Nobody’s Fool starring Rosanna Arquette, True Stories, which she co-wrote with David Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky, and Come West with Me, which is an adaptation of Abundance.

Abundance, Henley’s seventh play, premiered in 1989 as a commission by South Coast Repertory, a regional theatre in Costa Mesa, California, before heading to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club in 1990. It was later staged at San Francisco’s Actors Theater in 1992 and the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C. in 1994. Abundance marked a significant turning point in Henley’s career as her first play outside of the Southern Gothic genre. It also differed in form from her previous works by adopting an episodic style that offered a cinematic view of the Westward Expansion of the United States through the eyes of women over a span of twenty-five years. Frank Rich of The New York Times commended this change, calling it Henley’s “most provocative play in years, a departure to be cherished.”

Abundance, like many plays that have been produced mainly in regional theatres, has been largely overlooked by theatre audiences and professionals alike. While Abundance has yet to see a Broadway production, it has been applauded for its strong script with an imaginative vision of Pioneer life for women in the nineteenth century and was heralded by Sylvie Drake of the LA Times as “Henley’s most thoughtful and accomplished…play to date.”



Mail Order Brides in America

by Melissa Conkling

As America began to expand westward and the concept of Manifest Destiny took hold as a new American ideal, men began to head west in droves in pursuit of their personal fortunes. It was not long before these men discovered that although they now had seemingly boundless opportunities for property ownership and great wealth, there was one vital ingredient towards success and happiness that the American frontier could not provide:  women. Upon moving west, men quickly found themselves deprived of the companionship of women. The towns they settled often became known as unruly bachelor communities. They lacked the refinements they took for granted in their previous homes, particularly those institutions facilitated mainly by women including schools, libraries, churches, and the importance of home and hearth.

When Eliza Farnham travelled to San Francisco in 1849 following the death of her husband during his travels in the west, she immediately noticed the depravity of these bachelor societies and the marked lack of women throughout the city. A published writer and lecturer, Eliza devised a plan to bring suitable and virtuous women by ship to San Francisco after undergoing a rather rigorous screening process to assure that these women would make suitable wives. She placed an ad in the New York papers calling for women “not under twenty-five years of age, who shall bring from their clergy-man…satisfactory testimonials of education, character, capacity, etc.” When the ship, Angelique, arrived in San Francisco to hundreds of eager men, only three women arrived with Mrs. Farnham. The outrage of the men became apparent throughout the city’s saloons and into the streets, confirming the demand for women.

Over the years, other similar schemes to ship women to the west were made, with increasing, yet still disappointing success. Personal ads began to appear in newspapers throughout the country from men seeking wives and women offering themselves as wives. Matrimonial News and The New Plan became a publications dedicated entirely to this matchmaking effort. This and several other publications brought together pioneering men with young ladies with varying success. Some of these matches led to successful happy marriages, yet other arrangements lasted only hours.

The young women who offered themselves as mail-order brides did so often as an act of desperation or necessity, and sometimes at the will of their parents. Many of these young women had been unsuccessful in finding husbands, and as they got older, often well into their twenties (the horror!), they saw becoming a mail-order bride as the answer to their prayers. In some cases, marriages were arranged before the trek westward, as religious custom required missionary men and women to be married before they could travel together unescorted. And still more, having been widowed at fairly young ages, found this to be their second chance at marriage. Many of these women left their homes and families to join their husbands in the frontier, yet others belonged to pioneering families who had already settled in the west.

Bethenia Owens’ family had moved to Oregon when she was just three, and she likely never endured the hardship of seen as an undesirable bride. At only fourteen years old, Bethenia’s parents arranged for her to marry a farmer, Legrand Hill, who had advertised in an Oregon newspaper. She and her family were both enthusiastic about the marriage, yet very soon, Bethenia’s husband proved to be a tyrant who more concerned with idling his time away than with providing for his family, and even invested the money given to him by his in-laws to build a home in a failed business venture, choosing instead to house his wife, infant and himself in a tent. Fortunately for Bethenia, her family was supportive of her eventual decision to leave Mr. Hill, and she later went on to become Oregon’s first woman doctor.

Unlike Bethenia, who became a mail-order bride for a man who was not far from her home, Rachel Bella Kahn made the voyage to America from her native Russia only after meeting the sister of her mail-order suitor to undergo a series of tests, including untangling a ball of yarn. With her approval, Rachel set out to meet her fiancé, Abraham Calof, also a Russian native, at Ellis Island and then headed west to begin their farming life in North Dakota. Having come much further than many of her fellow mail-order brides, Rachel had much more at stake. For Rachel and Abraham, however, it was love at first sight at Ellis Island upon recognizing each other from photographs they had exchanged. Although they endured many of the hardships of pioneering life, the couple enjoyed over fifty years of marriage and had nine children.

While the hopes were often high for these mail-order marriages, they were anything but predictable. The marriages of these mail-order brides vary as greatly as their origins and for every happily ever after there is an equally sad story of hardship and heartbreak. With men in the west greatly outnumbering those in the east, and women in high demand in the American frontier, it was often the best – or only – option available to these women. These women, whether their marriage was a success or not, came to mold the shape of America and helped to tame the Wild West.