"The Miss Firecracker Contest"

Miss Firecracker
Terry Vine

The Miss Firecracker Contest, along with other Beth Henley plays, is characterized as a Southern Gothic. The play is set in the small southern town of Brookhaven, Mississippi, and tells an archetypical story of a young woman trying to reinvent herself. The two main qualities that land The Miss Firecracker Contest squarely into the Southern Gothic genre are:

  1. the story concerns flawed characters.
  2. it occurs in a once prosperous, but now run-down town.

Plot Synopsis

Carnelle Scott had a rocky start in life. Her mother died and her father dragged her around the state with him until he dumped her with Carnelle’s old aunt and her two cousins. Carnelle idolized her cousins, Elain and Delmount, and believed them to be the most beautiful and interesting people in the entire town. At age 17, Elain won the title of Miss Firecracker in the local beauty contest and Carnelle never forgot the sight of her beloved cousin riding atop the Fourth of July float crowned in glory.

Carnelle never achieved the beauty and social status of Elain and made up for it by sleeping with most of the young men in town earning herself the dubious title of Miss Hot Tamale. Carnelle sees a chance to erase her past and start again by winning the beauty contest.

Carnelle hires Popeye, an odd girl from poor beginnings, to sew her costume for the talent portion of the show. Popeye is a talented seamstress who taught herself to sew by making clothes for bullfrogs because she had no dolls to sew for.

In the course of the play, Popeye falls in love with the eccentric and frazzled Delmount. Eventually, Delmount returns Popeye’s affections and finds her odd personality something worth loving.

Delmount is determined to sell every item in his mother’s old house and then the house itself and move to New Orleans. He offers half the sale to Carnelle and begs her to quit the contest and make a new life outside of Brookhaven, Mississippi. Carnelle accepts half the money but wants to continue in The Miss Firecracker contest so she can now leave “in a blaze of glory.”

Elain shows up and announces to Carnelle that she is leaving her husband and two children. She has had enough of their constant need for attention and wants to walk away from it all. Carnelle is thrilled until Elain’s presence overshadows her participation in the contest.

Carnelle’s anger and frustration eventually cause her to explode and spew at all her relatives and friends, insisting that she wants what she wants despite all their petty protestations. Carnelle uses the moment to fling their personality flaws back in their faces and release herself from all their judgments. Within this encounter, Elain understands that she has lost Carnelle’s hero worship and decides to go back to the husband who adores her.

Production Details

  • Setting: Brookhaven, Mississippi
  • Time: End of June and beginning of July
  • Cast Size: This play can accommodate 6 actors.
  • Male Characters: 2
  • Female Characters: 4
  • Characters that could be played by either males or females: 0


  • Carnelle Scott is twenty-four and ready to make a few changes in her life. She wants to turn over a new leaf and be someone who is not “Miss Hot Tamale” and is instead respected and beautiful both inside and out. If she could, she would ride out of town in a blaze of glory with the Miss Firecracker crown on her head and enough money to start again in a new town as a beautiful and talented winner.
  • Popeye Jackson grew up as an odd girl with no money who makes outfits for bullfrogs. Now she is an odd woman with no money who makes outfits for whoever will hire her. She falls head over heels in love with the eccentric Delmount but is sure he could never return her affections. Popeye puts little value on money, talent, and beauty. She makes the world beautiful by her simple actions of generosity.
  • Elain Rutledge enjoyed a life of beauty, talent, and adoration. Her overbearing mother, now deceased, foresaw the end of that lifestyle for Elain and pushed her into marriage. Now Elain is bored with her married life in which she is only adored by only one man and has to answer to two sons she dislikes. Her will to be free and independent is continually at odds with her desire to be wanted and admired.
  • Delmount Williams has never had any trouble finding women who will sleep with him despite his odd appearance and temper. His recent stint in a mental institution has only fortified his eccentricities and desire to rid himself of all memory and ties to Brookhaven, Mississippi. He prides himself on finding the beauty in those who consider themselves plain, but the truth is that he has never tried to pursue anyone or anything that would be a challenge or a true beauty.
  • Mac Sam is an ex-lover of Carnelle’s. He contracted syphilis through Carnelle but has never sought treatment for the disease. He has a magnetic personality despite his ill appearance. He and Carnelle still share a strong attraction, but she is disgusted that he won’t do anything to better his health or station in life.
  • Tessy Mahoney is the beauty contest coordinator. She and Delmount shared a questionable night of lovemaking a long time ago and he has been hiding from her since. She is not a beauty and doubts Carnelle’s chances in the contest, but she seems to be a sweet and pleasant coordinator despite her opinions. She is starstruck by Elain.

Production Notes

Beth Henley makes a particular note at the beginning of the play about Carnelle’s hair which the character has dyed bright red. Henley notes that “It is strongly suggested that the actress playing Carnelle dye her hair bright red instead of opting for a wig.”

The set for The Miss Firecracker Contest is an old southern house filled with antiques in Act One and the backstage of the beauty pageant for Act Two. The play has been produced with success both with full scenic designs and minimal scenic designs.

Content Issues: Language, syphilis, talk of sexual escapades.

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Your Citation
Flynn, Rosalind. ""The Miss Firecracker Contest"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-miss-firecracker-contest-4059292. Flynn, Rosalind. (2020, August 26). "The Miss Firecracker Contest". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-miss-firecracker-contest-4059292 Flynn, Rosalind. ""The Miss Firecracker Contest"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-miss-firecracker-contest-4059292 (accessed September 25, 2021).