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September 2012

Horton Foote's staying power

by Brooke Allen

On the creative prowess of playwright Horton Foote.

Like Eugene O’Neill, the playwright Horton Foote essentially had two careers. During the first, which lasted from the early 1940s until the late 1960s, he established a reputation as a fine regional writer with a homespun flavor, occasional flashes of brilliance, and a flawless ear for the dialogue of his native East Texas. The one-act plays Foote wrote for live television in the early 1950s (The Oil Well, The Trip to Bountiful, and Death of the Old Man, among others) were immediately recognized as works that lifted the new medium to a higher level. His Oscar-winning screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) put him at the top of Hollywood’s A-list.

But the downward slope from that pinnacle is famously precipitous, and by 1968 the world seemed to have lost interest in what Foote had to offer. Sex and violence now ruled at the Hollywood box office. Original television drama was no longer being produced. Broadway, in the era of Hair, deemed Foote non-commercial. With four children to support, the playwright considered giving up writing altogether. He retreated with his family to New Hampshire and thought about opening an antique shop. It was only at his wife’s insistence that he continued doggedly to pursue his vocation, with no guarantee that the plays he was turning out in his backwoods study would ever be produced. As his colleague Alan J. Pakula would later say, Foote did not “cut his talent to the fashion of the time.” He continued to work his particular vein, which was the multilayered society of his hometown, Wharton, Texas—usually called Harrison in his plays.

And yet, qualitatively, the works that grew out of Foote’s New Hampshire exile (like those of Eugene O’Neill’s exile in the California hills) were something entirely new, indicating that the playwright had achieved a level of artistry of which, to judge from his earlier pieces with their neatly tied ends and generally satisfactory outcomes, one might not have thought him capable. There were dark comedies like The Blind Date and The One-Armed Man, which this summer have received a stellar production at Manhattan’s 59E59 Theater. And within two years of moving to New Hampshire, Foote had written eight of the nine plays that make up the Orphans’ Home Cycle, an epic work based loosely on the lives of his parents, fictionalized as Horace and Elizabeth Robedaux. (The eight he wrote were Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, Courtship, Valentine’s Day, 1918, Cousins, and The Death of Papa; The Widow Claire was written later and inserted into the series.) Before long, these were being produced in the new off-Broadway theaters that had begun to flourish during Foote’s absence from the scene.

More wonders ensued. Foote’s original screenplay Tender Mercies (1983) won Oscars both for him and for his star, longtime Foote performer and devoté Robert Duvall. The new plays were much darker and more complicated than previous ones. There was The Habitation of Dragons (1988), Foote’s version of Sophoclean tragedy. There was Dividing the Estate (1989, first performed in New York in 2007), the play Marx and Engels might have written if they’d had a sense of humor: a hilarious excoriation of the rentier class as worked out through the fortunes of a disintegrating family of Texas landowners. There was The Young Man from Atlanta (winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), a masterpiece of reading and writing between the lines: a play largely about homosexuality in which the word homosexuality, and even the concept of it, are never actually mentioned. There were emotionally complex and unsettling pieces like The Roads to Home (1982) and The Day Emily Married (1996). No more happy endings or even conclusive ones: whatever tragic events might have occurred on stage, we are always made aware that the next day, and the next, and the next, the spent characters will have to go back to uttering the banal niceties and enduring the prying curiosity that make up life in their unforgivingly conventional society.

I was impressed by all these achievements, but it wasn’t until I saw the full three-evening production of the Orphans’ Home Cycle at the Signature Theater Company in 2010 that I experienced one of those artistic epiphanies that the modern theater all too rarely provides. This is clearly a very great work of art, and Foote (who died in 2009 at the age of ninety-two) has proved a very great playwright, in my opinion the greatest American playwright of the last century.

His work suffers from none of the limitations that have marred even the best of his peers. Eugene O’Neill had no ear for language, and was unforgivably self-indulgent in his refusal to edit; Foote seldom misplaced a phrase or an intonation. Arthur Miller delivered solid melodramas with neatly packaged moral messages, all totally lacking in humor. A view of life that does not include humor is an incomplete one. In Foote, as in Chekhov (with whom he is often compared), tragedy and comedy are not separate entities but are inextricably blended through all of life’s trials. And where Miller was heavily didactic Foote was the opposite: nowhere in all his sixty plays and screenplays can one find a line as obvious or as nakedly declarative as Mrs. Willy Loman’s famous “Attention must be paid. . . . Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” Foote knew that nobody talks like that. Tennessee Williams, a longtime friend and admirer of Foote’s, knew it too, but his plays examined the pathological where Foote’s turned to the universal.

For a long time I have privately agreed with Mary McCarthy’s unkind assessment of “the cave-world of the American school playwrights, who have accustomed us to a stage inhabited by inarticulate, ape-like individuals groping for words”:

The typical character of the so-called American realist school belongs to the urban lower middle class sociologically, but biologically he is a member of some indeterminate lower order of primates. This creature is housed in a living-room filled with installment-plan furniture, some of which will be broken before the play is over. The sound of breakage and the sound of heavy breathing will signify “theatre.” As directed by Elia Kazan, the whip-cracking ringmaster of this school of brutes, the hero is found standing with clenched fists, stage left, yelling at some member of his family, stage right, until one of them breaks into hysterical weeping and collapses onto a chair by the stage-center table, his great head buried in his hands. The weeping character is confessing to being alcoholic, homosexual, a failure.

Foote, even from his earliest days, was so very, very different. His plays contain countless alcoholics, homosexuals, and failures, but these characters are subtly self-revealing rather than crudely confessional.

Yet Foote is not a household name and is ignored, it seems, in the academy. Flipping through the SAT Literature Review book recently, I was struck by its summary of late twentieth-century drama: “Important English-language playwrights of the era,” it said, “included Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Thornton Wilder in the United States.” Mention is then made of verse plays and theater of the absurd, and the author(s) go on to opine that “Perhaps the most important English-language playwright of the present day is Tom Stoppard. . . . Other major contemporary playwrights include David Mamet, Edward Albee, Peter Shaffer, and August Wilson.” No mention of Foote.

Why should he have slipped beneath so many people’s radar? Some, like his biographer Wilborn Hampton, have suggested that Foote’s relative obscurity might be due to his quiet middle-class lifestyle. He bedded no movie stars, imbibed only Dr. Pepper, had no nervous breakdowns. He was married to the same woman for nearly fifty years and enjoyed happy relationships with all of his children. (His daughter Hallie, now a distinguished actress, has proved the preeminent interpreter of her father’s work.) He was also an unassuming man, and the public has proved again and again that it accepts artists’ own valuation of themselves: portentousness and self-importance have never hurt any writer’s reputation. Then too, as Martin Benson, the director of Foote’s play Getting Frankie Married (1995), once pointed out, “Maybe one reason he’s not produced as much as he should be is that sometimes his plays seem simplistic on the page. You can think, ‘Oh, rural America,’ and that it’s oversimplified and a cliché. But when you get up to act them, they’re incredibly rich, with enormous depths.”

Rural America . . . Yes, Foote was a regional writer, but—at least in the great later plays—regional only in the sense that Jane Austen was a regional writer: he shared with Austen, that is, the conviction that a provincial backwater offers as full a panoply of human folly, nobility, tragedy, and absurdity as any great metropolis does. Just as Austen’s characters occasionally repair to Bath to take the waters, Foote’s sometimes seek greener pastures in nearby Houston, but their inner lives are always lived back in Harrison. And of all the major Southern writers Foote relied the least on “Southernisms.” His plays contain no redeye gravy or fried green tomatoes; his characters seldom venture to the Piggly Wiggly. His earlier plays have a few colorful regionalisms, but as he matured artistically they dwindled, and by the time he wrote the Orphans’ Home Cycle they had all but disappeared. Instead, local flavor is embedded in the rhythms and music of the dialogue (Reynolds Price called Foote “unquestionably the supreme musician among our great American playwrights”), as well as in the telling euphemisms and circumlocutions required to be cruel, to be pointed, to be direct in a society that prides itself on gentility and politesse. How often, while visiting my own Texan relatives, have I not heard barbed little exchanges like the following?

Roberta [speaking of her son, Tommy]: Did you know Julia and Tommy were engaged, Mrs. Nelson?
Mrs. Nelson: Yes, I heard.
Roberta: We think she’s mighty sweet. She isn’t the prettiest girl in the world, but she’s mighty sweet.
Tommy: I think she’s the prettiest girl in the world.
Roberta: I’m glad you do, Sonny. Anyway, Daddy and I think she’s mighty sweet.
(From The Old Beginning, 1952)

Foote was a master of this sort of thing. He was a master, too, at rendering the inconsequential chit-chat that makes up the background noise of all our lives:

Frankie: What was the name of her first husband? I can’t remember and Mrs. Willis is about to drive me crazy asking me to remember his name.
Laverne: Ross. Ross something. He was with an oil crew. I don’t think they were married more than eight months.
Constance: Ross Matthews?
Laverne: I think so.
(Isabel comes in)
Was the name of Georgia Dale’s first husband Ross?
Isabel: No, Billy.
Laverne: Billy?
Isabel: Yes, don’t you remember? She was a little taller than he was and so she stopped wearing high heels whenever she went out with him.
Laverne: It wasn’t Billy. It was Ross.
Constance: Ross Matthews.
Isabel: Well, maybe so, but who was Billy?
Laverne: God knows.
Isabel: Don’t you remember how she stopped wearing high heels when she met him? I thought she married him.
Laverne: No, it was Ross.
Constance: I think so, too. Ross Matthews.
(From Getting Frankie Married—and Afterward, 1995)

Critics have usually classified Foote as a realistic playwright, but as such dialogue indicates his “realism” was always stylized, and as he got older it became more so, with startling whiffs of Samuel Beckett rising from Harrison’s banal street corners. Three of the Orphans’ Home plays—Convicts, Valentine’s Day, and Cousins—attain an absurdism worthy of Ionesco, with dramatic and even tragic events occurring in a context of farcical mayhem. One of Foote’s favorite techniques along these lines was to make use of a character who is in some way impaired—drunk, senile, or, in Harrison parlance, “not quite bright”—and who has to have everything explained to him over and over, so that while laughing at the comic reiteration the audience is given a painless dose of exposition. It was a device the playwright used again and again, always to advantage. In Valentine’s Day, he compounded the effect with a madman, a drunk, and a simpleminded girl, so that the pivotal events of the play—Elizabeth and Horace’s moving reconciliation with Elizabeth’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn, and the eventual suicide of the madman—are played out against a disconcerting background of low farce.

Foote was not in any conventional sense of the word a political playwright, but he never lost sight of the often dreadful political and social realities of the Texas he knew, where the scars of slavery and Reconstruction were still raw. As mentioned above, Dividing the Estate carries an almost Marxist message, and when the matriarch Stella Gordon boasts that the family estate “has taken very good care of us all these years,” the audience readily understands the opposite to be the case: the existence of the estate and its promise (false, as things turn out) of unearned income for life has in fact ruined each and every one of the Gordons.

Well, not quite every one, after all. There are always a few people who rise above circumstances just as there are those who sink inexplicably beneath them, and the question of why “Some men amount to something and some men don’t,” as one of Foote’s characters remarks, remains a mystery. As a boy, Foote was faced with that question on a daily basis in the persons of his three maternal uncles, every one of them a drunkard and a wastrel. How had this happened when their parents were so very respectable? Foote explored the issue in the Orphans’ Home Cycle, for whose purposes he rolled up all three of his uncles into the single character of Brother Vaughn. (The very young Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of Brother in early productions of Valentine’s Day and 1918 made an indelible impression on those who saw it, so much so that Foote delayed production of the cycle’s final installment, The Death of Papa, until Broderick was old enough to play the by-then-thirtyish Brother.)

The issue of race relations is never front and center in Foote’s plays, but neither is it ever forgotten. Just as Jane Austen did not presume to write a scene in which two men speak alone, Foote did not presume to write one in which two black characters speak alone. But such characters hover most significantly at the fringes of his plays and sometimes step in to steal the scene. In his Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood, Foote mused on the parallel but mysterious lives of Wharton’s black citizens, wondering at their silent stoicism.

[The population of Wharton] was three thousand then, with almost as many blacks as whites. I knew all the whites, at least by sight, and I knew many of the blacks by their given names: Stant, Baby Clegg, Delia, Celleste, Little Bit, Willie, Dee and Walter. Walter was Stant’s cousin, and looked almost white. I wondered about that, but never asked why it was so . . .
Walter and his sister Eliza each had a one-room house in my grandparents’ backyard. I wonder now how they endured their lives without complaint.

Eliza had to be up every morning (seven days a week) at seven and cook breakfast, dinner and supper. For all this she was paid three dollars a week, and furnished a one-room house and food. Walter worked in the yard, and after my grandfather died, chauffeured my grandmother on trips to the farms, the cemetery to visit my grandfather’s grave, around town or to Houston. I never knew what he got paid, but I feel sure it was only three dollars too.

The grim lives of such domestics in these plays is never dwelt on too obviously, but they serve to put the white characters’ carping into proportion. In Dividing the Estate the Gordon family’s hysterical wailing over their financial losses is set in unflattering relief against the joy of the two black servants when they are told of their modest five-thousand-dollar bequests from matriarch Stella: “Didn’t I tell you she was going to generously remember us?”

But in this area as in every other, nothing could make Foote a didactic writer, and some audiences have been offended by his apparently brutal manner of telling it like it is rather than as it should be. The dark farce Convicts, set in 1904, features a broken-down, paranoiac landowner who has thought to save money by contracting black convicts to work his decrepit plantation in conditions not essentially different from the slavery their forebears endured on the same spot half a century earlier. That a violent and exploitative man should nonetheless be portrayed as pitiable and human, even comical, offended the sort of critics who like their moral lessons unadulterated. And yet—looking at this illiterate, drunken old creature decked out in his Confederate officer’s blue coat, by now faded and unraveling—well, what clearer metaphor could anyone want?

In 1991 an excellent film version of Convicts appeared, directed by Peter Masterson and starring Robert Duvall as Soll Gautier and James Earl Jones as Ben, his long-suffering retainer. As with most of Foote’s original movies it was low-budget and had a limited release. Only two have escaped this fate: Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful (1985, also directed by Masterson). The Trip to Bountiful was a fine movie, undoubtedly, but it has always bothered me that, of all Foote’s dramas, this one should be the most widely known. For it is an immature work, originally written for live TV in the 1950s when Foote’s writing had not yet begun to achieve what John Lahr has called his characteristic “rhapsody of ambivalence.” The Trip to Bountiful could almost have been written by Arthur Miller. There is too clear a differentiation between “good” and “bad” characters, with the warm, earthbound Carrie Watts set against her ragingly narcissistic daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae. Jessie Mae is a memorable character, especially as portrayed in the film by the brilliant Carlin Glynn, but she is too coarse-grained. Over the course of his career Foote would greatly refine his narcissists, so that the later specimens—Josie Weems of the chilling Night Seasons (1993), for instance, or Horace’s sister Lily Dale of both the Orphans’ Home Cycle and The Young Man from Atlanta—are far more subtle and ultimately more insidious examples of the type. In a single line from one of these ladies, Foote could open whole vistas of self-regard:

Josie: I wish I had never permitted that marriage. I blame myself for giving my consent.
Laura Lee: I think they would have married anyway, Mother.

Josie devours the life of her daughter, Laura Lee, preventing her from marrying the man she loves and from having the home of her own that she longs for. But by the time Foote wrote Night Seasons he had come to understand that characters like Laura Lee (and by extension Carrie Watts) are not pure victims; they play a definite role in their own subjugation. There were to be no more pure victims in his work, and no more pure villains.

This is why the cozy Grandma Moses view of Foote is so very wrong. The playwright’s obituary in the Houston Chronicle stated that, “In an increasingly confused and rootless world, he was a voice of certitude and continuity—yes, like a grandfather or uncle imparting basic yet invaluable life lessons.” But no—that is exactly what Horton Foote was not. Confusion and rootlessness are at the heart of all his best work, and the longer he wrote the less certitude and continuity he seemed to find in anything. No one ever wrote more truthfully of the speed with which the waters close over the heads of the recently deceased, or of the social changes that casually obliterate ways of life and even the memories of them: the transition, which Foote experienced firsthand, from an aristocratic plantation economy to a mercantile one; the coming of oil and the social retrenchments it imposed; the greedy spurt of development in which Wharton/Harrison’s lovely tree-lined Richmond Street began, as he said, a “slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America.” Nothing is permanent; the only way we can experience even the illusion of continuity is to cling to it for dear life.

Ben’s final speech in Convicts says it all:

Ben: Says she’s gonna let the weeds and trees and the cane get this land. Six months from now you won’t know where anybody’s buried out here. Not my people, not the convicts, not Mr. Soll. The trees and the weeds, and the cane, will take everything. “Cane land” they called it once, cane land it will be again. The house will go, the store will go, the graves will go, those with tombstones and those without.

“The world’s an orphan’s home,” wrote Marianne Moore in the poem from which Foote took the title for his masterpiece. We are all orphans wandering alone through life, and the consolations of community and family are fleeting at best.

Brooke Allen's latest book is Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Ivan R Dee). 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 September 2012, on page 18

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