Books and the Culture

A Life in the Theater

Picking up where he left off in Farewell–on a westbound bus from Wharton, Texas to Pasadena, California–Horton Foote continues the story of his development from aspiring actor to professional writer in his latest memoir, Beginnings.

Before he can even get off the bus, however, his creative impulses and artistic aspirations come face-to-face with the scorn of the outside world. “This boy is going to acting school. It’s costing seven hundred and fifty dollars,” the woman seated next to an ashamed Foote announces to the other passengers. When he finally arrives at the Pasadena Playhouse, Foote is immediately asked where he is from. “Well, I’m not from Texas,” he is told by an instructor, “and I can’t understand a word you’re saying… you’ll never get anywhere with that accent.” Having been sufficiently intimidated, Foote enrolled in diction classes, where he was forced to repeat the word “trippingly” over and over again: “Trippingly, trippingly, trippingly…”

But intimidating instructors and inane diction classes are only part of the story. Foote contrasts the difficulty of these and other early challenges with experiences that inspired and refined his artistic sensibility, such as seeing Eva Le Gallienne in a Los Angeles production of Hedda Gabbler. Of this performance he writes, “Mind you it is now sixty-seven years since I saw this production, and yet parts of her performance are as vivid to me now as when I first saw them. In a very fundamental way it changed my life. What I saw on the stage that night made me determined from then on to somehow spend my life in the theater.”

Just as Farewell’s account of his upbringing is a colorful view of small town, Depression-era Texas, Beginnings’ depiction of the early days of his career provides a wonderful glimpse of American theater during the 1930s and ’40s. Foote was working at a bookstore at New York’s Penn Station when a friend stopped by and asked him to read an “unconventional” play that he had just completed. Foote was “very taken” with the play and asked the author to allow him to use it in a workshop production that he would direct. The result was the first performance of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which premiered on Broadway a few months’ later.

At the time, Foote was still intent on becoming an actor. He learned Stanislavky’s method from Moscow Art Theatre’s Andrius Jilinsky, performed in plays directed by Max Reinhardt and Lee Strasberg, and substitute-taught an acting class led by Sanford Meisner. He also collaborated on a movement piece with Martha Graham and composer Louis Horst. But as his acting resume grew, so too did his impulse to write, with his early efforts culminating in a production of his first full-length play, Texas Town. Brooks Atkinson, the critic from The New York Times, was less than impressed with Foote’s performance, describing it as “without much talent and no originality.” But Atkinson recognized something special in the writing.

“Although Mr. Foote has no particular ax to grind, his play gives a real and languid impression of a town changing in its relation to the world,” he wrote. “If Texas Town does not derive from Mr. Foote’s personal experiences and observations, he is remarkably inventive… it is impossible not to believe absolutely in the reality of his characters.”

In addition to recognizing his power of observation, Atkinson also identified what would become Foote’s thematic obsession: the need to overcome the challenge of unwanted change in order to find happiness. After a few more productions, including a Broadway disappointment, Only the Heart, Foote became influenced by the emerging experimental theater movement led by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and others who “were contemptuous of Broadway.”

“I joined in on the attacks,” he writes, “denouncing current theater, and vowed to myself never to write another realistic play.” He took advantage of an opportunity to pursue experimental theater by accepting a teaching position at a school in Washington, D.C., where he established an acting company that performed plays by Sartre, Lorca, and Gertrude Stein. After five years, however, he decided to move back to New York, coming to a significant artistic awakening.

“As grateful as I was for the opportunity I had been given to have my own theatre and to experiment as much as I pleased, I wanted to go back to my earlier way of writing,” he writes. “I felt I was a storyteller, and that I wanted to write plays simply and directly.”

In explaining his approach to playwriting, Foote quotes Trepliov’s speech in the last scene of The Sea Gull: “I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that it’s a matter not of old forms and not of new forms, but that a man writes, not thinking at all of what form to choose, writes because it comes pouring out from his soul.”

It’s an approach that carries over to his memoirs as well. As he does in his plays, he uses simplicity and directness to leave the reader unprepared for a scene’s emotional impact. In addition to his ability to enliven seemingly ordinary moments with an unexpected emotional weight and dramatic significance, Foote also uses his gift of dialogue in Beginnings to reconstruct scenes from the past. He’s particularly effective in illustrating the early years of his career in the theater. But he leaves the reader wishing that he had been just as thorough in describing other significant aspects of those years, particularly his work in television and film. Foote’s work for the television series “Philco Playhouse” and “The Goodyear Playhouse” contributed to the creation of the 1950s’ Golden Age of Television and was, indeed a period of great artistic achievement for him, producing what some consider his strongest work, including The Trip to Bountiful, The Travelling Lady, and The Oil Well. His screenwriting, for which he has garnered enormous success, including Oscars for both To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, is only briefly mentioned.

While the California diction classes may have “fixed” his accent, all the diction classes in the world couldn’t rid Foote of his deep connection to Texas. As in Texas Town, nearly all of his work is drawn from the stories and characters of his Texas past, making him the state’s most prominent voice in American theatre. But while Wharton is the source of “the reality of his characters,” as Brooks Atkinson observed so long ago, the universality of his themes and broad appeal of his stories sets him apart from other playwrights of the ’30s and ’40s, such as Lynn Riggs and Paul Green, who may be relegated to regional status.

Foote’s work does not possess the lyrical symbolism of Tennessee Williams’, the psychological complexity of Edward Albee’s, or the social commentary of Arthur Miller’s work. He has, however, over his long and varied career distinguished himself as a major American voice, and, at 85, with the publication of Beginnings, continues to add to his already impressive body of work.

Tim Staley is a freelance writer living in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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