On a late afternoon in early May, the leading lights of the New York theater community gathered at Lincoln Center to pay tribute to Horton Foote, the late playwright from Wharton who died March 4. With a critical reputation as the American Chekhov, Foote was the recipient of two Academy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the Pulitzer Prize (for The Young Man from Atlanta). He authored such languorous classics as The Trip to Bountiful, Tender Mercies and the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. But for all of his 92 years, the most vital bit of Foote’s biography remained, astoundingly, the fact that he hailed from Wharton, a perfectly unexceptional South Texas town, and among the world’s least-likely wellsprings of a lifetime’s literary oeuvre.
No one could have accused Foote of forgetting where he came from. Throughout a career that spanned seven decades, more than 60 plays and a dozen movies, he never let us forget it, either. Starting with his first play, a one-act called Wharton Dance (penned in 1940 at the suggestion of Agnes de Mille, no less), and continuing through last season’s Tony-nominated revival of Dividing the Estate, Foote chronicled the life and history of his town, with a heavy emphasis on those bucolic days before the invention of the cotton-picking machine.
Considering the obscurity of his subject and the abundance of his output, Foote’s commitment to his theme might seem compulsive, as he acknowledged in a 1995 interview with New York Times theater writer Alex Witchel: “I picked a difficult subject, a little lost Texas town no one’s heard of or cares about. But I’m at the mercy of what I write. The subject matter has taken me over.”
The experience of being taken over by one’s past is fairly common among writers. Countless works of literature have been inspired by the desire to capture a vanishing world. But what distinguishes Foote’s literary preservation project from, say, Marcel Proust’s (if you’ll forgive the highfalutin comparison) is that Proust recorded the Belle Époque with such fabulous precision because he believed fin de siècle Paris was too exquisite ever to be duplicated.
Foote’s point was much broader. It wasn’t Wharton he was trying to capture, but the experience of missing home—even when home is no place you’d want to write home about. His plays aren’t nostalgic so much as they are about nostalgia, that irrational longing. In Foote’s plays, as in life, home is a place to be loved beyond its nominal value. For instance, Carrie Watts—the silver-haired heroine of Foote’s masterpiece, The Trip to Bountiful—is driven to return to her childhood home despite the memory of terrible hardships she suffered there: “Everyone was so poor back in Bountiful,” she says. “I said to Papa once after our third crop failure in a row, ‘Whoever gave this place the name Bountiful?'”
It’s this “harsh sentimentality,” as famed New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley termed it, that provides the tension that saves Foote’s plays from washing out in sepia tones. “Home for Mr. Foote,” Brantley wrote, “was an illusion—perhaps the great illusion—in which we’re all stuck for as long as we live. It’s both the prison you can never run away from and the sanctuary you can never find the entrance to.”
Foote’s native wistfulness seemed always at odds with the admission that his Southern past wasn’t all moonlight and magnolias. Certainly, the man who wrote the screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird could never be accused of being wholly blind to historical reality, or to his own privilege. In a 2006 interview with Wilborn Hampton, he told the following story: “I was talking with a good friend,” he said, “a black woman, and I asked her if she didn’t miss seeing the cotton fields and [Wharton] full of people on Saturday. She looked at me and said, ‘Did you ever pick cotton?'”
Horton Foote never picked cotton. But neither was he quite the patrician Southern squire that his white hair, fine manners and honey-toned voice (he narrated the part of Jefferson Davis in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War) suggested. Though he hailed from generations of well-heeled planters and was a descendant of Albert Clinton Horton (who briefly served as governor of Texas during the 1840s), money seemed to have blossomed on every branch of Foote’s family tree except his own. His father ran Wharton’s gentlemen’s clothing store, a genteel trade that waxed and waned in accordance with the town’s hardscrabble cotton economy. When, as a young man, Horton announced he was moving to New York City to become an actor, the leap may have appealed to his family’s cultural aspirations, but it also terrified the small-town pragmatists.
After graduating from Wharton High School, and a short stint at Southern California’s Pasadena Playhouse, he landed in Greenwich Village in 1935, during one of Manhattan’s magic moments. The city was newly radicalized by the Depression and conflict in Europe. Many of the world’s great artists had fled to America to escape privation and political persecution. Foote got to work with scores of them. He studied acting with Madames Daykarhanova, Soloviova and Ouspenskaya, all Russian émigrés straight out of the celebrated Moscow Arts Theater. He was directed by Lee Strasberg and performed in the chorus of Max Reinhardt’s The Eternal Road, composed by Kurt Weill himself. Not to mention the relationships he formed with American-born masters Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and, most of all, Agnes de Mille, who was to play such a pivotal role in Foote’s career.
As he wrote in his 2001 memoir Beginnings, it was de Mille who asked the struggling young actor, “Have you ever thought about writing?” The astonishing story that follows is straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical.
‘No,’ I said.’Have you never written?’ she asked.’Well, when I was a junior in high school I wrote a short story for a cousin who was failing English at Texas University.’…[Then] Agnes suggested I write a play. … I asked, ‘What shall I write about?”Write about what you know,’ she said.I went home that night to my West Side room and wrote a one-act play. … I wrote one draft and took it back to the [American Actors Company], and told [director] Mary Hunter what I had done. She asked to read it. She took it home and came back the next day and said she wanted to do it with [some] other one-act plays in the spring.I called the play Wharton Dance and it was done with two one-act plays by Thornton Wilder. Robert Coleman of the Mirror was the first of the New York critics to come to our productions. He came opening night and the next day he reviewed the plays. He was impressed with my play, praised Mary’s direction, and liked all the actors. …
If that’s not enough to make an aspiring young writer want to kill himself, nothing will. Foote was 24 years old, and from that point on—from the moment, it seems, that he first put pen to paper—he would experience the kind of shining luck with his writing that had always eluded him as an actor. A few months later he wrote his first full-length play, Texas Town, which was also produced by the American Actors Company. Texas Town brought him his first major critical attention, from Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, who wrote, in a review that could speak for the playwright’s entire career: “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—the old stock drifting down the economic and social scale, the young people at loose ends….”
From then on, Foote wrote plays without seeming to pause for breath. By the early 1950s he was working for television in all its varied forms, from the squalid to the soigné. These gigs ranged from The Gabby Hayes Show at the low-end to classy venues like Playhouse 90 and the Philco Playhouse, where Foote’s teleplays featured such gold-standard actors as Lillian Gish (star of the original production of The Trip to Bountiful), Kim Stanley, Joanne Woodward and Robert Duvall. William Faulkner was so impressed with Foote’s Playhouse 90 adaptation of his short story “Tomorrow” that, according to the playwright’s obituary in The New York Times, Faulkner “offered to split the publication royalties” with him. Television established Foote’s national reputation, and eventually led him to Hollywood, and to To Kill a Mockingbird, the success of which changed his life forever. (Harper Lee, asked her opinion of Foote, reportedly said, “He’s like God, only clean-shaven.”)
But success didn’t change Foote’s writing. Oscars or no Oscars, he never quite fit in Hollywood. The tone of American films changed drastically during the 1960s and ’70s, but the tone of Foote’s plays didn’t. By the mid-’70s, his brand of low-key, contemplative drama was considered distinctly old-fashioned—not just in the movie business, but in the commercial theater as well. Larry L. King remembers being warned around this time by an editor hoping to make him a “commercial” writer: “Don’t write like Horton Foote. He … won’t make a quarter for himself or his publisher.” As Foote’s write-for-hire offers dried up (his stage work during this period included the book for that notorious turkey, Gone with the Wind: The Musical), he and his family weathered the drought in the obscurity of small-town New Hampshire.
It wasn’t until the early ’80s—when Robert Duvall lassoed him into writing a little movie called Tender Mercies about a washed-up country-western singer named Mac Sledge who finds love and salvation with a young widow—that Foote began a comeback. Like so many of his film projects, Tender Mercies was yet another script to which Hollywood was, at first, indifferent. As Foote’s son, Walter, recalled at his father’s Lincoln Center memorial service, “Dad pitched Tender Mercies to a room full of Hollywood executives. ‘Well, Horton, I love it,’ said one man. ‘But what if it wasn’t a movie about a country-western singer?'”
The studios were troubled by the film’s “spare, understated” quality, but the critics were charmed. Tender Mercies brought Foote’s career back from the dead, and scored Academy Awards both for himself and Duvall. The following year, the playwright adapted The Trip to Bountiful to the silver screen, for which Geraldine Page won the Academy Award in 1985. In fact, as critic Rebecca Luttrell Briley has observed, all of the leading actors in Foote’s major films have won Academy Awards—including, of course, Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the character chosen by the American Film Institute as the No. 1 movie hero of all time.
Foote’s dramatic training, though it failed to provide him with any great success as an actor, must have taught him something essential about what happens to a character after it’s left the playwright’s hands. Atkinson wrote that Foote “makes a moral point of never making a statement except in extremis. He is the most tight-lipped playwright in the business.” He showed almost otherworldly restraint in crafting dialogue.
It’s not that his plots aren’t often as eventful as those of Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman. In his plays, fortunes are won and lost, husbands drink, wives go mad and children die in freak accidents—it’s just that no one talks much about it. It’s largely to this tendency toward understatement that people refer when they compare Foote to Chekhov—though it’s a trait Foote also shares with his favorite novelist, Willa Cather, who famously argued in her essay “The Novel Demeuble” in favor of “unfurnished” dramas, and the importance of leaving “something unspoken.” Such authorial self-control provides actors with oodles of room to practice their craft and create layered performances. Unfortunately, it can also leave readers with the equivalent of an empty stomach. Experienced on the page, without the delivery of a powerful actor, Foote’s writing can seem “unfurnished” indeed. So unfurnished, you’re left wondering when the movers are coming.
But one thing about “never making a statement except in extremis”: you tend to avoid political hot water. In the highly charged atmosphere of New York in the 1930s, Foote flirted with Communism and, as he later recalled in his memoirs, “happily” participated in labor marches. Yet it was loudmouths like Hellman who got stuck bucking HUAC, while Foote thrived during “scoundrel time.” In fact, especially given his lefty leanings, the appeal of his work across the political spectrum is extraordinary. Few major American playwrights have ever caught the fancy of the right in the way Foote did. His Southern-ness, his religiosity, the romantic traditionalism in his work all lent him considerable Red State cachet. A story like Tender Mercies, about the redemptive power of the straight and narrow, is a Republican shoo-in. But even To Kill a Mockingbird, with its Southern nostalgia and noble, white-suited patriarch, holds conservative charm.
Regardless of the range of his audience, the political sensibility of Foote’s work seems most closely aligned with a kind of Texas liberalism that almost doesn’t exist anymore, a Ralph Yarborough-style white, rural populism that once saw no inconsistency between progressive and county-minded values. In Beginnings, Foote recollects his father’s New Deal fervor. During Foote’s first visit back home after moving to New York, brimming with fresh, Yankee-fied opinions, his father wisely cautioned:
‘I hope you’re still a Democrat, son.’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m still a Democrat.”I tell you son,’ he said sounding relieved, ‘I could forgive you almost anything except your voting the Republican ticket.’
Assured of his son’s party loyalty, Foote’s father began to grouse about his sister’s appalling failure to vote for Roosevelt. “Did you ask her why she voted Republican?” Horton’s mother asks.
‘Yes, I did.”And what did she say?”She said it was because of Mrs. Roosevelt.”Mrs. Roosevelt?”Yes. She said she had gotten the Negroes in Houston starting Disappointment Clubs.”What are they?”She says you read in the paper’s want ads of a colored woman applying for a job as a maid or a cook and you call them to come for an interview and they come and you make arrangements to hire them, you agree on a salary and the day for them to start work, and then when that day comes they don’t show up, which means they are members of the Disappointment Clubs whose purpose is to disappoint white ladies.’ ‘And you believe that foolishness?’ I asked her.’Of course, I do,’ she said. ‘I know it as a fact. It’s happened to all my friends.”All your friends,’ I said.’Well, a number of them. … I wouldn’t put anything past [Mrs. Roosevelt.] She just hates the South. … She is taking out all her unhappiness on the South.’
Nearly 60 years later, Foote borrowed his father’s harangue and placed it, almost verbatim, in his 1995 play, The Young Man from Atlanta. In this new context, the story provides a measure of comic relief, as an aging couple realizes how terribly little they know about the life of their late son. It’s hilarious when Lily Dale, the play’s lead character, probes her housekeeper for details about Houston’s Disappointment Clubs, but it also raises the dramatic stakes. Knowing so little about our own flesh and blood, Foote questions, how much less do we know about the world beyond our families? “Who knows
bout anything, Lily Dale?” her husb
nd says, bewildered, in the final scene.
This was always Foote’s narrative strategy for handling politics or personal tragedy, all the overwhelming stuff of life: He fit tremendous subjects inside tiny conversations, and then he seemed to shrug his shoulders. “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram,” Sam Goldwyn used to warn his writers. Goldwyn was one studio head who would have loved Horton Foote. His plays never sent messages—not because he was hedging, but because he had confidence in the unknowable-ness of life, faith in the “miracles of the everyday,” as Edward Albee, speaking on that May day at Lincoln Center, described it.
That afternoon, Casey Childs, executive producer of the Primary Stages theater company and a frequent collaborator of Foote’s, spoke of the playwright’s reliable composure during the inevitable frustrations of producing a play. After an “especially grueling day,” Childs recalled saying that “on days like this I am just happy for the little things.” Foote smiled, and continued walking calmly past him. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Tender mercies. Tender, tender mercies.”
Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His second book, The Living End, will be published next year by St. Martin’s Press.