16 December 2008

Horton Foote

Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter), James DeMarse, Devon Abner and Maggie Lacey in Dividing the Estate

On my return to New York next month, I hope to see Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, currently on Broadway. (Such is my luck that, now that I’ve written this, the show probably will post a closing notice.) Mr. Foote’s writing fascinates me. It speaks so eloquently of my own background that it’s a wonder I manage to write anything at all: almost anything I could possibly say about Texas, Mr. Foote has said already, and profoundly. Maybe that’s why I was the rare student who didn’t write about family, when I was in graduate school.

Mr. Foote’s characters resemble my family, both in general attitudes and, sometimes startlingly, in specific traits. My mother had the same impression, and she seized the opportunity a few years ago to ask Mr. Foote whether his family had known hers. Possibly so, Mr. Foote believed; some of the names rang a bell. The distance between Goliad, my mother’s hometown, and Wharton, Mr. Foote’s, isn’t great, yet what strikes me as more important is the proximity between Goliad and Harrison, the name Mr. Foote gives to Wharton in all of his writing. One needn’t drive to get from one town to the other. One needs merely to listen.

Mr. Foote has written a great many plays, and several films, and I can’t claim to know more than a fraction of them. Just keeping up with the newest plays is a busy job. The gentleman is 92 now, but very much active. While in New York in October, I spoke with Roy Harris, the production stage manager for Dividing the Estate, who reported that Mr. Foote, requested to revise a scene, submitted the requested changes the very next day. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that: he’s been playwriting a very long time, and he surely knows what he’s doing.

New York critics tend to compare him to Anton Chekhov, and I understand the comparison. His plays are witty, not comic, and though his characters talk at length, it very often appears on its surface to be piffle. With Mr. Foote as with Chekhov, one has to listen between the lines to hear the truth. Yet the analogy goes only so far. Mr. Foote’s work is more firmly grounded in place than Chekhov’s: very few of Mr. Foote’s plays could be transplanted from 20th-century Harrison, in the way that productions of Chekhov’s plays often are set far from 19th-century Russia.

In some respects, Mr. Foote’s plays are closer to Greek tragedy than to Russian naturalism. Actual dramatic incident is kept offstage; plot developments are more likely to be announced by a messenger than enacted before the audience. And though Mr. Foote has yet to employ a chorus (to my knowledge), his characters do comment at length on a given predicament; they recount old stories and invoke heroes long gone.

A Horton Foote play unfurls gradually, subtly. I’ve encountered critics and “civilian” audience members who find that pace to be tedious; they grow impatient with the characters’ refusal to speak their minds directly. Welcome to the South, folks.

Mr. Foote’s Wharton/Harrison, like my Goliad, is more Southern than Southwestern. It depends on a practiced gentility to hold together the straining social fabric. We have made a habit of not coming to the point, of prettifying our feelings, of obscuring our desires and resentments. This applies to race, obviously, but also to other big subjects, particularly money and sex, and in all of Mr. Foote’s work that I’ve seen, from the screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird to The Young Man from Atlanta, at least one of these topics is central.

It was during the production of The Young Man from Atlanta that I got to know Mr. Foote a little — which may help to explain why I refer to him as “Mr. Foote.” He’s a Southern gentleman, and I could no more address him by his first name, or even as “Foote,” than punch him in the nose. I helped to produce a profile on him for CBS Sunday Morning, and I sat in on the interviews conducted by his fellow Whartonian, Dan Rather. (Over the course of their time together, they discovered that they’d been delivered by the same doctor.)

Mr. Foote’s physical resemblance to Clarence the Angel, the character played by Henry Travers in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, is at first startling and then endearing. He may be an angel, or close enough, in his gentleness and wisdom, and I’ll always remember his kindness to me and, above all, to my mother. Their conversation seemed to bring him as much pleasure as it did her. She reminds me that he told her how he learned to write dialogue and to tell stories: by listening to the conversations of his lady relatives.

(Her implication may or may not be that I need to spend more time listening to her. She is a Southern lady, after all, and unlikely to come out and say such a thing directly; I must guess at her meaning.)

Much of Mr. Foote’s concerns a past I don’t know, yet it chimes precisely with the stories I heard from my grandmother and from my Great-Great Aunt Letitia, stories that are repeated now by my mother and her sister, and that may be repeated by my cousins and me, in our turn. One of Mr. Foote’s most memorable characters is Mrs. Carrie Watts, the protagonist of The Trip to Bountiful, a lonely old woman in search of her girlhood home and of a past that, if it ever existed, she can’t find. Because Mr. Foote has written so much and so well, I have a better chance of being nothing like Mrs. Carrie Watts. I can always find my Bountiful in the pages of his plays.

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