- Dallas Morning News editorial on Horton Foote
- Ben Brantley’s column in The New York Times
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online appreciation:
Obituaries in The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News described Horton Foote, who died Wednesday, as a great storyteller, a writer of ordinary Americans. These sound a little condescending. For them, Foote is not a great dramatist on par with an Edward Albee or David Mamet. He’s a great storyteller – as if he were some folksy character on a front porch spinning yarns about his kin.
It’s easy to get this impression. I confess I held it at first. Foote never went to college (although he and his wife did end up running a school in Washington, D.C.) Some of Foote’s earliest works – like The Trip to Bountiful – were written for television in the ‘50s, and they remain some of his most popular. They’re also his simplest and most sentimental. The characters express what they feel and act on those feelings. End of story. The small town settings, the countrified language, the homey qualities: Nothing much will surprise you.
The New York Times obituary claimed, unsurprisingly, that the Times’ theater critic Frank Rich was partly responsible for rediscovering and reviving Foote’s career. Actually, for anyone who was paying attention, the change was apparent with the 1983 film, Tender Mercies, in which Robert Duvall plays a washed-up, drunken country singer in need of some serious redemption. Duvall won an Oscar for his performance, but Foote won his second Oscar for screenwriting.
In Tender Mercies – and in plays from the same period – Foote’s characters often don’t know what they want. Or can’t express it. So how the plot works out sometimes doesn’t reflect what they’re telling us.
It’s why Foote’s later plays can take unexpected turns. And it’s why they suggest these great depths of dammed up, unexpressed feelings. Mac Sledge, the Duvall character, can sing a plaintive song, but most of the rest of his dialogue comes in two- or three-word sentences.
Foote’s mother and father died in 1974-’75 — his father died in the same room in the same house where Foote’s brothers were born. And the double loss seemed to open him up as a writer. Soon afterwards, he started writing a cycle of nine plays called Orphans’ Home. His writing here is extremely pared away, yet he gives his hometown of Wharton, outside of Houston, the full Faulkner treatment. He chronicles the place from convict laborers to local aristocrats in all its complex social and moral interactions. His writing may be extremely pared away, but the deep, nebulous emotions, the conflicts and resolutions are not; they’re as messy and subtle, rich and affecting, as any on the American stage.
Simply put, Foote was a smarter, more sophisticated writer than he’s often given credit for. Orphans’ Home: Even the title seems quaint. But it’s actually taken from a poem by Marianne Moore, and it describes all of our sorry, lost, isolated lives on this planet: We are all abandoned children (“The world’s an orphans’ home”). So much for folksiness.
Whenever I met Foote, he was always the courtly, friendly gentleman the obituaries describe. But he was also a tougher, more determined character than that. He won the Pultizer Prize in 1995 – and he hadn’t even had a play on Broadway for more than 40 years. And Foote wouldn’t have a full-out Broadway success until this past season. When he died in Hartford on Wednesday, Foote was working on a stage production for this fall. He was adapting Orphans’ Home.
He was 92 and he’d started writing it 35 years ago.
Whenever I met him, Foote was dressed the same way, even standing out in the midday heat of a Houston street. Navy-blue, double-breasted blazer, grey slacks, velvet slippers. Simple, dapper but comfortable. Foote was the son of a haberdasher, so he knew what he was doing.
And once he found it, he stuck with it.
In 2006, KERA’s Lee Cullum talked with Horton Foote about his work, his love of Texas and his childhood memories growing up in Wharton, Texas. Watch video excerpts of the interview. As a theater critic, KERA’s Jerome Weeks met and wrote about Foote many times over the years. Listen to or read his appreciation of the playwright who died Wednesday.
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