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A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights

Horton Foote

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights is a regular column by Todd London. It is part of an ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights. Mostly begun as speeches at New Dramatists—for career achievement awards, to mark the end of seven-year residencies, or, in a few cases, as eulogies—these portraits celebrate the body of work, lives, and singular gifts of those brave, ferocious, foolhardy souls of those who write plays for the American theatre.

Portrait of Horton Foote
Horton Foote. Photo courtesy of Writers Guild of America.

Horton Foote
You can now Google map the town of Wharton, Texas. You can view Horton Foote’s homeland from satellite, zooming in or out at will. If you zoom in, you can see it from street level, low buildings, scrub, a pickup truck. If you zoom out, you find the towns whose names we know from Horton’s plays—El Campo, Glen Flora, Egypt. Further out, your see those complicated Meccas of Houston and Galveston. Keep pulling back and you can locate the poles of Horton’s life—Pasadena, California on the West, where he went as a teenager to study acting—and New York on the East, where, as an actor, he came at age 20 and where, for 73 years, his theatre life was centered. Farther north is a later artistic home, Hartford, and farthest, the family’s home in New Hampshire, where he wrote, among other things, the nine plays of his Orphans’ Home Cycle: including Lily Dale, The Widow Claire, and On Valentine’s Day.

The most extraordinary map of Wharton, though, can be found in the life work of Horton Foote, reimagined as the town of Harrison. For more than seventy years, he charted the place and its people, detailed its culture and customs, and located its personal dramas in history. He traced its changes, and ultimately its passing. Horton Foote’s map is a meticulous miracle. “This is always the end of the journey for me,” Horton writes. “Wharton is my home.”

Listen to how he describes entering that home, his prose as luminous as his dialogue:

First, there is the quietness, or the lack of sound, and then very faintly I begin to hear the tree frogs, the katydids in the pecan trees around the courthouse square. I hear the waltz of a Mexican dance hall, the blues from a black restaurant, a woman saying good night to a neighbor, a whistle from some mockingbird that mistakes the brightness of the night for daylight. I was born and raised here. I know the people. I have heard a hundred times the tales of the town’s beginnings, the events of its life from the time it was established.

There is no body of work in the American theatre to compare with Horton Foote’s. No one has written for so long about so few square miles--the concentrated plot of land that is the land of his family. No one has zeroed in so intimately over so many years on his own kin, their neighbors and friends. No one has spent so many decades remembering. Horton Foote is our finest rememberer. “These are my people and my stories, and the plays I want to write,” he said. “The only ones I know how to write.”

A great rememberer must begin as a great sponge, and this is how I picture young Horton Foote, a bookish boy with those same astute, merciful eyes, seeing everything, listening to everything, soaking everything up. That’s how he presents himself, too, in his memoirs and essays, the listener among talkers in a time of stories, when living rooms and sitting rooms, gallery porches and dining tables were the stages of the world. Life was played out there, but more, it was recounted.

In Horton Foote’s plays, as on the domestic stages of his childhood, the big scenes often happen elsewhere, offstage. Usually, they’ve already happened. Fathers drink and die. Women marry men they must marry, not the ones they choose. A mother abandons her son to make a home for her daughter. A son walks into the water to drown. Fortunes are lost, children die, farms go to seed. Whole towns fall off the map.

Out of memory, Horton gives us life at its most concentrated and full. But even more than life, his gives us lives. These lives, especially those of his parents and grandparents and their relations—overheard, pieced together, imagined—are so rich for the rememberer, so ongoing, that he must detail them in their entirety—1890, 1911, 1917 and 18, 1924, ’53, ’87. These lives are as real to him as those of the present, maybe more real. And so he spends his long lifetime making them real to us in turn.

The world won't stop changing, Horton reminds us of that. Memory is a bulwark not against that change but against the loss it brings.

Two actors, a man and a woman, sit on a couch admiring an object
Jenny Dare Paulin and Bill Heck in the first installment of The Orphans’ Home Cycle at Signature Theater. Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

The world won’t stop changing, Horton reminds us of that. Memory is a bulwark not against that change but against the loss it brings. You can almost break his plays down along memory lines—those who would remember—who must remember—and those who would forget. I love how in his plays people introduce themselves by talking about their parents, who their people were, what happened to them. It’s almost a way of making love, as in this scene from Courtship between Horace Robedaux and Elizabeth Vaughn—the characters based on Horton’s mother and father.

ELIZABETH. My mother was born on a plantation on Oyster Creek. Her father was a planter. But he didn’t prosper. My father came from East Columbia. His father died when he was twelve.

HORACE. My father died when I was twelve.

ELIZABETH. Yes, I know. Your mother lives in Houston.

HORACE. Yes, I don’t like Houston. I like it better here.

On the other side of this push and pull between memory and forgetting are characters with no use for the past. They wish only to move forward, like Horace’s sister, Lily Dale, in the play by the same name:

LILY DALE. I want to think of now. This minute. Why do you always want to talk about the past? What Papa did or didn’t do? I don’t care what he sang and I don’t care what he called me. All I know is that he smoked cigarettes like a fiend and was a drunkard and broke my mother’s heart, and he died and left her penniless to go out into the world to work and support two children.

We dwell in the feeling of the past or we deny it. Both have a powerful energy, both carry a mighty freight. This struggle between remembering and forgetting, between forward and back, activates Horton’s plays and becomes his true subject.

Don’t let the gentleness of his spirit fool you. Horton Foote’s cartography is the product of Olympian ambition. Like a tender, merciful God, he sought to possess an entire world by loving it ceaselessly. He tried to stop time by remembering. He dared to bring the dead back to life. He pursued these ambitions with an obsessive singleness of purpose and executed them with almost-perfect humility. Again, in his own words:

It is a vanishing world, the world of these plays; no, not a vanishing world but a vanished world. Of all the characters in the plays, I am now the only one living, and yet I say to myself isn’t it all reappearing, only in a different way?...Here in Harrison (Wharton) I hear the old stories of men and women trying their best to find ways to live and survive in a somewhat less-than-perfect world. Their stories tell of bravery and loss, treachery and strength, and courage. The old stories, as old as time, are retold in the times of this day, of this time. I think sometimes that Randall Jarrell speaks for me in his poem “Thinking of the Lost World”:

“All of them are gone

Except for me; and for me nothing is gone.”

Nothing is ever gone, Horton Foote proves, as long as there are people to remember, to write it down. Nothing can be lost, as long as there are artists brave enough and persistent enough, to try and capture the ephemeral grace of our lives.

For further reading:
Genesis of an American Playwright by Horton Foote, edited by Marion Castleberry, Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas USA, 2004.

Beginnings: A Memoir, Scribners, New York, NY 2001.

Three Plays: Dividing the Estate, The Trip to Bountiful, and The Young Man from Atlanta, Northwestern University Press, 2009.

Thoughts from the curator

An ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights.

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights


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Insightful comments, Mr. London. Thank you. Horton Foote fans may be interested in the dramatic festival of Foote plays to be put on in the Dallas Metroplex in March and April.