LUCKY MAN: Horton Foote's three acts
by John Lahr
The New Yorker, October 26, 2009
"If a poet knows more about a horse than he does about heaven, he might better stick to the horse," Foote was fond of saying, quoting the father of his favorite American composer, Charles Ives. "Someday the horse might carry him to heaven.". . .Crucially, more by accident than by intention, he found his way into Method acting lessons with two recently arrived emigres from Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre, Andrius Jilinsky and Vera Soloviova, who taught that "to create truth on the stage, you must be acquainted with your own truth." (To Foote, this strategy became bedrock; throughout his life, he maintained an aesthetic of unvarnished narrative truthfulness.) By degrees, he came to know other Method acolytes, among them Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Franchot Tone, Clifford Odets, Sanford Meisner, and Tennessee Williams.
Foote thought of Williams, who was eight years older, as "artistically my big brother." He followed his lead in rejecting the schematic ideological drama of the thirties and writing plays that embraced the personal instead. . . .
As writers, Williams and Foote were opposites. Williams was a hysteric who wanted to seduce the audience with the truth of his lament; Foote's plays bore witness to the emotional truth of history. Williams wrote out of a sense of absence, Foote out of a sense of fullness. Williams was a romantic who destroyed himself for meaning; Foote was a conservative who made meaning of the world he sought to preserve. In his storytelling, Williams was melodramatic and extravagant; Foote preferred a sly, understated simplicity. "I've tried to be more theatrical, more sensational. It's not my style," he said. "I admire Shakespeare greatly, and deeply love to read him, but his is not my favorite type of theatre. Often it embarrasses me and also I don't believe a lot of it." In Foote's plays, the big dramatic events happen offstage. Foote examined the ripple, not the wave. He was a quiet voice in noisy times. . . .Lillian Gish in Trip To Bountiful, Broadway
Foote's plays "The Chase" (1952) and "The Trip To Bountiful" (1953) were staged in New York, but received little attention. Unlike the major playwrights of the period – Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge – he had no axe to grind, no moral posture to strike, no rebarbative wit to peddle, and none of the sensational theatrics that thrilled commercial audiences. Things happened in Foote's stories, but nobody was blowtorched, castrated, raped, eaten alive, or snowed in with a beautiful woman; nor did anyone commit suicide for the insurance money. Foote could not make a living or a reputation on Broadway. . . .To Kill A Mockingbird
"Keep your ear to the ground and concentrate on honesty," Williams wrote to Foote in 1944. Throughout his career, Foote did just that. From the ordinary, he teased out a subtle song, which was at once true and tender. In his screen adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," for instance – "a work of such quiet and unobtrusive excellence that many people have commented the film's dialogue was lifted chapter and verse from the novel. This is simply not so," Lee wrote. . . .
Robert Duvall, who made his film-acting debut as Boo Radley, the subnormal next-door neighbor who saves the lives of Finch's children, and who appeared in six other Foote projects, including an Academy Award-winning performance as the fallen country singer Mac Sledge, in Tender Mercies (Beresford, 1983), compared Foote's dialogue to "sandpiper prints." "They're very delicate," he said. "It's very deep, very specific. His work you have to let lay there and find its own impetus."Tomorrow
Nowhere in Foote's canon is the cumulative momentum of the mundane more powerful than in Tomorrow (1972), Foote's inspired film adaptation (based on his 1968 stage version) of a 1940 Faulkner short story. A low-budget masterpiece, directed by Joseph Anthony, the movie flashes back from a murder trial that has ended with a hung jury, and is narrated by the defense lawyer, who can't fathom why one holdout on the jury – a plainspoken Mississippi farm laborer named Jackson Fentry (Duvall) – wouldn't vote to acquit an upstanding rancher, H.T. Bookwright (Jeff Williams), who is accused of murdering a cattle thief and lowlife, Buck Thorpe, who was running off with his daughter. . . .
The story that unfolds in flashback . . . is entirely Foote's invention. . . . Foote's uncanny ability to expand another writer's narrative was an offshoot of his ability to listen. (Faulkner liked Foote's version so much that he shared his royalties with him.) In Faulkner's tale, Foote heard the themes of enduring suffering and enduring love, on which his own plays ruminated. "I've known people the world has thrown everything at . . . and yet something about them retains dignity," Foote said. . . .
Foote, who rebelled against the fire and brimstone of the Methodist reaching he grew up with, became a Christian Scientist in 1953. "I am deeply religious but I never write from that point of view," he said. "I don't proselytize." Foote believed that "spiritual values lead you to hunger for more spiritual values." The placid surfaces of his stories conceal an undertow of the eternal. Hymns frequntly signal this immanence. In "The Trip to Bountiful," for instance, Carrie Watts's hymn-singing implies her spiritual restlessness and her longing for transcendence. . . .
In his own household, Foote often repeated the Christian Science axiom "Divine love always has met, and always will meet, every human need." He read the Christian Science Quarterly and did his Bible lessons every day. "I think it sustained him," his daughter Hallie said. "He felt that there was something bigger than he was out there, and he respected that. It encouraged him to follow his instincts rather than impose something on them." The constant flow of his work was evidence of his faith, which worked as an antidote "to being fearful or shut down," Hallie said. Foote himself gave God credit for his literary productivity: "That doesn't come from me – that is, I reflect qualities of God," he said. In an undogmatic way, his plays are more often than not demonstrations of spiritual grace; they try to trap a sense of the miraculous in the ordinary.Tender Mercies
In Tender Mercies, for instance, the newly baptized Mac Sledge is saved from the hell of alcoholism and the waste of his life and talent by the love of a woman and her son, who literally and symbolically give him a new song. In "Bountiful," Carrie Watts tells the sheriff who takes her the last miles of her odyssey, "Before I leave this earth, I'd like to recover some of the dignity . . . the peace I used to know." She finds salvation not, as expected, in the land but in the journey. She can now join her family and live out her days in harmony, instead of in resignation. That internal harmony also defined Foote; of his almost unnerving calm, Harper Lee said, "He's like God, only clean-shaven." . . .
Because he broke no new artistic ground and staked no intellectual claims, he has only a minor place in American theatre history. But, within the limits of his compassionate vision, he was an expert storyteller, who achieved something that no other modern American playwright has: he had not only a second but a third act. At present, his screenplay Main Street is in production; "The Orphans' Home Cycle" is in performance; a biography, "Horton Foote: America's Storyteller," by Wilborn Hampton, ahs just been published; and The Horton Foote Review: The Journal of the Horton Foote Society continues to debate the issues and nuances of his oeuvre. "He had a gift and an ear," Hallie said. "There's a side of me that feels like that was a kind of a divine thing. He was lucky."