Horton Foote: American Master Playwright

PLAYWRIGHT HORTON FOOTE. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre

By Robert Heide

The first time I met Horton Foote was at a Christmas party in Greenwich Village, at an old-time apartment building on Washington Square North, hosted annually by actress and Berghof Studio teacher Rochelle Oliver. Attendees included Uta Hagen and Matthew Broderick, who both lived in apartments upstairs. Horton Foote came with his daughter Hallie Foote. An avid admirer of his work, I was thrilled and in awe to find myself face to face with him as we both sipped holiday rum eggnog. I told him how much I liked his play The Young Man from Atlanta, having its premiere produced by Primary Stages, starring Shirley Knight and Rip Torn. For that play Foote won the Pulitzer Prize (1995.) Many theater scholars and writers have referred to him as the “American Chekhov.” Once, chatting at the Lion’s Head bar on Christopher Street with actor Robert Duvall, who starred in the brilliant film Tender Mercies (1983) in which both he and Foote took home Academy Awards, he for the best actor and Foote for best original screenplay, Duvall spoke of the famous playwright as “the rural Chekhov.” Two years later Foote was nominated for the adaptation of his screenplay for his play The Trip to Bountiful which won a Best Actress Academy Award for its star Geraldine Page. Though he did not win that one, in 1962 he had won his first Academy Award for “best adapted screenplay from another medium” for To Kill A Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck.

In December of 2019 I attended the revival of The Young Man from Atlanta at the Signature Theatre Company, which, under the direction of Michael Wilson, presented a new interpretation in which the lead actors came across as older, more frustrated, terrorized, and anxiety-ridden than the lyrical production I remembered. However, Aidan Quinn as Will Kidder and Kristine Nielsen as Lily Dale were remarkable, as was the entire cast. The actual “young man” from Atlanta never appears onstage but has developed a relationship with the couple’s son and professes love for him. Some time before, the son, while on vacation and unable to swim, has drowned—reportedly, slowly walking into a lake until his head was under water. Whether this was an accident or a suicide is at the core of the play. Meanwhile, the mother, Lily Dale, is secretly giving a great deal of money to the mysterious young man just as the family is falling on hard times. As it turns out, the son, before dying, had also given even more money to the young man. Is the young man a con artist? At the play’s end I, and other audience members, shed tears along with the parents of the dead boy. The father refuses to see the young man and is astounded and angry when he learns of Lily Dale’s meeting and giving him money. Part of the mystery is that we, watching the show, never see him. To my mind, all of Horton Foote’s plays run deep emotionally on every level and the playwright always focuses on what is not said or expressed just as in the works of another master playwright, Harold Pinter.

Albert Horton Foote, Jr. was born in Wharton, Texas (which he called Harrison in most of his plays) on March 14, 1916. He died at age 92 in Hartford, Connecticut on March 4, 2009, after a life of great success in film, television (Playhouse 90, etc.) and theatre. For one year, in his 90’s, Horton conducted theater lectures with discussions at the Actors Studio’s playwrights-directors unit which was presided over by Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and Estelle Parsons. As a member I attended the talks on a weekly basis and also had the chance to go out afterwards with Horton and his daughter Hallie who was watching over him at that time. Just to be in his presence was amazing. He always projected a feeling of love and warmth to all who encountered him. In 2010 I was lucky enough to see his masterwork, the three part, nine-hour The Orphan’s Home Cycle, which was about his parents’ extended families in Texas, and which won the Drama Critics Circle Award. I also saw a Broadway revival of Dividing the Estate (first produced in 1987). In this work desperate down-on-their-luck family relations move in on an older woman who owns a big house. Of course they are hoping she will help them out of their financial dilemmas, but when she dies suddenly at the end of act one they discover she was broke. At the play’s end, Mary Jo, the character played by Hallie Foote (who appeared in and directed many of her father’s plays) steps forward to the edge of the stage and, reaching out for help in desperation, cries, “I’m praying, I’m praying, God how I pray.”

Horton’s life included, along with the accolades, many ups and downs, particularly after the critical failure of the film version of The Chase which starred Marlon Brando. He decided he’d had enough of film and theater and exiled himself to his own family life in New Hampshire from 1962 to 1972. But then he returned to the theater for almost another 40 years. His beloved children include actors Albert Horton Foote III and Hallie Foote, playwright-director Daisy Foote, and Walter Vallish Foote, a lawyer and writer.

Foote’s Plays for Actors is part of a Collected Works series, published by Smith and Kraus, with an introduction by critic Jerry Tallmer. Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood and Beginnings: A Memoir are both published by Scribner. Biographies Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller by Wilborn Hampton, Horton Foote: A Literary Biography by Charles S. Watson, and Blessed Assurance: the Life and Art of Horton Foote by Marion Castleberry are all available at Amazon.

Robert Heide’s 25 Plays and many of his non-fiction books co-authored with John Gilman including Popular Art Deco: Depression Era Style and Design, Box-Office Buckaroos: The Cowboy Hero from the Wild West Show to the Silver Screen, and Mickey Mouse, the Evolution, the Legend, the Phenomenon! are all available at Amazon.

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