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Prolific author Horton Foote has produced significant works for the stage, screen, and television that have earned him many honors, including Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. In his usually minimalist works, he primarily focuses on the experiences of characters living in rural Southern milieus. Often incorporating autobiographical elements, Foote’s dramas are distinguished by emotional and narrative restraint and generally emphasize character development while examining themes related to social and individual change.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised in Small-Town Texas
Albert Horton Foote Jr. was born on March 16, 1916, in Wharton, Texas, a small town that subsequently became the model for the fictional town of Harrison in many of his works. Foote’s parents were Albert Foote, Sr., a merchant and cotton farmer, and his wife, Hallie, who helped run their store. Raised in a middle-class setting, Foote was a precocious reader from an early age. Having spent the whole of his childhood in Wharton, he graduated from Wharton High School in 1932.
Determined to become an actor, Foote studied the craft in California at the Pasadena Playhouse School of Theatre from 1933 to 1935, and in New York at the Tamara Darkarhovna School of Theatre from 1937 to 1939. At the time, the United States, as well as much of the world, was mired in the Great Depression. After the stock market crash of October 1929, millions of Americans lost their savings, could not find jobs, and were hard-pressed to survive. The Great Depression lasted throughout the 1930s, though conditions for some improved because of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that, among other things, provided temporary jobs for millions in public-works programs.
Launched Acting Career
Living in New York City by the end of the 1930s, Foote was cast in a number of productions between 1937 and 1942. While working as an actor, he discovered his talent as a dramatist and began writing plays. In 1942, his first play, Texas Town, was produced in New York. It was followed by Out of My House (1942) and Only the Heart (1944). These early plays are emotionally restrained dramas which emphasized character development and are set within the social context of small-town Texas in the early twentieth century.
At the beginning of his writing career, Foote also worked in Washington, D.C., first as a workshop director at the King Smith School of Creative Arts in 1944, and then as a manager of Productions, Inc., from 1945 to 1948. In addition, he married Lillian Vallish in June 1945; the couple eventually had two sons and two daughters. While remaining active in the theater in the 1950s with such plays as the Western drama The Chase (1952), Foote began writing for the new popular medium of television. While the basic technology behind television was developed in the late 1920s and 1930s, it was not until the early 1950s that televisions (black and white only) were readily available and affordable on the mass market, or that networks developed programming for the new medium. Many popular early shows on these networks were plays and dramatic works, and it was there that Foote found his niche.
Acclaimed Writing for Television
During this decade, Foote produced a number of highly regarded television dramas—both original scripts and adaptations from his stage plays—for such shows as Kraft Playhouse and Playhouse 90. One popular original script was The Trip to Bountiful (1953), which Foote originally wrote for television, later adapted for Broadway, and eventually reworked into an acclaimed screenplay. The story of Bountiful focuses on an elderly woman who escapes the cramped Houston apartment that she shares with her contentious daughter-in-law and unsupportive son. She then journeys to her hometown, hoping to relive her peaceful past. Though she finds Bountiful deserted, she enjoys several blissful reveries before being retrieved by her son and his wife. Foote occasionally adapted the work of other Southern writers for television as well, including a highly regarded adaptation of William Faulkner’s Old Man in 1959.
During the 1950s, Foote also wrote his only novel, The Chase (1956). It was based on his 1952 play. He also began writing screenplays. His first script was an adaptation of a minor Southern novel, Clinton Seeley’s Storm Fear (1956). This film was indifferently received by both the critics and the public. However, his next screenplay, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), was greeted enthusiastically by both critics and moviegoers. Foote won an Academy Award for his adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Following the success of Mockingbird, Foote wrote such screenplays as Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1964), Hurry Sundown (1967), and Tomorrow (1972).
Semi-Retirement, then Academy Award
After Tomorrow, Foote did not write another screenplay for over a decade. He withdrew into semi-retirement and lived on a farm in New Hampshire with his family during the 1970s. Foote did turn his attention to television again for a time. Among his notable projects in this period were two plays for public television, including adaptations of a story by Flannery O’Connor, The Displaced Person (1977) and a story by Faulkner, Barn Burning (1980).
Foote then won his second Academy Award for his original screenplay Tender Mercies (1983). The story focuses on a famous country singer who succumbs to alcoholism and loses his career and marriage. Eventually, he finds solace with a young widow and her son in a Texas roadside motel. Foote wrote the script at the request of actor Robert Duvall, who had starred in Tomorrow. Foote was also nominated for an Academy Award for an adaptation of his teleplay The Trip to Bountiful, released in 1985.
A Dramatic Cycle
Even before his successful return to the screen, Foote had begun work on a nine-part dramatic cycle called The Orphan’s Home, which was based on the life of his parents and their families in the early twentieth century. The cycle, which includes the televised productions 1918 (1984), On Valentine’s Day (1985), and Convicts (1991), follows several generations of the Robedeaux family. It depicts their hardships amidst the decline of the plantation aristocracy in southern Texas. Foote also reworked material from The Orphan’s Home into the television miniseries Story of a Marriage (1987).
Additionally in this time period, he wrote two dramas, The Road to the Graveyard (1985) and Blind Date (1986), both of which focused on the outmoded sexual conventions of two rural Texas communities. His Dividing the Estate (1989) is set in Harrison in 1987, and focuses on a relatively wealthy, aging matriarch and the family members who want her money. As reflected in the play, Americans of the late 1980s were dealing with an economic collapse in which such Texas industries as farming and oil struggled to survive. Businesses in Houston went bankrupt on a regular basis, and banks failed in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.
Continued to Write Late in Life
Foote continued to write a number of original plays in the 1990s and early 2000s. These plays were sometimes directed by his daughter Daisy. He was the playwright-in-residence for New York’s Signature Theatre Company for a time beginning in the mid-1990s. In 1995, his play The Young Man from Atlanta won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Set in the 1950s, it follows the struggles of Will and Lily Dale Kidder as they seek to reconcile themselves with their son’s death, a possible suicide. Foote followed Atlanta with The Last of the Thortons (2000). It is set in a nursing home where the residents and their visitors are from the same small town in Texas. They review their lives both past and present with varying degrees of resignation. Other plays of this time period include The Last of the Thortons (2000) and The Day Emily Married (2004).
Foote also wrote two autobiographies, Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood (1999) and Beginnings: A Memoir (2001). Awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2000, Foote died in March 2009.
Works in Literary Context
In much of his works, Foote focuses on dramas that feature small town or rural settings and stories written in a lean style. He stresses the subtle and the intimate in his characters and plotting. His rural Texas dramas in particular reveal the fundamentals and universals of the human condition. While Foote may be better known for his screenplays, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, it is on the stage where his artistry most frequently and most clearly manifests itself. Foote has become known for works that pierce to the core of human relationships from the cradle to the nursing home. In his writing, Foote has been influenced greatly by his hometown of Wharton, Texas, and its residents.
Much of Foote’s drama treats the common man and woman realistically in disturbing but strangely comforting stories. The pathos that ordinary people undergo, the nobility of the neglected and the forgotten, the profound humor in unsuspected houses and families, the suffering around every corner, the substantiality of what is taken for granted, the high stakes wagered in backstairs games: these constitute his subjects. Foote’s realism pertains to the times and places he has both lived in and imagined, and his ear for speech is true and his characters recognizable and individualized. For example, the plays that make up the Orphans’ Home cycle offer readers aspects of life itself. Similarly, the elderly widow at the center of The Trip to Bountiful lives a life and undergoes a journey that is entirely realistic, from her difficult relationship with her son and daughter-in-law to finding her hometown abandoned. The Trip to Bountiful reveals the elusiveness of the past while it reflects realistically on time, memory, death, and rebirth.
Focus on Middle Class
For Foote, common, middle-class life is full of quiet terror and mystery. His works sometimes seem bland to some critics and readers because he has chosen to work within what amounts to formal constraints. He confines his dialogue to the probable iterations of small-town Southerners. Yet, as Foote has repeatedly demonstrated, these ordinary lives contain much passion. For example, 1918is set in Harrison during the waning days of World War I and in the midst of a deadly influenza epidemic. Most of Foote’s characters believe the war is the more compelling crisis, while one neighbor after another dies from the flu. Gradually, it becomes obvious that the war, despite its global significance, serves Harrison as a mere diversion from the much deadlier, more inexplicable crisis moving silently through town. Among the points the play makes is that extremes of experience—including horror, tragedy, courage, and redemptive love—can be found in middle-class homes and middle-class lives. Similarly, The Young Man from Atlanta concerns the lives of ordinary Texans living in Harrison in the 1950s who must deal with their son’s death, probably by suicide, as well as his implied homosexuality.
Works in Critical Context
Although some critics fault Foote for unoriginal thematic concerns and antiquated dramatic techniques, many applaud his deliberate avoidance of melodrama and recognize the intelligence, compassion, and humor in his writing. Both his early plays and television work were treated kindly by critics who found them both artful and realistic. With the exception of Hurry Sundown (1966), which received scathing reviews, Foote has been lauded for his screenplays as well, especially his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and his original script for Tender Mercies. Overall, critics have found Foote’s ability to convey much about his characters and their lives and languages in a minimalist style highly appealing.
Critics and audiences alike lauded Foote’s script for this Academy Award-winning film. True to Foote’s enduring, subtle style, ”the excitement of Tender Mercies lies below the surface,” wrote David Sterritt in the Saturday Evening Post. ”It’s not the quick change of fast action, the flashy performances or the eye-zapping cuts. Rather it s something much more rare—the thrill of watching characters grow, personalities deepen, relationships ripen and mature.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times commented that ”Foote s screenplay . . . doesn’t over explain or overanalyze. It has a rare appreciation for under-statement, which is the style of its characters if not of the actual narratives. Canby called Foote s Tender Mercies ”the best thing he’s ever done for films.”
The Orphans’ Home
Critical response to Foote’s ambitious series was divided between opponents and proponents of Foote’s typically subdued style. Writing in the National Review, Chilton Williamson, Jr., thought Foote ”trivializes life into a banal serenity,” while Canby argued that Foote’s characters, ”being so resolutely ordinary, become particular.” In the New York Times, Canby called 1918 a ”writer’s movie…. One that, for better or worse, pays no attention to the demands for pacing and narrative emphasis that any commercially oriented Hollywood producer would have insisted on.” Canby contended that ”The very flatness of its dramatic line is its dramatic point.” Author Reynolds Price is quoted in Christian Century as saying that the The Orphans’ Home cycle ”will take its rightful place near the center of our largest American dramatic treatments.”
- Briley, Rebecca Luttrell. You Can Go Home Again: The Focus on the Family in the Works of Horton Foote. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
- Porter, Laurin. Orphans’ Home: The Voice and Vision of Horton Foote. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
- Watson, Charles S. Horton Foote: A Literary Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
- Canby, Vincent. ”The Screen: Texas, Vintage 1918, directed by Ken Harrison.” New York Times (April 26, 1985).
- –. ”Film View: Tender Mercies Stands Out in a Fine Off-Season Crop.” New York Times (March 13,
- 1983): sec. 2, p. 21.
- Sterritt, David. Review of Tender Mercies. Saturday Evening Post (October 1983).
- Wall, James M. ”Home, Family, Religion.” Christian Century (February 19, 1997): 179.
- Williamson, Chilton Jr. National Review (June 14, 1985; June 6, 1986).
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