Devotees of Jack Sbarbori’s Quotidian Theatre won’t be the only ones fascinated by this new biography of the late Horton Foote, one of the two authors whose work inspired that company to specialize in the fascinating tiny details of the plain, day-to-day life of people who are remarkable in their unexceptionalness. (Quotidian, of course, refers specifically to “ordinary, everyday occurrences.) So, too, will those who have enjoyed plays like A Trip to Bountiful, movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or classic television dramas on such early groundbreaking series as “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One”.
Foote is one of the most distinctive voices in these dramatic genres because he is, first and foremost, a storyteller who concentrates on the personal tales of people who hail from his own background – small town (and southwestern) America. That is why the subtitle of this new biography, written by veteran theater critic Wilborn Hampton, is so apropos: “America’s Storyteller.”
As it turns out, the life of the “America’s Storyteller” is an American story of constant interest, intertwined with the evolution of American dramatic theatre over the bulk of the twentieth century. It is also a story well told by Hampton who includes enough detail on the story lines of Foote’s stage plays, teleplays and screenplays to make it easy to follow the logic behind Hampton’s analysis of the common threads of Foote’s output.
That output was of a constantly high quality, whether he was writing a 60 minute teleplay or a three act stage drama. Foote found the source for dramatic material in the daily life of supposedly “average” people. The stories he grew up with concerned his extended family, his friends and the residents of the small town where they all lived named Wharton,Texas. It is some 55 miles southwest of Houston where, in his day, 3,000 people lived, but in his mind it was the centerpiece of America’s culture – or at least the portion of that culture that interested him.
Foote was white, a descendent of a slave-owning, confederate soldier. But he was accepted in the homes of the black residents of the town, in part because his father’s clothing store served all races with dignity. The book includes a fascinating glimpse of the value system Foote absorbed from his father when it tells of “a small scandal in town when Foote senior refused to stop assisting a black customer when a white woman came in and demanded to be served immediately. The woman stalked out and tried to organize a boycott of the store, but it had no effect.”
A haberdashery was not a place Foote junior wanted to make a life long concern. Instead, even as the stranglehold of the Depression constricted his options, Foote convinced his parents to support his desire to be not a writer but an actor. For a family from a town without a theater, such an ambition was puzzling, but off young Horton went to Southern California for a two year course at the Pasadena Playhouse which would cost $750!
Upon graduation, he headed for that mecca of theatrical dreams (and chronic unemployment) New York City where he got a few breaks – some good and some bad. The best didn’t seem like much at the time, but it changed his course. As part of an acting exercise during rehearsals for an evening of one-act plays, he had to do an improvisation based on where he grew up. He ended up doing a total of five improvisations about life in a small Texas town. Afterwards, a woman who had sat in on the rehearsals suggested he aught to try his hand at writing. He asked what she thought he could write about and she echoed the time-honored response “Write about what you know.” The woman was none other than Agnes de Mille.
The biography provides many glimpses of life among the literati of New York and of some of the friendships Foote formed, including one with the young Tennessee Williams. It is an interesting coincidence that Williams invited Foote to the opening of the play that would be his first big hit, The Glass Menagerie and that Foote next met Williams at the opening night of his own memorable Broadway engagement, The Trip to Bountiful. It is interesting because the two of them hadn’t seen each other in the intervening eight years.
In the years immediately following World War II, Foote and his wife operated the theatre of the King-Smith School on New Hampshire Avenue in Washington. Again, the Foote value of racial equality came to the fore in that distinctly Jim Crow town where later on the operators of the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue would close down rather than admit a racially mixed audience. Foote simply opened the doors of both the school and the theatre to all races, resulting in what Hampton describes as “the first public shows for an integrated audience in Washington.”
Hampton also relates the tale of when the King-Smith staged one of Foote’s own plays, a large cast drama titled People in the Show. Two “rising young actors” appeared, Eli Wallach and Jean Stapleton, and in the audience one night was Marlon Brando (who came without wearing shoes).
Foote’s first major success came not on stage but on the tiny screen of early 1950s television. Early? How about 1950 when he became co-writer for “The Quaker Oats Show” starring Gabby Hayes (you remember, Roy Rodgers’ side-kick). One hour teleplays turned out to be a good fit for the kind of stories this American Storyteller had to tell. One that we remember today after sixty years was one that he had to pitch to the producer in person and he could only say “this is a story about an old lady who wants to go back home.” The producer said “Okay, I trust you” and Foote went off to write “The Trip to Bountiful.”
Foote went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Young Man from Atlanta, two Oscars for the screenplays for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies”. His package of nine one-act plays performed in sets of three, The Orphans’ Home Cycle walked away with a special Drama Desk Award and best play honors from both the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle.