Horton Foote is sitting patiently in an orchestra seat at the Booth Theatre on Broadway before a Wednesday matinee of “Dividing the Estate.” He’s waiting to be interviewed but seems content just to stare at the set of the genteel family residence, the source of his economically strapped characters’ squabbling and backbiting.
There’s a look of concern on his face, but ask him what he’s thinking about and he’ll say he’s just amazed by his good fortune. “I can’t get over the fact that I can go into many places in New York, and people know who I am,” he says. “I never really know who I am myself. I’m impressed by that.”
At 92, Foote cuts a gentlemanly figure of somber serenity. Elegantly bundled in a sweater and overcoat, he exudes an uncommon grace and compassion for someone who has survived as long as he has in the treacherous shoals of the American theater. If there are scars, he isn’t flaunting them. Talking to him one-on-one amid sound checks and other distractions, you can feel his vision concentrating on you, absorbing your peculiar individuality the way an animal lover will stop and stare at a strange cat walking through a garden. Yet his gaze seems on loan from the higher precincts of memory and imagination, the forces that have combined in him to produce a distinguished body of work that has grown only richer with time.
This is Foote’s first play on Broadway since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta” in 1997. But you wouldn’t know it from his manner, which is as steady, sensitive and slyly humorous as any of his dramas that have chronicled the hope and heartbreak of that little corner of Texas he long ago rechristened “Harrison.” (As literary ZIP Codes go, Harrison, Texas, is as well-mapped as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.)
“When I first tried writing a play, I was so naive I didn’t know that you couldn’t use the actual names,” Foote recalls. “So I wrote a one-act called ‘Wharton Dance’ and used all of my friends’ names. Some of them were doing things their parents didn’t know they did. No one told me that you couldn’t do this. I thought they’d be delighted, but they weren’t delighted, so I quickly changed the name of Wharton to Harrison.”
From Texas to Pasadena
The cadences of Foote’s sentences are those of a storyteller who respects his material too much to sensationalize it or rush it along. Listening to him talk is a little like sitting beside a brook that flows at its own leisurely pace, quietly transporting earthly life in its flow. When asked if he sees the rhythm of his plays as a corrective to the hyped-up barrage of modern life, he pauses courteously to consider before conceding, “I’m not aware of that mission, but I am aware that my plays have a certain tone.”
That tone stems from his small-town Gulf Coast-area beginnings. His father owned a clothing store in Wharton, a tight-knit community where everyone knew more than one another’s name. A year out of high school, amid the Great Depression, Foote headed out west to the theater school at Pasadena Playhouse. He was determined to realize his dream of becoming an actor, which took hold of him in his early adolescence.
“My parents liked the idea of Pasadena because they thought it would be a very safe place to study, and it was away from Broadway and New York,” he says with soft, nostalgic laughter.
Just a few years later, this young man from Texas would become a New Yorker and a founding member of the American Actors Company, where the dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille, who had been doing improvisational exercises with him, encouraged him to begin writing. These disciplines of acting and writing were in rivalry for a time, until a review helped him clarify which path to choose.
“Brooks Atkinson was the dean of the New York critics, and he came down to see my play ‘Texas Town,’ and for some reason he liked it very much,” Foote recalls. “He loved all the acting, except for one: me. I was playing the lead. ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘I’ll show him. I’ll never write again, and I’ll become such a good actor that I’ll make him ashamed of what he wrote.’ But then we went away for the summer, and the desire to act left me as mysteriously as it had arrived.”
His apprenticeship as a playwright officially began. “If you read Atkinson’s review, you’d think I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t. I went to Agnes and said, ‘I’m stymied here.’ And she said, ‘Write about what you know,’ and whether for good or bad, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
When pressed on the subject of the relationship between fact and fiction in his plays, he offers no more than “I’m a storyteller. I don’t know what my method is. I only know that if material fascinates me, I’ll go to the ends of the Earth to do it. That’s really been the secret.”
Success for Foote has been more long haul than windfall. His plays “The Trip to Bountiful” (starring Lillian Gish) and “The Traveling Lady” (starring Kim Stanley) were presented on television and Broadway in the ‘50s, but it was his Oscar-winning screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962 that considerably raised his profile. Yet even though he won a second Oscar for writing 1983’s “Tender Mercies” and Geraldine Page capped her glorious career with an Oscar for the 1985 movie version of “Bountiful,” Foote says he doesn’t think of himself as a film writer. When inspiration hits, his instinct typically tells him, “This would make a good play.”
“I got a message from Harper Lee today, and it was a wonderful experience adapting her novel, probably the film that means the most to me,” Foote says. “Tender Mercies,” which earned Robert Duvall an Oscar, is also very dear to him. “But I’m not a film person,” he says. “I’m in awe sometimes that they get done, but I don’t think of them as ‘my’ films.”
It’s the theater that still compels him to keep writing and seeking possibilities for what he’s already created. He’d like to see “The Orphan’s Home Cycle,” the series of nine plays he wrote after the death of his parents in the ‘70s and which many consider his greatest dramatic achievement, performed as a group. And “Dividing the Estate,” which was first produced at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., in 1989, couldn’t have emerged at a more apt time -- in fact, it’s uncanny how the work speaks to our current economic turmoil.
The play, set in Harrison in 1987 when the Greater Houston economy was reeling from the oil bust, explores the cumulative impact of financial woes on a family having difficulty relinquishing its notions of the past. Mortgage foreclosures, unemployment, the spread of artery-clogging fast-food chains, environmental degradation -- the subject matter, Foote acknowledges, could have been lifted from today’s headlines.
The production, directed by Michael Wilson, was rapturously received at its Primary Stages premiere last year off-Broadway, and the Broadway engagement, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, has been equally celebrated. Elizabeth Ashley, who plays the matriarch, heads a cast that includes Foote’s daughter, Hallie Foote, and her husband, Devon Abner.
The family affair nature of “Dividing the Estate” has intensified the excitement, but Foote says he’s more realistic now. “I know what the demands are. It’s not just a wish. It costs so much to do a play on Broadway, and it’s unfortunate that you have to pay $100 to see one. I’m not blaming anyone, because no one is getting rich this way. But I remember when 50 cents would get a seat in the balcony.”
Life, health and family
Hallie Foote, who has been celebrated for her comically ferocious portrayal of Mary Jo, the grasping daughter who wants the estate to be immediately chopped up so she can get her husband out of his financial hole, says she’s grateful for this opportunity to be in another of her father’s plays.
“I think he writes really great parts for actors, and especially for women,” she says. “He has a very feminine side to his talent, and I’ve noticed he has a great ear for how women speak.”
Foote says he divides his time among his children (he has four) now that he’s gotten on in years. When he’s in Los Angeles, he stays with Hallie and Devon Abner at their place in Pacific Palisades. Hallie, who seems far removed from the outrageously self-centered Mary Jo, says she appreciates this time with her father and keeps telling him that “90 is the new 70.”
Although he has taken up yoga and routinely faces an active day, Foote no longer drives and has become more dependent on his family. Asked how his health is holding up, he jokes, “Depends on your definition of ‘health,’ ” but he still seems hardy and sharp.
More complicated, perhaps, is the question of how his approach to playwriting may have altered since reaching his upper seniority. “Your whole focus changes, almost imperceptibly,” he says. “You know there are new forces, new interests at work, but you don’t know how. I’m just discovering all of this. I ask a lot of questions but get few answers.”
Foote holds on to advice given to him by theater critic Stark Young, who became a mentor to him at a crucial point early on in his career. “He taught me that talent was a sacred thing, and that you had better take care of it,” he says. “He knew a lot of wonderful people who didn’t take care of it, and he knew the ones who did.”
Young’s writings on legendary actresses Eleonora Duse and Pauline Lord helped Foote find the words to arrive at his own concept of theater, an art of commonplace realism shot through with profoundly lyrical meaning. About Lord, whom Foote considers one of the most talented actors he’s ever seen, Young once wrote: “By what process it is in Miss Lord’s portrayal that her opening of a door and standing there -- or any of that continuous perfection of her playing -- can begin our entrance into a region that we cannot explain, nor predict technically, no one can say. Her performance has a miraculous humility, a subtle variety and gradation and shy power that are indescribable.”
These words might be extended to Foote’s accomplishment as a playwright. But too modest for such comparison, Foote merely says of himself and of his characters, “Life is rough, and there are always things coming up that you just don’t know what to do about. You’re like a blind man, but you do the best you can, and that’s what I’m settling for.”
His goal? “To write a wonderful play,” he says, with the ardent fire of a young man just getting started.