If you ask Horton Foote what number play of his this latest one is, The Carpetbagger's Children, he laughs and says: "Edward asked me that at this thing he does in Alaska." Edward is Edward Albee, and this thing is an invitational Play Lab that Albee conducts betimes in Valdez, Alaska. "He asked me how many plays I'd written, and I said: 'Edward, do you mean including one-act plays?' and he said yes and I said: 'Well, something over 60,' and he said: 'Horton, get off your butt and get to work.'"
In 85 years, Horton Foote has obviously never stopped working, and the more plays he writes, the more beautiful they get. When the Alley Theatre of Houston, Texas — 50 miles northeast of the Texas town of Wharton (redubbed Harrison) that's the setting for most of his plays — invited Foote to write a new work for one of their anniversaries, he said: "Well, I've always been fond of Chekhov's Three Sisters, maybe I could do one about three sisters." Actually, he did two. But the sisters of The Last of the Thorntons, the heartbreaking drama that premiered at Off-B'way's Signature Theatre two winters ago, have nothing to do with the no less heartbreaking three sisters who are the carpetbagger's children in the play that has now made its way to Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse. They've nothing much to do with Chekhov either, except for a general desire to get to Houston.
From the house of his boyhood in Wharton, Horton Foote, who always writes from reality — reality transmuted, transformed — says over the phone: "I know five different sets of three sisters who grew up in Wharton, but you wouldn't recognize them from the play." The sisters onstage are Cornelia (Roberta Maxwell), Grace Anne (Jean Stapleton) and Sissie (Hallie Foote, daughter of Horton Foote). Cornelia, the oldest, is the one who gets stood up on her wedding day by a charming swindler. "I can tell you five women who got stood up here. And all of them stayed spinsters."
Foote also knows two or three families in Wharton who to this day are looked upon as descendants of carpetbaggers — northerners who came south for power, profit, whatever, as did the father of those three sisters: a General Thompson or Private Thompson (depends on whom you ask) of the Union Army, who liked what he saw of Texas and stayed, and accumulated land, and held it.
"There's still a lingering suspicion about those families. Even now, certain people here will shake their heads and say: 'Well, what did you expect?' A couple of the families have held onto their land and been able to pass it down. Our family had lots of land, but were not so frugal," says Foote dryly. "All our land is gone." Not gone with the wind but gone with the song Sissie, now dead, used to sing for her dying father: "O, the clanging bells of time / Night and day they never cease . . . Eternity! Eternity!" Horton Foote holds it off . . . eternity . . . even as he hauls it near.
—By Jerry Tallmer