A Pulitzer Prize winner for The Young Man From Atlanta, a two time Oscar winner for his screenplays for "Tender Mercies" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," and the creator of a body of theatre work stretching back six decades, Horton Foote nonetheless remains the quietest, most unassuming playwright you're likely to encounter. His plays eschew sensationalism in favor of intimate character studies, tracing the joys and despairs of family life. Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company has devoted an entire season to Foote's work, and his most recent work, The Death of Papa, reached Hartford Stage just a few weeks ago, and.
In his plays, which to this day he writes out in longhand, Foote often paints pictures of "Harrison," Texas. With the recent publication of his reminiscences, "Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood" (Scribner) readers can find a clear view into Wharton, the real place that helped form the writer once called the "Chekhov of the small town."
Playbill On-Line: If you count one-acts, or maybe even if you don't, you've written more than fifty plays during your long career, many of them containing autobiographical elements. Why the urge to pen a memoir?
Horton Foote: I have my own interpretation of autobiography; it's about you. So though my plays are often based on people I've known, I don't think they're truly autobiographical. The book came about because the publishers of my plays [Grove Press] felt it would be interesting and helpful to get a more specific memory. The memoir, which Scribner took over, is trying to recreate my life through my memories. Certain things in the book have occurred in my plays, or variations of them, but it's not the same thing. In fact, the first time I ever was a character in one of my own plays was The Death of Papa. I appear in it as a 10-year-old boy.
PBOL: The book charts your life from birth up to your leaving Texas for California. Will there be a sequel about your life in theatre and film?
HF: Scribner has asked me for part two, and I'm just starting to get my second wind. I think I'm going to do it; I just haven't figured out a time schedule for it.
PBOL: What elements do you see as being unique and special in your work; what do you consider the best part of what you do?
HF: If I could answer that I'd bottle it and make a fortune. And I'd always write a play that would be successful and critically accepted. I'm always surprised at the reaction, good or bad... The last few years, critics have, on the whole, been very kind to me, but in writing I can't think about commercial things. It'd be the wrong end of the stick, so to speak. When I write a play, it's an entity. I've lived long enough to know things go in and out of fashion, and things not well received now can be totally reversed years later. The regional theatre, especially, helps us find new life in things, with plays rediscovered and redone. It's no longer so important for a play to succeed or fail, it could just be a bad production. When you have such a collaborative medium, it doesn't always depend on the play; it could be the director and the actors. PBOL: Do you ever go back and look at your older works and make revisions?
HF: I've redone plays of mine and made changes. A play is a living thing, and I'd never say I wouldn't rewrite years later. For instance, many plays of mine have been published and afterwards I made changes -- Tennessee Williams did that all the time -- and it's distressing, because I'd like the play to be out there in its finished form... And then you also have new interpretations. It's always been interesting to me to have different actresses and actors play these parts. It's humbling to me as a writer, but any good play can stand it. I've seen three wonderful actresses do trip to The Trip To Bountiful: Lillian Gish, Geraldine Paige on film, and Ellen Burstyn did it outside New York. They were all wonderful and very valid and very different. At the same time, you do realize how much you're at the mercy of your interpreters.
PBOL: What plays by other dramatists do you wish you'd written?
HF: (Laughs.) Beginning with Oedipus? There are so many I admire! All the modern playwrights I like, beginning with O'Casey, O'Neill, Williams, Miller, down the line. Alan Ayckbourn, a British playwright, is very different from my style, but I revere him. Of the more recent people McNally, Jon Robin Baitz, David Mamet, Sam Shephard, Edward Albee -- we're so blessed with talent.
PBOL: On the same track, are there people you especially admire in the entertainment business?
HF: Bruce Beresford, Peter Masterson, who's directed so many of my things; a host of actresses, beginning with Kim Stanley, Lillian Gish, Geraldine Paige, Shirley Knight, my daughter. Then there's Robert Duvall, Robert Falls, Michael Wilson, Leonard Foglia...really, so many.
PBOL: Are you busy working another play?
HF: I'm always working on a play. New York's Signature Theatre is having a year-2000 Tenth Anniversary, and they've asked a bunch of us to write plays. Mine is The Last Of The Thorntons, and I've submitted a finished draft to them.
PBOL: What's it about?
HF: I'd rather not... But it's about the usual place that I write.
PBOL: Do you have a personal favorite among your plays?
HF: [laughs] That's like picking a favorite child, I'd never say.
-- By David Lefkowitz