Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Horton Foote: Defying Heraclitus in Texas

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Horton Foote: Defying Heraclitus in Texas

Article excerpt

In the film Tender Mercies, whose script won an Academy Award for Horton Foote, Robert Duvall's Mac Sledge, a country singer whose career has been destroyed by alcohol, has a brief reunion with the daughter he hasn't seen for years, his only child. When she asks him if he remembers a song he used to sing to her when she was a little girl, "Wings of a Dove" he professes not to recall it. Actually, he recalls it quite well. Why doesn't he sing it for her then? The question has much to do, I believe, with the sensibility of the author.

Mac Sledge doesn't sing for his daughter, it seems to me, because, after failing her as a father, he doesn't want to make an unfair emotional claim upon her, a claim, of course, that would bind him, too. After she's killed in an auto accident, Mac does indeed sing "Wings of a Dove" but not at her funeral where the emotional impact would be quite pronounced, with the expected reaction shots of her mother and the like. No, he sings it quietly to himself. To her, too, if you'd like to think so, but Foote leaves that to you and to the bereaved father. Horton Foote, the writer, like Mac Sledge, his creation, doesn't want to make undue emotional claims.

Why, then, are Foote's plays and film scripts so affecting? Why has he been so honored--two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize--for these spare, austere works about quite ordinary people, dramas that seem to lack the kind of power generated by the righteous wrath of an Arthur Miller, the somber passion of a Eugene O'Neill, or the dark pathos of a Tennessee Williams?

Foote parts company, moreover, with such current critical favorites as Sam Shepherd, David Mamet, Tony Kushner, and Terrence McNally by having the outrageous chutzpah, despite his impeccable WASP pedigree, to put in a kind word, and more than a kind word, for something so sadly outdated as traditional values, especially as embodied in such imperiled (and, more often than not on the American stage and screen, reviled) institutions as marriage and the family.

His people seem to us to be trapped in the commonplace. If some, even most of them, stubbornly refuse to see themselves as trapped, that's not surprising. So did Willy Loman, to the very end. What is surprising in an American writer so acclaimed is that Horton Foote seems to be of the same mind as his people. Neither they nor he rages against the gathering dark. They take due note of the dying of the light, and then they make the best of it, as does Synge's Maura at the end of "Riders to the Sea": "No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied" (93). And this, I suggest, pace Dylan Thomas, takes more courage than raging.

Mrs. Coons, the Baptist lady who befriends young Horace Robedaux on the train to Houston in "Lily Dale" despite her Christian fervor and her willingness to pray aloud in public places at the drop of a hat, is neither pathetic nor a figure of fun. The wife of an alcoholic ne'er-do-well, Mrs. Coons has had her full share of suffering, and her hard-earned faith demands respect. Even characters who do see themselves as trapped, like Claire Ratliff in "The Widow Claire" are capable of a quiet dignity that is anything but commonplace: Claire stepping out into her dark front yard to wave a last, probably unseen, farewell to Horace Robedaux, the young man who might have given her the love that she hoped for had circumstances not been against them.

Decades ago, a writer quite different from Horton Foote, Graham Greene, responded to the question "why do you write?" by stating quite simply that he wrote because he felt he had an obligation to tell the truth--beginning with the use of precise language because, once imprecise language made its away into the public awareness, truth became that much more obscured.

Greene's insight has, unfortunately, been corroborated with a vengeance, and truth has become a quaint word in an age in which Rashomon has a secure place in the vocabulary of even those who have never seen a movie with subtitles (right next to Kafkaesque). …

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