Magazine article The Christian Century

Home, Family, Religion

Magazine article The Christian Century

Home, Family, Religion

Article excerpt

EVERYONE WANTS to know if 81-year-old Horton Foote is related to Shelby Foote, the gravel-voiced historian who graced Ken Burns's television series on the Civil War. So when I had the chance to visit with Foote I asked him about it. Yes, he answered, the two Footes are third cousins; their great-grandfathers were brothers. "And while we didn't grow up together, we have become friends; I was the voice of Jefferson Davis in that TV series," he added proudly.

The Foote cousins also share a writing talent. Horton has earned two Academy Awards for screenplays (for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird), and in 1995 won a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta. The production of that play brought him to Chicago, where it will run until its New York opening in March.

Like all his plays, Young Man is drawn from family stories. Foote's much-acclaimed Orphans' Home Cycle includes nine plays, the first of which begins in 1902 with the death of his real-life paternal grandfather and the remarriage of his grandmother. The cycle ends with The Death of Papa, in which a nine-year-old Horton (called Horace Robedaux Jr. in the play) experiences the loss of another grandfather. (Foote does not consider The Young Man from Atlanta, which features characters drawn from an aunt and uncle, as part of his Orphans cycle. "That series has ended; it was about my father's search for a home.")

About the cycle, Foote has written: "The time of the plays is a harsh time. They begin in 1902, a time of far-reaching social and economic change in Texas. The aftermath of Reconstruction and its passions had brought about a white man's union to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections. But in spite of political and social acts to hold onto the past, a way of life was over, and the practical, the pragmatic were scrambling to form a new economic order."

Foote began to write the cycle of plays in 1974, the year of his mother's death. His father had died the previous year "in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in." Foote later bought his parents' home in Wharton, Texas (called Harrison in the plays), and continues to live there. After sorting through his parents' letters and personal papers, Foote began writing plays that tell the story of his parents' lives and "the world of the town that had surrounded them from birth to death." Reynolds Price has said that Foote's family saga "will take its rightful place near the center of our largest American dramatic achievements."

Foote was raised as a Methodist in Wharton (population 3,000, "half white, half black"), where religion was so much a part of the culture that it wasn't at all unusual for a minister to greet a newcomer with the question, "Where were you baptized, Mr. Sledge?"--which is a scene in Tender Mercies. That 1983 film stars Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge, an alcoholic country singer whose life is turned around when he marries a young widow who sings in the Baptist choir. The movie offers a rarity in contemporary film: when Mac is baptized, along with his young stepson, the Baptist immersion is treated respectfully.

Foote, who left Texas at age 17 and who has lived in New York, New Hampshire and California, remains a a southern writer whose work is saturated with religion. When pressed on the topic, however, he worries that he might be accused of what he calls, nervously, "proselytizing." He need not worry; his writing does not proselytize, but it does reveal the integral, inescapable role religion plays in his characters' lives.

He delights in telling interviewers about how a young Texas boy who had never before seen a stage play launched a career as an actor, and then later became a writer of plays and of television and movie scripts: "When I was about nine or ten, there was this gray-haired, dignified man we would see walking along the sidewalk. My parents would tell me, in awed tones, after he passed us, that Mr. …

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