Genesis of an American Playwright

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Overview


In Genesis of an American Playwright Horton Foote, one of the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century, reflects upon his journey from his childhood in Wharton, Texas, through his early experiences as an actor in the theatre, to his mature vocation as a playwright. All along the way, Foote carefully identifies the people and influences that shaped his character and nurtured his art. What is remarkable about this book is equally remarkable about his drama: he writes with an effortlessness that belies the intimacy of the art emanating from deep within. The stories are simply told, but complex in their resonance. Foote not only reveals his immediate professional world, but he also provides a running commentary on the changes in American culture. This book makes for as fascinating reading as it does compelling history. On December 20, 2000, President Bill Clinton conferred the National Medal of Arts on Texas dramatist, Horton Foote, and noted that Foote's six-decade-long, award-winning career established him as the nation's most prolific writer for stage, film, and television. Foote's many awards include two Academy Awards, an Emmy, a Burkey Award and the Screen Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America, the Lucille Lortel Award, and his induction into both the Theatre Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Without question, Horton Foote has enriched American literature with his unique writing style and his truthful examinations of the human condition. Besides To Kill A Mockingbird and The Trip To Bountiful, Foote has written a score of notable plays, teleplays, and films.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Here, in all its astonishing range and depth, in his own words and over years and years and years, is the life and work of one of America's greatest writers. Read it with love and awe.

-Romulus Linney

A book of generosity and honesty that every aspiring writer should read.

-Jean Stapleton

Genesis is indispensable to anyone interested in the American theatre.

-Reynolds Price

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780918954916
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Pages: 287
  • Lexile: 1140L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Genesis of an American Playwright

By Horton Foote
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2008 Horton Foote
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-918954-91-6



Chapter One
Genesis of a Playwright

These are my people and my stories, and the plays I want to write, the only ones I know how to write. "Learning to Write"

Seeing and Imagining

I am sitting on the back porch of my house in Wharton as I begin to write this, thinking how is it possible that I got from this house in this quiet, self-contained, provincial town to New York City to become a writer? I was brought to this house when I was not quite a year old. My first memory of this porch, it faces directly west, is as a place of extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter. It was screened in so flies and mosquitoes could not get in, and it was tolerable in the milder days of Fall and Spring. At night, except for sweltering July and August evenings, it was pleasant enough, but never so pleasant as our front porch, which faced east and south, and where there was nearly always a breeze from the Gulf, my parents always said. From the Gulf, too, came the large white clouds that often scurried across the sky night and day.

The back porch is glass-enclosed now: heated for winter and air-conditioned for summer. My wife and I spend a great deal of time here reading and writing, or just looking out at our backyard with its seven native pecan trees and through to the backyard of what was once my grandparents' house. From here, too, we can hear the occasional traffic noise from the paved road in front of my grandparents' house, a road that was gravel when I was a boy. It has been a mild winter, and today, the day after Christmas, it is in the low eighties. The confederate rose bush has blossoms, another rose bush has two lovely coral roses, and the chrysanthemums are heavy with flower. A huge sycamore tree in a neighboring yard still has its leaves. The pecan trees have no leaves left, but pecans are everywhere on the ground. When I was a boy, our backyard was fenced in and we had a chicken house and a yard full of chickens. There was only one pecan tree then, and there were three fig trees and two chinaberry trees.

My grandparents owned fifteen acres around their house. Out of that, they took a half-acre for our house and yard and gave it to my parents. To the left of our yard was my grandfather's barn. When I was a very young boy, he kept a horse and a cow there. At the far end of their lot is a giant pecan tree, at least two hundred years old. I spent much time climbing this tree. I had to nail boards to the trunk to make a kind of ladder to help me reach its branches.

To the right of our yard and across the street were cotton fields belonging to my grandfather, and beyond them were cotton fields belonging to my great-great-uncle. These cotton fields went right up to the back edge of the town itself, to the livery stable and a section known as the "Flats" that had black restaurants and a black barber shop and pool hall.

There are houses on either side of my house now, and in front, where there once had been a dirt road, there is now a paved one. Across the street where there once were cotton fields is now the back of the huge complex that is part of the First Baptist Church. And to the side of that is a very small frame building that houses the Christian Science Society.

When I was a child, the dirt road in front of our house was unnamed but the street in front of my grandparents' house was called Richmond Road. Some of the most elegant houses in town were on that road. The two houses directly across from my grandparents had large acreages around them. In one of these houses lived a boy my age who became my best friend. His parents had come from Mississippi, and his father managed the cotton gin and oil mill. The land behind their house went down to the gin and my friend and I often played there, climbing up on the platforms where the bales of cotton were kept, racing each other across them. During cotton season, the gins were the busiest places in town. We had three in those days, and my friend's father managed the most prosperous one. Often during cotton season as many as sixty wagons would be lined up on the dirt road fronting the gin, waiting to get into the gin yard. Also during cotton season and late into the fall and early winter the smell of cottonseed cake coming from the oil mill permeated our part of town. To me, it was always a very pleasant smell.

I was turned loose to roam as I chose, through the land belonging to my grandparents and my friend's parents. I wonder now what my parents were thinking; they were usually so protective and strict about where I went. I had no secrets from them and they knew we spent a great deal of time in my friend's back pastures, which were crossed by Caney Creek, dry most of the year. Here we spent hours with older boys endlessly digging tunnels and caves deep enough for us to stand in. I do not remember when I first read or had read to me Tom Sawyer, but I do know that early on I envied Tom's adventures in the caves around Hannibal. I don't know if our inspiration for forming endless clubs and secret societies was inspired by Tom or whether we thought of it ourselves, but we dug caves, built clubhouses, climbed trees, and built tree houses. These pastures belonging to my grandparents and my friend's parents were, in these early years, my contained world, my garden, my Eden, as it were. And when not in school, I spent most of my early waking days roaming its confines.

When I did leave this world, it was to go visiting with my mother in the afternoons and occasionally at night, or on Sunday afternoons with my mother and father. Occasionally these visits would be to my mother's girlhood friends, but usually they would be to my maternal grandparents or my father's aunts. It was there I learned to listen, a habit, of course, that is very valuable to a writer, especially a playwright.

At my great aunts there was much talk of their past and of the rest of the Horton family. At my grandparents, I would hear about the Brooks and Speeds families and about our neighbors' and friends' failures and accomplishments. I was spared nothing; I was never told to leave the room no matter how gruesome or unhappy the tale. And so early on, I learned to accept the most tragic events as part of life. I heard in lurid detail of hurt feelings, suicide, jealousies, passions, and scoundrels of all descriptions. I am not sure what my young mind made of it all, but I am sure I never got tired of listening.

One of my favorite tales, told by both my aunts and grandparents, was of poor Henry Lowell who lived alone with his mother and was allegedly having an affair with their black cook. The Ku Klux Klan decided to make an example of what they considered his immorality and grabbed him in broad daylight, tarred and feathered him, and turned him loose on the courthouse square. Covered with the tar and feathers, he ran two blocks to his home. Everyone had his own version of the story; and long after the poor man's death, the story was still told again as if it had happened the day before. When I was older and went to the picture show alone at night, I had to pass his house. I would see him sitting alone on his gallery, and I would try to imagine what it was like being tarred and feathered and set loose on the courthouse square. There were few streetlights in those days and I, imagining his house was haunted, would run by it as fast as I could.

Most nights after supper my father and mother would sit on our front porch, which faced my bedroom. I would go to sleep listening to them talk in endless detail of what happened to them during the day, or of past friends and family who had died or moved away, or of the dances my father had attended as a younger man. (My mother, whose family was strictly Methodist, was not allowed to dance.) These were mostly tales of men and women I never knew. Sooner or later, my father would get around to talking about Willie Roseberry, his closest friend as a boy, and my father would wonder where Willie was now. He would tell my mother, as if she hadn't already heard it a million times, what he and Willie did together as boys and what his friendship had meant to him. I never tired of hearing about Willie Roseberry; and years later, when I was allowed to sit up with them, I would ask him to tell me a story about his friend.

Another character I never tired of hearing about was Aubrey Newsome, who died a young man. They said the lining of his stomach was eaten out from drinking too many Coca-Colas. "He was a coke fiend," my father would pronounce solemnly each time he told his story. Father said Aubrey drank them first thing in the morning when he got out of bed and he continued drinking them all day. There were many drunkards I heard about, both men and women, and one lady who was a paregoric addict, but Aubrey Newsome was the only coke fiend. There were other men and women with less lurid histories than the alcoholics and coke fiends, long ago friends of my parents who I never knew but who are as real to me in some ways as the men and women I did know as a boy.

There was music, too, of a kind, certainly hymns aplenty. My mother was a pianist and, later, organist for the Methodist church. At an early age I was taken to Sunday school where I learned to sing many of the hymns. For awhile my mother taught piano and tried to teach me, but I refused to practice. Besides the hymns, the songs I remember most were sentimental popular songs that she would play some evenings while my father sang. He had collected sheet music for popular songs since he was a young man, and he brought them all with him when he married my mother. She would play and he would sing "Goodnight Mr. Elephant," "My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon," "After the Ball," and "Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven." After singing the latter, he would tell how he had heard Chauncey Alcott sing that song at the Wharton Opera House and he always added, "When he finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the house."

In my maternal grandparents' house, a house then of great style and elegance, were two pictures. One was of the Natural Bridge of Virginia. This picture was long and narrow, a kind of collage really, composed partly with the materials taken from or around the real bridge. The other was a photograph of a large, white, two-storied house, with a wide front and upper gallery and a circle of oaks in the front yard. It was called Seven Oaks, and on the gallery were two women surrounded by a group of children of various ages. From the look of the children's dress, I would guess that the picture was taken in the 1880s. This house was the home of my maternal grandfather, built by his father for his bride on the banks of the Brazos River in the town of East Columbia, a thriving river town in the 1850s.

There was a family legend of why the house was wood instead of brick. It seems that my great-grandmother, before meeting my great-grandfather, was told by a fortune-teller that a man would come to her across the water and ask her to marry him, and that he would want to build them a brick house. The fortune-teller said that she was not to permit it, for if she did it would be a house of great sorrow. My great-grandfather came by boat from Virginia to Texas, met my great-grandmother, and after what I presume was a suitable courtship, asked her to marry him. She accepted his proposal. But when he said that he was building a brick house for them, she remembered that the fortuneteller had said that if he built a brick house, she was not to marry him. So, my great-grandfather built the frame house in the picture instead.

I remember, too, relatives visiting my grandmother identifying the children in the picture. They were various older cousins of my mother. She wasn't born when the picture was taken. Some of them were dead by the time I was a child. Others I knew, but to me then, they seemed to be old men and women. And I heard the story told many times of how poor the family in the picture became after the war and of the death of my great-grandfather. I heard how my great-grandmother and her two daughters, one widowed and one unmarried, lived there with the children of the widow until my grandmother died. Then, the two daughters and the children went to live in Galveston, leaving the house and its once handsome furnishings deserted. I was also told how various relatives living in the town came into the house and took what they wanted to grace their own homes. One item in particular that was taken by one of these relatives was a pair of elegant hurricane lamps. Whenever we visited a certain relative in East Columbia, a cousin would point out the lamps to me as being rightfully ours.

In time, the house was torn down. My grandparents eventually copied the picture of the house and gave it to each of their children. This was the first abandoned house I was ever aware of, and it seized my childish imagination. I asked my mother endless questions about the house and the life in it. It seemed from the photograph to be so substantial, a house built to last forever, and yet all that was left of it was this photograph on my grandmother's wall. My mother made me a copy of the photograph, and it now hangs on the wall of my house.

The graves of my family are scattered all over the Texas Gulf Coast in East Columbia, Peach Point, Matagorda, on the banks of Caney Creek, and in the town of Wharton. The most illustrious, Governor Albert Clinton Horton, is buried in Matagorda, now a deserted coastal town. My wife and I spent one whole hot August afternoon in search of his grave, trudging through Johnson grass and Buffalo grass and darting around red ant beds in the unkempt, treeless Matagorda cemetery. So much of his life, except for the public occasions and events, remain a mystery to me. He died in 1865, at the close of the Civil War, in Matagorda, where he had a summer house.

Through the years I have learned a great deal about his public life, but as a boy all that I knew of the governor and his part of my family came from my Aunt Louisiana Texas Patience Horton; I called her Aunt Loula. She was not a pretty woman, not even a handsome one. She was tall, held herself very erect, and was surrounded by her sisters who were beauties. But, she was loved by her family. She had a good personality and was a lively conversationalist, and I was told by my father that she never lacked for beaux. She was a graceful dancer, had a sweet singing voice, played the piano by ear with great authority and liveliness, and also played the guitar and mandolin. She was loyal beyond measure to anyone with "a drop of Horton blood in their veins" (her phrase), and she was the one that kept the family stories alive, not always with great accuracy, but with imagination, vividness, and gusto. Hers was a world of absolutes. The Hortons, particularly her immediate branch, were aristocrats, betrayed and cheated out of their birthright, but undaunted. They were all virtuous, even though they were surrounded by a world of knaves and thieves. When she told her tales, which grew more lurid through the years, she would cock her head to one side, close her eyes slightly, and her voice would take on a heightened chant-like quality as she recounted the history of her family. She never grew tired of telling it to any of the nieces and nephews who would listen. Her own child, Mary, would never listen and would deliberately leave the room whenever she began. I listened. I would spend entire afternoons at her white Victorian cottage built high off the ground to keep the frequent floodwater from entering the house.

When I was eleven, I began to work in my father's store. I worked most afternoons after school, all day Saturday, and all day everyday during the summer months. Business was usually slow, except on Saturdays. And even on Saturdays, once the Depression started and cotton was down to ten cents a pound, there were long stretches without customers. The store was a men's clothing store. We sold men's hats, shirts, underwear, socks, suits (both ready-made and tailor-made), and various accessories. Our customers were mostly male blacks and their wives and girlfriends. We had, however, many white visitors during the day, relatives or friends of my father's, lawyers, fellow merchants, and planters who lived in town and visited their farms once or twice a week to see that the tenants weren't cheating them. The store was mostly a male world and, unlike my great-aunts' stories, I felt sometimes the men's stories and the language they used were modified because of my presence. They talked of weather, of the crops and the prospects of the crops. They got into political arguments. They were all Democrats, but they disagreed about individual Democratic policies and politicians. When they talked of the past, it was often using unfamiliar names never mentioned by my aunts and grandparents.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Genesis of an American Playwright by Horton Foote Copyright © 2008 by Horton Foote. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments

Chronology

Introduction

Chapter 1: Genesis of a Playwright

Seeing and Imagining

Pasadena and Beyond

Learning to Write

Chapter 2: On Being a Southern Writer

Wharton, Then and Now

What It Means to be a Southern Writer

The Trip to Paradise

The Artist as Mythmaker

Things Have Ends and Beginnings

Chapter 3: Writing for the Stage

Dance and Broadway (1944)

Harrison, USA

Sometimes the One-Act Play Says It All

Advice to Young Playwrights

Herbert Berghof

The Orphans' Home Cycle Lecture

How To and How Not To: Some Lessons Learned along the Way

Introduction to The Young Man from Atlanta

Chapter 4: Writing for the Screen

The Little Box

On First Dramatizing Faulkner

The McDermott Lecture

Writing for Film

Willa Cather

Chapter 5: Thoughts on the American Theatre

The New York Theatre (1930--1940)

The Changing of the Guard

The Vanishing World and Renewals

Appendix: Cast Lists and Production Information

Bibliography of Published and Produced Works (1939--2003)

Notes

Index

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