Horton Foote, the prolific American playwright and screenwriter, was referred to by some critics as “America’s Chekov,” because both writers created extraordinary stories about ordinary people. Many of Foote’s characters live in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas — the name, place and characters loosely based on his actual home town of Wharton, Texas, about 50 miles southwest of Houston-between the Rio Grande and The Gulf of Mexico. No matter where he lived or traveled in his life, Foote’s plays evoke the dusty Gulf Coast town with the cottonwoods and cattle farms, where the playwright grew up listening to the storytelling of his family and neighbors. “We didn’t have radio or television in those days,” said Foote, who died in March, 2009, at 92. “There was not much else to do but talk.” The young Foote was fascinated by the tales, and many found their way into his plays one way or another.
During the course of his life, Foote wrote more than 60 plays, and he won two Oscars, for the adapted screenplay of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962, and the screenplay of his own original story, “Tender Mercies” in 1983. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, “The Young Man from Atlanta” in 1995.
In December, 2000, President Bill Clinton conferred the National Medal of Arts on Foote, and described the lasting impact of Foote’s rural Texas childhood on his work, saying, “Believe it or not, the great writer Horton Foote got his education at Wharton —but not at the Wharton Business School. He grew up in the small town of Wharton, Texas. His work is rooted in the tales, the troubles, the heartbreak, and the hopes of all he heard and saw there.”
Like Chekov, Foote elevates the plain-spoken dialogue of his characters to poetry, creating an emotional depth behind the seemingly ordinary surfaces. In his Oscar winning screenplay, “Tender Mercies,” that chronicles the life of a washed-up, alcoholic country singer named Mac Sledge, played by Robert Duvall, a woman asks, “Were you really Mac Sledge?” He responds, “Yes ma’am, I guess I was.” This deceptively simple exchange cuts to the heart of the character’s desperation and loss revealing a deeper humanity-in characteristic Horton Foote style.
Foote said his basic theme, running through his work like the alluvial Texas floodplains, is his faith in humanity. “I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on. I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask quarters.”
By Joan Lownds