A Southerner who listens for tender mercies

A new collection of Horton Foote's nonfiction prose shows the breadth of his contribution to American drama

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Horton Foote has always valued place and time, and his his place is a small Southern town, generally Harrison, Texas. "There is still an oral tradition in the South, and I surely think it is one of the continuing strengths of its writers," we read in this new collection of his essays. "We southerners are very blessed I think in that we are surrounded by people who love to talk, who love to remember, and who love to share their remembrances."

Listening, observing, and remembering are the stuff of his artistic vision. Throughout his career, Foote has pursued "the mysterious resilience of the human spirit," the roots of courage in the face of devastating loss.

One of America's greatest living playwrights, Foote is the author of more than 100 teleplays, screenplays, and stage dramas. He has received two Academy Awards, for "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1963 and "Tender Mercies" in 1984; an Emmy for "The Old Man" in 1959; a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for "The Young Man from Atlanta" in 1995, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and several lifetime-achievement awards.

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While his reputation will rest on his work as a dramatist, he has also produced a considerable body of nonfiction prose, including two memoirs, "Farewell" (1999) and "Beginning" (2001). He has written some 25 essays, lectures, private commentaries, a eulogy dating from 1944 to the present. This body of material reveals the private man, the prolific artist, and the creative process as well as the history of American theater, television, and film from the mid-20th century to the present.

Working with Foote, Marion Castleberry has selected and edited these fascinating essays. "Genesis of an American Playwright" also includes a full chronology - both personal and professional - of milestones in Foote's life through September 2003. And the appendix is a rare prize for Foote and theater enthusiasts: stage plays, teleplays, and screen plays in chronological order followed by cast lists and production details for each.

Castleberry has written a fine introduction, placing Foote and his work in context. The lectures and essays are divided into five chapters: "Genesis of a Playwright," "On Being a Southern Writer," "Writing for the Stage," "Writing for the Screen," "Thoughts on American Theater." Foote has also contributed three previously unpublished essays to the collection.

Foote's comments are rich and generous, and his examination of American theater is broad and deep. "I think playwrights can learn from all of the arts," he writes, "painting, sculpture, and particularly music." Fans of his work know that music informs his plays - from hymns to the music of folksinger Leadbelly to compositions by Charles Ives. He has also worked with dance and the nation's most prominent dancers, declaring his experience with Martha Graham "one of the greatest theater lessons I've ever had."

Foote has preserved "a vanished world," a body of "cultural and intellectual historic preservation," a canon of rich dramatic art as well as a rendering of American history. But he has not looked back on that world with sentiment. Rather, with a cold eye and much irony, he creates a "cosmos all [his] own." His comments in these essays enhance that world as well as the wider world of American theater.

Castleberry has made a major contribution to the history of American theater in collecting Foote's commentaries on writing, film, theater, and television. Bringing this material together in a readily accessible form - not only to Foote followers, but to drama buffs and scholars - is important, something new to celebrate about Foote's career.

Joanne Brannon Aldridge is a freelance writer in Boone, N.C.

Foote's play 'The Day Emily Married' opened the 20th anniversary season for Primary Stages in New York Aug. 3 and runs through Aug. 29.

Horton Foote

Born: Wharton, Texas, 1916

Education: Left home at 16 to study acting in Dallas and later studied at California's Pasadena Playhouse. Received honorary doctorate degrees from Drew University, Austin College, and the American Film Institute.

Family: Married Lillian Vallish 1945 (deceased, 1992); two daughters, Barbara Hallie and Daisy Brooks; two sons, Albert and Walter.

Occupations: Worked as an actor in New York and trained at Tamara Daykarhanova school; manager of Productions Inc., in Washington, D.C.; and teacher of playwriting.

Selected plays:

The Chase (1952)

The Trip to Bountiful (1953)

The Traveling Lady (1955)

The Young Man From Atlanta (1994)

The Last of the Thorntons (2001)

The Carpetbagger's Children (2002)

Selected Screenplays:

Storm Fear (1956)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965)

Tender Mercies (1983)

The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

Of Mice and Men (1992)

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