Horton Foote, an appreciation

A playwright for the common man.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a playwright, Horton Foote grappled with the great themes of human existence: love, despair, home, family, identity, redemption. And he often found them all in the lives of people in the little town of Harrison, Texas, the fictional setting for many of his works.

Mr. Foote, who passed on March 4, spent seven decades as a playwright and screenwriter, penning more than 50 plays and films and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 (for the play "The Young Man From Atlanta"), and Academy Awards in 1962 (for his screen adaptation of the Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird") and 1983 (for his original screenplay "Tender Mercies"). He also wrote acclaimed television dramas, including "The Trip to Bountiful," which was later made into a film starring Geraldine Page, who received an Oscar for her role.

Born in Wharton, Texas, Foote skipped college and headed to New York to become an actor. His first play, "Wharton Dance," was produced in 1940. Early in his career a friend, the choreographer Agnes de Mille, urged him to write about his own experiences. Foote eventually produced nine plays centered on Harrison, Texas, which stood in for his hometown. He was in Hartford, Conn., preparing a production of a collection of his plays, "The Orphans' Home Cycle," at the time of his passing.

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Across the years Foote's work kept its originality and freshness. "He's a very modern playwright," Michael Wilson, artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company, told this writer during a 2001 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "Horton has such an authentic and truthful voice. There's not a false bone in his body. I don't think anybody loves theater more than he does, and his love of it keeps intensifying...."

Foote often was present during rehearsals of his plays. "When someone asks a question about his play and Horton answers, it is like being in a room with the oracle," actor Gerald McRaney said in a 2007 Monitor article. "The good fortune of this experience can't be overstated. Actors who rehearsed with Shaw or Wilder or Williams or Shakespeare in the room will know how I feel, but no one else."

Foote was often described as "an American Chekhov," who probed deeply and compassionately into the lives of his characters. In the same Monitor article, actress Elizabeth Ashley called him "one of the greatest American dramatists, because he takes you into the center of the middle of the marrow of that which can only be American."

A leading expert on Foote, Marion Castleberry, a professor of theater arts at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, called Foote's plays "probably the greatest character studies of any American playwright who ever lived. More than anyone else, he's given us a history of America."

Foote's religious beliefs (he was a Christian Scientist) were at the center of his life. "I so earnestly believe that prayer can be helpful and guide you and protect you and inspire you. I mean, I'm in awe," he once told The Christian Science Journal, a monthly magazine published by the Christian Science Church.

But while his plays spoke profoundly about the human condition, they never proselytized. "Well, I often write about nonreligious people," he told the Journal. "And I try to find situations where their sense of humanity is restored or discovered. I think you can be a good person in many ways. And I think you often have to be careful that prayer can seem superficial, because it's a very complicated thing to love your neighbor as yourself."

Asked if the spiritual question "What kind of a man or woman are you?" lay at the heart of his writing, Foote told the Journal:

"I have enormous respect for the human being, because they're asked to take on a lot. And I don't think there's any easy solution. But I think the journey is what you have to finally be satisfied with, but not be afraid of the lessons one has to learn ... it ends up as grace. And you grow, you find a way to continue."

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