Looking back to find revelations

I think what you write chooses you as much as you choose it," said playwright Horton Foote recently. "Your living is your preparation for writing."

He won Academy Awards for his screen adaptations of "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies" and was nominated for a third, "A Trip to Bountiful," based on his own play.

And now he has written the first volume of his memoirs in "Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood." It's his first foray into prose since his novel "The Chase" in 1956. The loving chronicle of family life in the 1910s and '20s is a quiet, solid story that reminds us how intricate and interesting every life is.

"Good novelists ... are as interested in the [details] of the room and the visual aspect of the story as they are in the dialogue and the people," said Mr. Foote in a recent telephone interview from Hartford, Conn., where a play of his was being produced.

"But, of course, playwrights are not. We get to the talking as soon as possible...."

"Farewell" begins with his grandparents and parents and then covers his 17 years growing up in Wharton, Texas - until the day he left for the Pasadena (Calif.) Playhouse Acting Conservatory.

"It's called 'Farewell' because it was a farewell to a very distinct part of my life," Foote says. "I left my family, my small town, although I kept coming back, and started into the strange world of the theater that I knew nothing about. Where I got the courage, I think, is a great tribute to my parents. It was the Depression, and there wasn't much money. I wouldn't go to college. I had this strange desire; I believed I had a 'call,' and I was determined to be an actor."

He performed for 10 years, learned the art of the theater, and found himself as a playwright. Acting made so significant a contribution to his playwriting career that when he has taught writing, he has advised students to learn acting and every other aspect of theater - the way a good composer knows several instruments.

"I love the whole process of the theater," he says. "I love actors and the process of seeing them grow and seeing them develop a performance. And I love seeing them with an audience. I am always amazed by what they bring to it. I've seen three actresses do 'Bountiful' - three great performances - Lillian Gish, Geraldine Page, and Ellen Burstyn. They were all very different and they absolutely illuminated the play for me."

In commercial movies and TV, the writer often plays second fiddle to the whims of the actors and director, he says. But in the theater, it's a different story. "The actors I find most interesting are those who retain respect [for the play]. But the gifted ones illuminate the play."

The respect is mutual. Therefore a play can never be fixed like a formula, he says. Actors bring their talent, experience, and gifts to production.

"Instead of being rigid with them or insisting there is one way to do this action or this line, I encourage them to bring who they are to it. A lot of playwrights have a vision of how it should be done and are upset if it isn't [followed]. I don't agree with that at all."

Reading his plays or watching them performed, it becomes instantly clear that he has been influenced by poetry. Foote's plays arrive in the viewer's heart like poems - whole, graceful, and true.

They are about ordinary human beings who fail to see their own flaws at first, but who come to unexpected revelations at last. You can never tell where these stories are going until they get there. At the end of a quiet drama (say, "The Young Man from Atlanta," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995), something brand new has been born in us. That is his peculiar gift.

His memoir describes his early passion for poetry.

"I read a great variety. I'm particularly fond of Elizabeth Bishop." Among his other favorites are T.S. Elliot, W.B. Yeats, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens.

"I have been reading Randall Jarrell's essays about poetry again, and they always inspire me. I know poetry has affected me. I do know that there are certain things I do in the plays that reinforce that.

"You don't read poetry to see what's going to happen next ... you can read it again and again, and then suddenly something new will come through ... like a key unlocking a door."

In a certain sense, all forms of writing are about revelation, Foote says. Revelation is also a large part of the memoir. He imparts things most people wouldn't want known about their relatives - and without the slightest hint of judgment, let alone vengeance. There is an undercurrent of sorrow, but he recreates this world unflinchingly - and fairly.

"I never kept a diary or notes, and memory is subjective. In some ways, I'd been thinking of it all my life because of the plays."

Just as his plays are about the interrelatedness of lives, the memoir gives him a chance to show connections that make up the fabric of human experience.

"As a child, I suppose I realized there were generations that preceded me, and that they were all connected to me, and to the present, through the memory of other people.... Sometimes the past is very intrusive and very belligerent, and you have to take a stand against it, reject it. It can't control you. But it can be useful, seen in the right way, I think."

And in the right way, his next memoir will be "A Beginning," as he explores his early years in the theater.

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