About the Playwright
Horton Foote (Playwright) was born in Wharton, a small Texas town filled with Foote family relatives, Texas heat, and a failing economy. Foote left his hometown at 16 and took a bus to the Pasadena Playhouse to pursue a career in acting. After studying in California, he moved to New York to further his acting career. There he met choreographer Agnes de Mille. She asked him if he had ever considered writing. He replied, “What would I ever write about?” To which she responded, “Write what you know.” He did that and transformed Wharton into Harrison, Texas which he used as a setting for the majority of his work. When his writing got better reviews than his acting, he changed his mind about a career.
He wrote for television, starting with an episode of The Gabby Hayes Show. He wrote screenplays, most notably, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies, and The Trip to Bountiful. And he wrote plays, including Wharton Dance, The Trip to Bountiful, The Young Man from Atlanta, The Carpetbagger’s Children, The Traveling Lady, Dividing the Estate, and The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Foote has been the recipient of numerous awards, including two Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, one for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, and one for Tender Mercies in 1983. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Young Man from Atlanta in 1995, The Medal of Arts, awarded by President Clinton in 2000, and The Drama Desk Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006.
He married Lillian Vallish in 1945 and the two lived together until her death in 1992. A great creative ally and supporter of her husband, she served as a producer on several of his films. They had four children: two actors, Horton Foote, Jr. and Hallie Foote; one playwright, Daisy Brooks Foote; and one director, Walter Vallish Foote.
Horton Foote died in 2009 at age 92. He was in Hartford, Connecticut working on The Orphans’ Home Cycle while Hartford Stage staged the screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird. He worked right up until the end. He once said, “I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing. I write almost every day. I’d write plays even if they were never done again. You’re at the mercy of whatever talent you have.”
Artistic Director Abigail Adams on Horton Foote
I first met Horton Foote in 1989 while preparing to produce his play The Traveling Lady here at People’s Light. I wrote to him with questions. He responded with an invitation to visit him and his wife, Lillian, in Wharton, Texas. Wharton (Foote calls it Harrison) is the setting for many of his plays. I jumped at the opportunity. Carla Belver came with me. She grew up in Texas; she played Clara in The Traveling Lady […], Stella in Dividing the Estate, [and now Mrs. Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful]. We stayed with the Footes for a couple of days. Our visit began with a tour. Horton wore a double breasted blazer and a silk ascot despite unbelievable heat. I nearly melted, he remained dapper and cool. He took us first to the once busy town square, now eerily empty, then to the well-maintained country club; we saw the abandoned railroad station, the ruined cotton gin, and finally the graveyard. There we walked from stone to stone as Horton told stories about the people buried under our feet.
That night at dinner, Horton’s 84-year-old cousin Nan, who “married the only man in town she wasn’t related to” and “taught Horton to dance,” told us stories about the family – who drank, who ran off with whom, who gambled, who lost their land, who died of heartbreak. Horton laughed, chimed in with a detail or two, but mostly listened. He was a great listener, especially sensitive to what was said underneath the words—the violence, the sorrow, the joy, and the deeply strange peculiarity of family life.”
Actor Robert Duvall on Horton Foote
In the late '50s, I starred in a production of Horton Foote's play The Midnight Caller in New York City. One night he and the film director Robert Mulligan were in the audience together, and a few years later, when Horton adapted the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird, he recommended that Mulligan cast me to play Boo Radley. That film gave me my big break. Horton and I went on to collaborate on five films, and we enjoyed 50 years of lasting friendship. While his work is often set in Texas, it is universal in its outreach. He was a kind of rural Chekhov, though he definitely had his own voice. My wife made a documentary about him. In one scene, he is in a vacant theater lobby, just writing. He had this deep concentration — as if he were in a different place and a different time when he wrote. I always said his writing was like delicate sandpiper prints on the beach.
Further Materials on Horton Foote
“Horton Foote Makes His Peace With the Present,” New York Times article by Wilborn Hampton
“On Writing and Risk” by Horton Foote
“Horton Foote’s America” (video)
In a one-on-one interview with playwright Horton Foote he talks about his early career as an actor, who was responsible for his becoming a playwright, how his connection to the past inspires his writing, what it was like to write for television's Golden Age, writing for different mediums, including his Oscar winning screenplays, and the influence his hometown of Wharton, Texas has had on his life and his work. He's then joined by four artists who have worked with him in recent years - his daughter, actress Hallie Foote; James Houghton, Artistic Director of Signature Theatre; Andrew Leynse, Artistic Director of Primary Stages; and Michael Wilson, Artistic Director of Hartford Stage - who discuss their roles in interpreting Foote's stories, the impact regional theatre has had in presenting his works, and how Horton Foote's plays relate to today's audiences.
About the Play
Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful began as a television play in 1953. That same year Foote adapted it for Broadway. In 1985, he adapted the story again, into a screenplay for the film starring Geraldine Page, who won an Academy Award for her performance as Carrie Watts. In 2005, an off-Broadway revival played successfully at the Signature Theatre.
Foote’s description of the play:
“The play is really about Mrs. Watts and her need to get back to her roots and the vicissitudes that come along to stop her. And she finally does arrive and this really is the story of her journey. And you might say in some ways it’s a spiritual journey as well as a physical journey. I first wrote the play – it started out as a television play. And we were blessed by having Lillian Gish, who was a well-known film star in the television play, which she later did on Broadway. The play always has a kind of early appeal for me because I was much younger when I wrote it. The inspiration for the journey and for the search came from some people that I love very much. The Trip to Bountiful is set in an earlier time, […] in Houston, Texas – it starts out there. And then the journey takes her back to a small town that she left to live in Houston with her son and daughter-in-law. I hope that when one watches this, one watches in sympathy and understanding of her problem. Obviously, it is a problem of family with no money, everything changing around them, sickness, and poverty, and the fantasy that life and the past was much richer and fuller.” ~Horton Foote
Foote on Hymns
Throughout the play, the central character, Mrs. Watts, sings and hums the hymn “There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.” She says, “I always sing [a hymn] walking down the street or riding in the streetcar. Keeps my spirits up.” Foote had a great affinity for “hymn singin’” and explains, “I usually find people that were raised on hymns in some part of my plays. I don’t know, they just to me set a certain tone and certain atmosphere. I used to sit on the front porch in my gallery of my house in Texas and across the street was the Baptist church and down the road was the Methodist church. You’d hear the hymns Sundays and Wednesdays and it kind of permeated the atmosphere. And so I’m so used to them, I get lonely for them and love to have them in my plays.”