While in New York I saw Part One of Horton Foote’s The Orphans Home Cycle. All nine plays are set in the fictitious town of Harrison, Texas, which is based on Footre’s hometown of Wharton, Texas.
Spanning the lives of three families over three decades, the plays are based in part on the childhood of Foote’s father and the courtship and marriage of his parents. As a boy in the 1920s, Foote (March 14, 1916 – March 4, 2009) routinely eavesdropped on the adults in his small Texas town. The cycle charts the life of Horace Robedaux from the time he is a young boy whose father has died to when his father-in-law dies and he becomes the family patriarch.
In a recent review, critic Brendan Lemon wrote that:
All the bouquets being bestowed on Horton Foote’s trilogy The Orphans’ Home Cycle, off-Broadway at the Signature, compel me to try to defend it from the hype. The three evenings, each consisting of three one acts, are not “event theatre”, if that phrase means large-scale projects distinguished by inflated claims rather than by artistic achievements. There are longueurs here, but they are of the littlenesses of life, not of inept stagecraft.
Daily existence abounds, while death is more pressing than in the finale of Hamlet. These stories covering life in a fictional village in East Texas called Harrison from 1902 to 1928 offer a true nature’s bounty – and bounty is a key concept for Foote, who in a long career (he died this year at 92) wrote not only dozens of plays but also screenplays for The Trip to Bountiful and To Kill A Mockingbird.
Orphans’ ache of prosaic occurrence may suggest Our Town, and the family squabbling may conjure up Foote’s friend Tennessee Williams without the heightened lyricism, but Foote’s method is his own. A co-production with Hartford Stage, the first evening of Orphans’ introduces us to the two families, the Robedauxs and the Thorntons, who stand stage-centre in the cycle.
Foote, generally known for his Academy Award-winning screenplays for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird and the 1983 film Tender Mercies, and his Academy Award nomination for writing The Trip to Bountiful. He won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man From Atlanta. But his legacy must surely be The Orphans Home Cycle, which he finished shortly before his death. The cycle breaks down as follows:
Part One, The Story of a Childhood
Roots in a Parched Ground
Part Two, The Story of a Marriage
The Widow Claire
Part Three, The Story of a Family
The Death of Papa
Here’s Foote’s forward to the cycle’s opening play, Roots in a Parched Ground:
THE ACTUAL WRITING of these plays began after my mother’s death in 1974. My father had died the year before in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in. After my mother’s death, I was alone in our house in Wharton, Texas for a week, sorting letters and personal papers, making decisions about what to do with the accumulations of fifty-nine years of life in that house.
After I returned to my then home in the New Hampshire woods, I began making notes for these plays. I don’t remember if at the time I thought there would eventually be nine plays, but I am sure that the writing of these first notes was prompted by my thinking over my parents’ lives and the world of the town that had surrounded them from birth to death. Some two years later I had finished first drafts of eight of the plays: Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, Courtship, Valentine’s Day, 1918, Cousins and The Death of Papa. The Widow Claire , the last to be written, was finished some time later.
On a trip to New York, I bought all the records of Charles Ives I could find, playing his music over and over while resting from my work on the plays. It was a time of fuel shortages and exorbitantly high fuel prices, and my family and I kept warm in the New Hampshire winter by burning wood in the fireplaces and stoves. In the spring and summer I would write in a screen house overlooking the woods and a large stone wall. My surroundings couldn’t have been more different from the place and time in Texas I was writing about.
I don’t remember now, either, the sequence in which I wrote the plays, but I believe 1918 was the first completed, although an earlier version of Roots in a Parched Ground had been written years before and done on the Du Pont Play of the Month television series, long before I thought of the possibility of there being nine plays or could have imagined the changes that would lead to my living and working in New Hampshire.
Change, however, was an early acquaintance in my life. My grandfather, who seemed impervious to all mortal ends, died when I was nine, and the reverberations and changes from that death continued for many years. It was soon after that I was to see a quiet, serene street (in front of my grandparents’ house) begin its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America. And these plays, I feel, are about change, unexpected, unasked for, unwanted, but to be faced and dealt with or else we sink into despair or a hopeless longing for a life that is gone.
My first memory was of stories about the past—a past that, according to the storytellers, was superior in every way to the life then being lived. It didn’t take me long, however, to understand that the present was all we had, for the past was gone and nothing could be done about it.
I learned, too, how unreliable memory can be, for when members of my family would recount a story from their collective past, I would early on marvel how subtly it would change from storyteller to storyteller.
The time of the plays is a harsh time. They begin in 1902, a time of far-reaching social and economic change in Texas. The aftermath of Reconstruction and its passions had brought about a white man’s union to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections. But in spite of political and social acts to hold onto the past, a way of life was over, and the practical, the pragmatic were scrambling to form a new economic order. Black men and women were alive who knew the agony of slavery, and white men and women were alive who had owned them. I remember the first time slavery had a concrete face for me. I was on a fourteen-mile hike to complete some phase of becoming a Boy Scout. I stopped in a country store for a bottle of soda water and on the gallery of the store was an elderly black man. As I drank my soda water we got to talking and he asked me my name, and when I told him he said he had been a slave on my great-great-grandfather’s plantation. I have never forgotten the impact that made on me. Slavery up until then was merely an abstract statistic that I’d heard older people talking about. "Our family had one hundred sixty slaves, one hundred twenty …" or whatever, but as I looked into that man’s tired, sorrowing face, I was shocked to realize that this abstraction spoken of so lightly ("we were good to them," "we never mistreated them") was a living, suffering human being. The tales of the past had a new reality for me after that.
And so with the 1918 influenza epidemic, which causes such havoc in the play 1918 . I was raised on stories of the terror of the flu, what it did to my family and to the families of the town, but it seemed only a local phenomenonto me until I read Katherine Anne Porter’s "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and I began to understand how far-reaching it was. Since the productions of 1918 , 1 have heard from many people telling me how it affected their lives or the lives of their families.
All the plays are based on family stories—stories often of dislocation, sibling rivalries, delopements, family estrangements, family reconciliations, and all the minutiae that make family life at once so interesting and yet at times so burdening, causing a reaction described by Katherine Anne Porter in "Old Mortality": Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past, but the legends of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic lantern show. Oh, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself, I can’t live in this world any longer, she told herself listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on exploring how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happened to me, she assured herself, silently making a promise to herself in her hopefulness, in her ignorance.
But many of us do care, of course, and we do continue to remember, and we give to our children and their children our versions of what has gone before, remembering always how unreliable a thing memory is and how our versions of what has gone before can only be what we have come to perceive the past and its people and stories to be. To quote Miss Porter again: By the time the writer has reached the end of a story, he has lived it at least three times—first, in a series of actual events that, directly or indirectly, have continued to set up the condition in his mind and senses that causes him to write the story; second, in memory; and third, on re-creation of this chaotic stuff.
I have worked on the plays for about ten years, from the first drafts to the forms found here, during various readings, staged readings, andtheater productions, in and out of New York. But essentially the plays have remained the same, some with no revisions whatsoever.
Here, then, are the first four of the plays, their stories and characters, I hope, true to their place and time—true at least to my memory of what I was told or have seen.
Roots in a Parched Ground may be downloaded here.