Understand MenCompletelynby Fred ChappellnSelected One-Act Plays ofnHorton FootenEdited by Gerald C. WoodnDallas: Southern MethodistnUniversity Press; 320 pp.,n$29.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper)nCousins and The Death of Papa:nThe Final Two Plays From thenOrphans’ Home Cyclenby Horton FootenNew York: Grove Press; 194 pp.,n$18.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)nThe Trip to Bountiful, TendernMercies, and To Kill anMockingbird: Three Screenplaysnby Horton FootenNew York: Grove Press; 219 pp.,n$19.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)nOrdinary people, we are told, ordinarilynspeak in cliches, bromides,nand dotty banalities, and it is the task ofnthe literary artist, of the playwright innparticular, to give them expressive andnconvincing words. This is the practicenof Aeschylus and Shakespeare, of TennesseenWilliams and Tom Stoppard.nThe success of heightened languagenupon the stage is undeniable; Hamletnponders and Lear rages and the languagenthey utter is as much a spectaclenfor the ear as the high deeds and carnagenare visual spectacles.nBut spectacular diction can causenproblems. Lear rages, yes, but only thenmost accomplished actor can give pointnto his rage and poignance to his lament;noften enough our stage Hamlet appearsnnot a thoughtful troubled youth, but anlong-winded wimp. We spectators havendifficulty in suspending our disbelief;nalways in our inmost thoughts we knownthat people really don’t talk that waynand never did, not in Shakespeare’sntime, nor in Euripides’, nor in our own.nMost assuredly not in our own time.nSo that there has arisen another tra­nREVIEWSndition of stage diction that we might callnthe Laconic and that may derive innmodern times from Chekhov. This traditionnemploys, insofar as it can, onlynthe most ordinary words and sentences,nthe same phrases we hear at the supermarketnand in traffic court. It is a poornmedium for revealing the secrets of ournheart, we think, savorless and withoutnindividuality, as drab as galoshes but notnas serviceable.nThe playwright who chooses to employnlaconic rather than heightenedndiction may have elaborate philosophicnmotives for his choice. Harold Pinter’sncharacters are less interested in revealingnsecrets than in keeping them hidden,neven from themselves, and their tersencryptic sentences generate a steely tension.nThe banal phrases of PaddynChayevsky’s timid bachelors displayntheir uneasiness with social custom,nwith courtship and every formal occasion,nbecause for all their immersion innthe urban crowd they are lonesomenstrangers. Samuel Beckett’s use of dullncolloquialism requires the premise ofncharacters so dimwitted that the commonplacesnthey mouth with such fearfulndetermination are actually productsnof the deepest cogitation they can muster.nOur example at hand, though, isnHorton Foote, whose usage of ordinarynlanguage differs from almost everyonenelse’s usage. Of contemporary playwrightsnonly Peter Taylor and ReynoldsnPrice approach Foote in purpose and tonsuccessful effect, and neither Price nornTaylor is content to keep his language atnsuch a low level of intensity; they bothnrise to rhetoric when their stories neednheightened diction.nThe difference between Foote andnsimilar practitioners is one of respect.nFor this solidly rooted playwright peoplenspeak the way they do because they findneveryday speech expressive; no matternhow trivial it may seem to the cultivatednliterary sensibility, the cliche says what isnin the heart of a citizen of Harrison,nTexas. It doesn’t say all that is in hisnheart, but then neither do Hamlet’snsoliloquies tell us all. And the reasonnthat such flat colloquial diction is ex­nnnpressive for one of Foote’s characters isnthat it is understood by others; speech isnless a matter of self-expression than annact of social reassurance. A languagencode is present in all of Foote’s situations,na code formulated in these terms:n”I will say only what you expect me tonsay, but I expect you to understand thatnI think and feel things that neither younnor I have words to express. In this way,nI expect that you will understand mencompletely.”nHere is Wilma Thompson talking innthe 1953 one-act play, A Young Ladynof Property: “You know sometimes mynold house looks so lonesome it tears atnmy heart. I used to think it lookednlonesome just whenever it had nontenants, but now it comes to me it hasnlooked lonesome ever since Mamandied and we moved away, and it willnlook lonesome until some of us movenback here.”nThese lines come about as close asnHorton Foote cares to get to “poetic”ndiction. If they went an inch forwardntoward poetry, they would be phony; ifnthey slipped an inch back toward thencommon, they would be bathetic. Wencan hear in them the tone of plangentnlament for the past that we hear fromnMrs. Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, anscreenplay written 30 years later. Innboth plays Foote makes his characteristicnpoint that by renewing a relationshipnwith the past one can aid andetermination to live more amply andnmore effectively in the present. WilmanThompson and Mrs. Watts turn anmomentary regard upon the beautifulnthings that used to be in order to facenthe bleak present and the bleaker future.nBoth of them know that theirnfutures can have no meaning until theynhave paid their respects to the past;nthey realize that they have no stake innthe present unless the past is alwaysnincluded as a part of it.nThe strong people, the charactersnwhom misfortune and disaster cannwound but never destroy, are thosenwho have kept the past firmly withnthem here and now and ever after. InnCousins, published first in 1979 as onenof the nine plays of The Orphans’nNOVEMBER 1989/35n