Ordinary people, we are told, ordinarily speak in cliches, bromides, and dotty banalities, and it is the task of the literary artist, of the playwright in particular, to give them expressive and convincing words. This is the practice of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, of Tennessee Williams and Tom Stoppard. The success of heightened language upon the stage is undeniable; Hamlet ponders and Lear rages and the language they utter is as much a spectacle for the ear as the high deeds and carnage are visual spectacles.
But spectacular diction can cause problems. Lear rages, yes, but only the most accomplished actor can give point to his rage and poignance to his lament; often enough our stage Hamlet appears not a thoughtful troubled youth, but a long-winded wimp. We spectators have difficulty in suspending our disbelief; always in our inmost thoughts we know that people really don’t talk that way and never did, not in Shakespeare’s time, nor in Euripides’, nor in our own. Most assuredly not in our own time.
So that there has arisen another tradition of stage diction that we might call the Laconic and that may derive in modern times from Chekhov. This tradition employs, insofar as it can, only the most ordinary words and sentences, the same phrases we hear at the supermarket and in traffic court. It is a poor medium for revealing the secrets of our heart, we think, savorless and without individuality, as drab as galoshes but not as serviceable.
The playwright who chooses to employ laconic rather than heightened diction may have elaborate philosophic motives for his choice. Harold Pinter’s characters are less interested in revealing secrets than in keeping them hidden, even from themselves, and their terse cryptic sentences generate a steely tension. The banal phrases of Paddy Chayevsky’s timid bachelors display their uneasiness with social custom, with courtship and every formal occasion, because for all their immersion in the urban crowd they are lonesome strangers. Samuel Beckett’s use of dull colloquialism requires the premise of characters so dimwitted that the commonplaces they mouth with such fearful determination are actually products of the deepest cogitation they can muster.
Our example at hand, though, is Horton Foote, whose usage of ordinary language differs from almost everyone else’s usage. Of contemporary playwrights only Peter Taylor and Reynolds Price approach Foote in purpose and to successful effect, and neither Price nor Taylor is content to keep his language at such a low level of intensity; they both rise to rhetoric when their stories need heightened diction.
The difference between Foote and similar practitioners is one of respect. For this solidly rooted playwright people speak the way they do because they find everyday speech expressive; no matter how trivial it may seem to the cultivated literary sensibility, the cliche says what is in the heart of a citizen of Harrison, Texas. It doesn’t say all that is in his heart, but then neither do Hamlet’s soliloquies tell us all. And the reason that such flat colloquial diction is expressive for one of Foote’s characters is that it is understood by others; speech is less a matter of self-expression than an act of social reassurance. A language code is present in all of Foote’s situations, a code formulated in these terms: “I will say only what you expect me to say, but I expect you to understand that I think and feel things that neither you nor I have words to express. In this way, I expect that you will understand me completely.”
Here is Wilma Thompson talking in the 1953 one-act play, A Young Lady of Property: “You know sometimes my old house looks so lonesome it tears at my heart. I used to think it looked lonesome just whenever it had no tenants, but now it comes to me it has looked lonesome ever since Mama died and we moved away, and it will look lonesome until some of us move back here.”
These lines come about as close as Horton Foote cares to get to “poetic” diction. If they went an inch forward toward poetry, they would be phony; if they slipped an inch back toward the common, they would be bathetic. We can hear in them the tone of plangent lament for the past that we hear from Mrs. Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, a screenplay written 30 years later. In both plays Foote makes his characteristic point that by renewing a relationship with the past one can aid a determination to live more amply and more effectively in the present. Wilma Thompson and Mrs. Watts turn a momentary regard upon the beautiful things that used to be in order to face the bleak present and the bleaker future. Both of them know that their futures can have no meaning until they have paid their respects to the past; they realize that they have no stake in the present unless the past is always included as a part of it.
The strong people, the characters whom misfortune and disaster can wound but never destroy, are those who have kept the past firmly with them here and now and ever after. In Cousins, published first in 1979 as one of the nine plays of The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Horace and Elizabeth Robedaux remember the birthday of their dead daughter, Jenny. “I thought later I’d walk out to the cemetery and take a flowering plant of some kind. Maybe a poinsettia,” Elizabeth says. “I don’t forget her. I remember Mrs. Huston telling me at the time I would, but I don’t. It’s like Mama says, you think of her differently than the others, but you think of her.”
Mrs. Huston says one thing, but Mama says the other . . . The memory of Jenny’s birthday is not private; the differing opinions of the community are attached to the event so firmly that Jenny remains—for her mother, anyway—a member of the community. To think of this birthday is to compare communal views about our relationship with the dead.
The characters whom Foote has drawn as happy or content are those who have found a way to come to terms with the past, who have in some sense made their peace with the dead. Mrs. Watts in The Trip to Bountiful wants to die in her home, a place that has vanished from the face of the earth. Twelve miles from her destination she is apprehended by a sheriff and to him she makes her plea: “Let me go these twelve miles . . . before it’s too late. Understand me. Suffering I don’t mind. Suffering I understand. I didn’t protest once! Even though my heart was broken when those babies died. But these fifteen years of bickering, of endless, petty bickering. It’s made me like Jessie Mae sees me. It’s ugly. I will not be that way. I want to go home. I want to go home.”
“Suffering I understand,” she says, but she does not. She only means here that she has experienced a great deal of suffering and expects it as a normal part of life. But she does not comprehend why suffering is necessary. Earlier she has confessed to Thelma, her seatmate on the bus, the great shame of her life, the fact that she wasn’t in love with her husband. “Do you believe we are punished for the things we do wrong? I sometimes think that’s why I’ve had all my trouble. I’ve talked to many a preacher about it; all but one said they didn’t think so. But I can’t see any other reason.”
On one side, then, Mrs. Watts’ trip to Bountiful is a penitential pilgrimage toward expiation. On the other side, it is the satisfying of a compulsive need to make sure that her past actually did take place, that her identity is consonant with the facts of her life as she knows them. It is an ordinary fate in our century to become an orphan of history: our parents and relatives die or are killed, the towns where we were born, or even the nations, change their names and are robbed of their cultures and heritages, sometimes even of their languages. Our present life is so puzzling in shape, so hysterical in tone, so inimical in its daily details, that it seems merely phantasmal, a nightmarish delusion. How could we get from the there that we remember to the here that is so dreadful to endure? The bridges between past and present have been destroyed, and Foote’s characters have to make extraordinary efforts to reach toward the past, to assure themselves that their memories are true and not illusory daydreams.
The Death of the Old Man is a television play of 1953. It is told in subjective camera from the point of view of Will Mayfield, the old man who has been rendered speechless by stroke. He hears his sons discussing the fate of their maiden aunt, Rosa, and deciding that they are unable to take her in. One of the sons explains his feelings: “I refuse to.feel guilty over it. I’d like to be with Papa and open my home to Rosa and the world, but the times have changed, Tom. People can’t live that way anymore.”
In his paralysis, the old man hears these words and makes a fearful vow, almost Lear-like in its sudden but powerless intensity: “Let me out of this bed . . . let me out . . . I’ll work again. I’ll fill the banks with money. I’ll buy houses and land and protect us from the dark days because kindness has gone from the world, generosity has vanished.”
As it turns out in the play, Rosa finds a place for herself and Will Mayfield dies, as he tells us, “in peace and contentment.” But this happiness is made possible by particular circumstances, and there is no defense against the debilitating and sometimes brutalizing changes that time brings.
There is no defense but there are some momentary stays against confusion. While the community exists, it is possible and comforting to take a place in it. Religion offers no final answers for Foote’s stricken searchers, no final security, but it does give a steady solace, some part of which is social in nature. The best attitude to take seems that of Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, whose quizzical Christian stoicism puts more than a measure of faith in human relationships and none at all in worldly circumstance. “You see,” He says, “I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”
Mac’s outlook appears cheerless, but he understands it—as Foote seems to understand it—as reality. Yet, if there is little coziness in his philosophy, there is never the kind of heartbreak in it that Phil Massey discovers in his fantasies. The Land of the Astronauts is a one act play of 1988 and depicts Foote’s familiar Texas landscape as having changed into a Disneyland where, dreams of the luminous future can addle a man like Massey, deceive, him into believing that happiness is just barely beyond his outstretched fingers.
Massey describes his longing and frustration with these words: “I work in a restaurant and I go to school at night. Day after day. Year after year. And nothing happens. I go to Houston to look for work and nothing happens and nothing is going to happen and I want something to happen. Is that too much to ask? I want something for once to happen to me. Why can’t I go up into space and leave this earth and all its troubles and frustrations behind?”
His wife Lorena makes a reply that embodies Horton Foote’s deepest convictions. “Well, even if you went, you would have to come back down sometime, or you would die. Come on home with me now.”
[Selected One-Act Plays of Horton Foote, Edited by Gerald C. Wood (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press) 320 pp., $29.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper)]
[Cousins and The Death of Papa: The Final Two Plays From the Orphans’ Home Cycle, by Horton Foote (New York: Grove Press) 194 pp., $18.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)]
[The Trip to Bountiful, Tender Mercies, and To Kill a Mockingbird: Three Screenplays, by Horton Foote (New York: Grove Press) 219 pp., $19.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paper)]