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Pre-Show Lecture: Erin Naler on Horton Foote and Odysseys

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My west-Texas born mother told me a story just the other day about a visit she made this last fall to her native home of San Angelo, Texas. She and my father drove from Kansas City, Missouri down through Oklahoma, ending in west Texas where the un-watered trees don’t grow much higher than your waist and the graveyards look like something from a 1960’s spaghetti western. Soon after my parents married and my father finished school in Lubbock, Texas, my parents moved north to Kansas City where my siblings and I grew up. 

There was one thing I always knew about Texas as a child: my mother hated it. As the story has been retold by my father, the only reason my mother married him was because he had the right zip code—anywhere but San Angelo, Texas. 

My most vivid memory of my mother’s difficult relationship with her home was the infrequent trips we would make in the summer to San Angelo when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees and my mother would start to cry the moment we crossed the border between Oklahoma and Texas as we headed south. We’d often arrive late at night to the house my mother grew up in where she would bathe us and carefully place us in bed—instructing us to stay there until morning because the floors were filthy. 

Home, for my mother, never evoked a pleasant feeling—it was a place in which she became displaced, and a place from which she became displaced. There were too many memories of constant fighting, untimely deaths, poverty, and police arrests. Seeing Texas through my mother’s eyes was, for me, like looking over the threshold of hell. 

In my simplistic, childhood understanding of emotion I never understood why she also cried as we drove out of San Angelo, finally stopping when we reached the Oklahoma border on our way home.

So this last fall when my mother retraced her history, returning to her home town, stopping along the way to revisit important family sites, I wondered if she’d had the same emotional response after all these years. Her response was not what I’d expected—yes, she said she cried all over Texas (she reminds me this occurs more frequently as she ages), but revisiting her place after all these years had changed her feelings about home. Rather than escaping the tension, embracing the tension of her small-town Texas childhood through an odyssey home had helped her see Texas in a new way—she could finally hold the tension between the painful and the beautiful. The result was a rootedness she’d never experienced as an adult.

My mother’s odyssey experience is reflected in the aesthetic of Horton Foote—the author of the play, The Trip to Bountiful. Foote was a Texas playwright whose work spanned seventy years in the theatre and on film. He won a Pulitzer Prize, two Academy awards, and the National Medal of Arts. His most well known works include the screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird and the film Tender Mercies (both of which won Academy awards), as well as the play we are doing tonight. Incidentally, Bountiful was filmed in 1985 with Geraldine Page, receiving an Academy award nomination for Foote and a win for Geraldine Page in the role of Mrs. Carrie Watts. All of these accomplishments are enough to make Foote an important figure in the American theatre, but he also wrote a nine-play play-cycle The Orphans’ Home Cycle, that may only be rivaled in the American theatre by August Wilson’s ten-play play-cycle The Pittsburgh Cycle (which includes the play Fences, most recently made into a film by Denzel Washington). 

In all of Foote’s work, there is the repetition of several aesthetic ideas that come into full focus in The Trip to Bountiful.  He tells a repeating narrative of displacement, odyssey, return, and emplacement.  

Foote begins the play with his characters in a state of displacement—despite the deceptive physical stability of their dwelling place. Carrie Watts, her son Luddie, and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae live in a place of constant movement in the booming metropolis of mid-century Houston. When the play opens, their tiny apartment is a place of egress, not a place to stop and rest.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan defines place as “pause”—place is made through mindful stopping. Carrie and her family are caught in a cycle of incessant movement through the city—the built environment that has them turning like hamsters on a wheel. To be displaced from and within the built environment is to be in constant motion through that environment—whether by one’s will or through the will of another. It is to make no commitment to dwelling either with the people or with the stuff that exists in that place. It is a lack of cultivation or care for the dwelling place. And it is an inability to fully dwell, resulting from the chaos of and violence done to a family or culture. 

Carrie Watts attempts to pause in the Houston apartment—she plans a full day of care for the apartment that includes cleaning the kitchen and replacing the paper on the shelves. Jessie Mae, however, never pauses in the apartment. She wants out—to move through the apartment into further locations elsewhere. Places that will only encourage further movement. This movement is all predicated upon the violence that occurs within the apartment—the bickering of the characters, and Jessie Mae’s clear distain for her mother-in-law. 

Marian Burkhart observes that, “Virtually all of [Foote’s] plays take place against a background of disorder that approaches the chaotic—disorder societal, cultural, and personal. The Trip to Bountiful plays against the breakdown of an agricultural order, a demise that compels displacement to hard city streets of people who love the land, a breakdown brought about by economic changes and, even more, by the misuse and abuse of the beloved land.” 

By the end of the play we discover that Carrie and her son moved to Houston because of the ongoing misuse of the land—the soil finally gave out, and nothing could grow in a once verdant Bountiful. They left for Houston—a move that began a repeating cycle of displacement and violence. 

But displacement is not incurable in Foote’s aesthetic program. The cure comes through a required odyssey the characters must take in order to finally emplace them. They must leave the hard city streets or the small town and face the violence of their history—they must take a physical journey where they will revisit their memories (both pleasant and painful) and remain in the tension between the two.

Carrie’s resolution with her history and her place requires an odyssey to Bountiful—a trip her son and daughter-in-law try to keep her from making. But the trip is her only way to overcome her displacement and regain her dignity. Along the way Carrie tells stories of her past in Bountiful to her fellow travelers—relaying both painful memories and pleasant ones. Just at the moment when you think the play will culminate in a Hallmark Hall of Fame moment full of sentimental resolution, Foote suspends the moment. He requires the actors and the audience to wait—to pause in the middle of their longed-for emotional indulgence, and hold the tension between an easy and forgetful resolution and the present difficult circumstances. 

Sometimes he suspends the emotional moment with humor—as when Luddie’s emotional speech is abruptly suspended by Jessie Mae honking the car horn. Sometimes he does it with a reminder of the chaos of family life—as when Carrie tells the story of her loveless marriage. 

Foote communicates that only through the tension of movement is movement cured—only through an odyssey is displacement cured. He requires his characters (and his audience) to hold this tension—to remain suspended. Final, rooted, paused emplacement is brought about by a journey—a cycle of exodus and return. It is through the tension of shifting emotions (and shifting places) that the characters and the audience experience one of the theatre’s gifts: catharsis—a mental, emotional, or spiritual coming to terms. 

Marian Burkhart defends Foote’s work against those that dismiss it as sentimental, regional pabulum. She finds its value in the suspended tension Foote provides the audience—the profound in the simple. She says: “The difficulty is that many of Foote’s critics, like many of his characters, confuse the simple with the simplistic, as, it is to be admitted, do many of us. The usefulness of Foote’s profundity lies in his awareness of the difference, an awareness that allows his to offer to the sentimental not the comfort they seek, but what they need—catharsis. To seekers of sweetness and light for whom goodness must be knit inevitably into the fabric of American life, he gives instead the conflict, indeed almost the war, between those who view reality through shoddy myth and those who strive in spite of violence, poverty, and systemic inequality—odds the simplistic reinforce—to make what is simple and inestimably valuable: a home.”

Foote immerses the audience in the characters’ chaos, and gives them the choice to share in it or isolate from it—to face their own displacement or ignore it. He asks the theatre audience to “emerge into a larger world of burgeoning experience, not only by ourselves but with others.” To be emplaced in Foote’s Harrison one must invite the chaos and experience the theatre’s ritual with a community of the displaced.

 

—Erin Naler