Thoughts & Musings

The Perspective of the Past:
Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (1953)

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And one fine morning—-

            So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby (1922)

As Americans we dream about, write about, and predict a bright, successful future. We are always seduced by that “morning in America” promise, by the con come-ons of the stock market climbing and some statistical decline in joblessness. We are the optimists of the world. And yet, our literature overflows with our nostalgia for the past—the personal past and the collective past. We measure our presents by a time that was, in our memories, innocent, unsullied, pure. We long for the landscape of childhood, and a time before circumstances and poor choices drove us out of Eden.

The kernel of The Trip to Bountiful was a “family memory” recalled by the daughter of playwright Horton Foote. Two young lovers were forbidden by their fathers to marry and eventually they wed other people. But they carried the “if only” in their hearts for a lifetime. When widowed, the girl (long a woman) would sit on her porch every day at the same time, just to catch a glimpse of her true love walking by. Around this little story of regret, Horton Foote wove his tale of Carrie Watts, elderly and dying, who longs with all her heart to return to the little Gulf farm town where she grew up. Her youth, with its peace, loving relationships, and hopes for that bright future, is “bountiful,” brimming with possibilities. It’s a place where “if that mockingbird don’t sing/ Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.” You will always be satisfied.

Carrie’s present—a too-crowded, two-room apartment in Houston in 1953—embodies all the disappointments of the lives of its inhabitants. There is Ludie, Carrie’s son, who works hard, tries hard, and has achieved none of his dreams. Ludie feels he should be making a better life for his wife and his mother, but agonizes over asking for a salary raise. He is shamed by relying on his mother’s pension check to make ends meet. Ludie pretends to forget the past, his childhood in Bountiful, because to remember it is to remember his ambitions and the goals he had set for himself. It is to remember his failures. Ludie is henpecked by Jessie Mae, his wife, who domineers and nags out of anxiety about their future—will there be enough money? will Ludie get sick again? will Mother Watts die? The past for Jessie Mae is a terrifying place and she rejects it utterly: “The passing of time makes me sad . . . I never want a house with the room to keep a lot of junk in to remind you of things you’re better off forgetting.” She doesn’t want reminding that she’s childless. Jessie Mae wants only the smallest , most controlled security—the tiny apartment, her husband working, enough money and time to visit the beauty parlor, drink Coca Cola, and read movie magazines. All of them are gasping for a breath of fresh, hopeful life. Living for 15 years in this environment where she contributes her pension but doesn’t even have her own bedroom, Carrie is trapped in a claustrophobic world. Even her religious faith, which sustains her, is fractured by the daughter-in-law who hates Carrie’s hymn singing. Carrie becomes a serial runaway.

Her escape back to Bountiful is as important for the journey as it is for the brief arrival. Carrie recalls her own competence as she negotiates the travel to Harrison. She is also forced to relay on the kindness of strangers—the ticket seller in Houston, Roy the station master in Harrison who retrieves her purse, the sheriff who drives her the final 12 miles. Carrie meets Thelma, a young wife missing her soldier husband, and the elder woman finds herself reunited with the memory of her own dead daughter. “I would have wanted her to be just like you . . .oh yes, sweet and considerate and thoughtful. And pretty.” This lost daughter is also the shade of Carrie herself as a young woman, an essential self recovered, far from the “hateful, quarrelsome old woman” she thinks she has inexplicably become.

At her home in Bountiful, a dilapidated wreck of a house in a town where the last citizen has just died, Carrie comes to accept that everything human passes away. Yet she regains her peace and dignity in understanding that the land, the birds, the sunshine, and the scent of the sea breeze all endure. As it says in Ecclesiastics: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again.”

“He’s a quiet man who writes quiet people,” remarked actress Tessa Harper after she had worked with playwright Horton Foote (1916-2009). New York Times critic Frank Rich called him the “American Chekhov” for his subtle psychological plays where little happens, but everything shifts and changes. Author Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted for the screen by Foote, said that he “looked like God, only cleanshaven.” Albert Horton Foote Jr. was born in Wharton, Texas when it was a particularly small rural town on the Colorado River. This landscape and towns like Wharton have been repeated through his 54 plays and many screenplays and television scripts. Foote respects the people who inhabit such places and treats them with a quiet dignity unmatched in any other American playwright. He weaves in themes like the reunion of understanding between estranged parents and children, along with a narrative spine of religious faith and renewal derived from his own dedication to Christian Science. During the immediate post-war years, he and his wife ran a theatre that was the first racially integrated audience in the nation’s capital. He was one of the founders of the American Actors Company.

After a ho-hum start as an actor at the Pasadena Playhouse, Foote turned to playwriting and developed into one of the master writers of the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s. His work steadily appeared on such shows as The Philco Television Playhouse, the United States Steel Hour, Studio One, Playhouse 90 and many others. Works like The Trip to Bountiful often premiered on these live television showcases before they were picked up for the stage. (Imagine NBC doing this today!) Theatre folk and writers revere him for being absolutely constant to his personal vision throughout the decades of his career. Only eight of his many plays ever made it to Broadway, yet his work sets a standard of human honesty that is known everywhere.

Foote wrote for the stage, for television, and for the movies. Regularly nominated for major awards, he won two Oscars, several Emmys, the Pulitzer Prize, lifetime achievement awards from the Academy of Arts and Letters and from the Writers’ Guild of America, and the PEN American Center’s Master American Dramatist Award. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Foote the National Medal of Arts. His best-known works, staged and then adapted to television or the big screen, are penetrating character studies like The Trip to Bountiful, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Faulkner’s The Old Man, Tender Mercies, Dividing the Estate, Baby, the Rain Must Fall, The Orphans’ Home cycle, and The Young Man From Atlanta. Of his characters, Foote has said: “I don’t know how people carry on. I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask quarters. . . I have a sense of awe about the human spirit.”

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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