HORTON FOOTE’S MASTERPIECE
What is the measure of a great play? Is it commercial success, critical raves, winning a Tony or Pulitzer? As powerful as those standards appear when achieved, one is sobered to read the long lists of award-winning “hits,” of which only a comparative few are actually familiar.
My own measure of a great play occurred on my first visit to London. As I crossed the River Thames on the Waterloo Bridge toward The National Theatre, I saw an enormous marquee displaying the programming of the day: Hamlet by William Shakespeare that afternoon and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams that evening.
I was struck with how amazed either playwright might have been to realize that years after their lifetimes, their scripts were still being produced and thousands were seeing their works. Such longevity and relevance over the course of time and place surely is a mark of greatness.
Even though many of those National Theatre ticket buyers that day knew Hamlet would die by the end of the play and that The Gentleman Caller would not be a good date for Laura, still they came, with the trust that the story would move them.
That it has taken sixteen years for Foote’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play The Young Man From Atlanta to make its Atlanta debut is intriguing. In some regards, sixteen years is not a long time, especially for a specific work to manifest its full potential. But when compared to the time it took for other Pulitzer Prize-winning plays to be produced in Atlanta after closing in New York, it is.
Driving Miss Daisy, Wit, and Doubt all opened at the Alliance Theatre, within two years after closing in New York. In fact, Wit opened in The Hertz Stage in 2000, the same year it closed at The Union Square Theater Off-Broadway. Driving Miss Daisy opened in Atlanta in 1988 at the Alliance, with Mary Nell Santacroce playing the title role while her daughter Judith Ivey performed Daisy in New York’s John Houseman Theater.
Why this wait in Atlanta for what New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley termed “the crowning achievement” of Horton Foote’s fruitful career? I believe there may be a readiness now to hear this story that may not have existed earlier. The play’s main characters, Will and Lily Dale Kidder, appear on many levels as solid middle-class citizens, good people suffering the loss of their only son, a celebrated World War II veteran.
Will has spent his entire career toiling at one Houston company, building the American Dream-life for his family. Even as his job is being threatened by hard economic times, he remains full of optimism.
Lily Dale, an accomplished musician and teacher, has turned to her religious faith to understand the meaning of her son Bill’s death. She is kind and generous to Bill’s friend from Atlanta, who appears unannounced and asks for financial help.
Unlike the character flaws often found in a Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller drama—prostitution, alcoholism or catastrophic corporate cheating—the flaws of this household, while not legally criminal, have just as tragic a consequence. The Kidders’ failings might be excused or explained in hindsight by the reasoning that it was true for people of that time and place. Their attitude toward their housekeeper, their sense of what constitutes civic responsibility, their assumptions regarding gender roles aren’t convictable crimes, but the loss of their son and, finally, Will’s job cast them into a prison of the soul from which only humility and grace can offer release.
One of the most moving scenes is the visit to the Kidders by their former domestic, Etta Doris. It is terrible to see how unimportant this meeting is to Will, how he does not even seem to remember her at first. Even more terrible to realize is that Etta Doris had an understanding of Bill Kidder that neither parent were able to achieve in his lifetime. Lily Dale believes his death was an accident, Will suspects it was suicide. How can two people be such a stranger to their only son?
It takes time to understand the consequences of cultural systems in individual lives, and often a turn in fortune provides the best clarity. In this play, Horton Foote provides a witness to our condition as powerfully and accurately as any work I’ve seen.