Horton Foote, who has spent more than half a century chronicling the quotidian lives of people who struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of all manner of hardship, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last week for “The Young Man From Atlanta.” The play premiered Off Broadway in February and is expected to return in the fall for a commercial Off Broadway run.
Among the other winners announced on April 18 were composer Morton Gould for “String Music,” and New York Times critic Margo Jefferson for her book reviews and essays. Jefferson recently began a stint as the paper’s Sunday drama critic.
Although Foote has won many awards for his films, including two Oscars, the Pulitzer marks the first major recognition of a body of work that includes more than 40 plays and is still growing. He took the news last week like a trouper.
“I’m grateful for the Oscars and I appreciated the work in films, but basically I’m in love with the theater and I always have been,” Foote said in a telephone interview from Wharton, Texas, the Gulf Coast town that has been his main residence for 78 of his 79 years. He recently completed screenplays for Eddie Murphy’s production company and a new project for Robert Duvall. And there’s a new play, as well.
“I’m happiest when I work in the theater,” said the writer, who also has homes in New York’s Greenwich Village and in New Hampshire, “and I hope this will make it easier.”
The chief surprise in the announcement of the drama prize was the absence of any mention of Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” a play that earlier in the season was considered all but a shoo-in for the award. The five members of the drama jury submit three works for consideration by the Pulitzer board, which may accept any of them or make its own choice. This year, the jury cited David Mamet’s “The Cryptogram” and August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” as its second and third choices. “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was the fourth choice, jurors said.
The panel was chaired by Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune, and included Clive Barnes of the New York Post, Jack Kroll of Newsweek, Nancy Melich of the Salt Lake Tribune and Frank Rich of the New York Times. Among the other plays given more than passing consideration were Eduardo Machado’s “Floating Islands” and Deborah Rogin’s “The Woman Warrior.”
Foote is best known for his Oscar-winning screenplays for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) – which marked Duvall’s film debut – and “Tender Mercies” (1983), for which Duvall also won an Oscar. Many of Foote’s films, including “The Trip to Bountiful” (for which Geraldine Page won an Oscar in 1985) and “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (a 1965 movie starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick) were adapted from his plays.
“The Trip to Bountiful” was the first of Foote’s two brief Broadway outings, running just 39 performances in 1953 despite acclaimed performances by Lillian Gish and Jo Van Fleet and an unknown Eva Marie Saint. A year later, “The Traveling Lady,” starring Kim Stanley, ran for 30 performances, but resurfaced a decade later as “Baby the Rain Must Fall.” “Bountiful” had begun life as a teleplay, one of many written by Foote during the ’40s and ’50s.
Most of his works are set in Houston or the fictional Texas coast town of Harrison, a standin for Wharton that exerts the pull of memory on Foote in much the same way as Brian Friel’s fictional Ballybeg and Tennessee Williams’ St. Louis.
“The Young Man From Atlanta” is part of a nine-play cycle called “The Orphan’s Home.” Set in 1950 and filled with echoes of both Arthur Miller and Williams, the play concerns the mysterious circumstances surrounding a son’s death, and a visit to his parents in Houston paid by the son’s duplicitous Atlanta roommate. It was presented as part of a year-long tribute to Foote by the Signature Theater Company, a young group that devotes each season to the work of a single writer.
On April 17, both Foote and the Signature company won Lucille Lortel Awards for their aggregate works; the Lortels are presented by the League of Off Broadway Theaters and Producers. The Signature, which is currently looking for a new home, may have the magic touch: Last year, its season featured plays by Edward Albee, who won the Pulitzer for “Three Tall Women” (although that play was not among the Signature’s offerings).
With characteristic graciousness, Foote paid tribute to Signature artistic director James Houghton, and admitted that Broadway has been mostly irrelevant to him and the small-scale, low-key plays he writes.
“I do despair for Broadway,” Foote said. “I’ve felt they just have to create something else. But I don’t think theater will ever die.”
Foote, who started out as an actor, made his New York play writing debut with a one-act, “The Wharton Dance,” in 1940; his first full-length play, “Texas Town,” was produced a year later. His recent films include “Convicts” in 1991, also starring Duvall, and a 1992 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” starring John Malkovich.
In a New York Times interview several weeks ago, the playwright recalled a time from his youth that neatly captures his ethos as an artist.
“When I was 11,” he said, “I started working from time to time with my father in his clothing store. We would work all day, then have fried oysters for dinner. I’d feel so close to him then. He’d say how many good shirts he sold that day, how many hats. These are the things that bring you close, I guess. Not just the melodrama and tragedy but the dailiness of it.”