In LCT's large rehearsal room this week, I sat with Horton Foote, author ofDividing the Estate, looking at the large dining room table that is the setting for one of the play's many memorable scenes. "When I was growing up," he said, "people had their evening meal together. We didn't have radio, at least when I was young. And of course we didn't have TV. So people had to entertain each other. These days, in my family, in most families I suppose, at dinnertime people's conversation tends to be about who will control the remote."
Up and down the remote these days are channels broadcasting economic woe, a mood captured by Dividing the Estate, even though it takes place in the 1980s. Talk of the worst crisis since the Great Depression abounds, so I asked the 92-year-old Foote, author of dozens of plays as well as the screenplays forTo Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, just how his small-town Texas family made it through the 1930s.
"My father was a merchant," Foote said, "and my grandmother had ten cotton farms. The price of cotton was very low, and business at my father's store, where I sometimes clerked, was often poor. I remember one day going to the cash register and there was only seven dollars there. That was the sum total of the business my father had done for that day. But he didn't complain. I've often wondered since: why didn't he complain?"
Foote said his decision to become an actor didn't exactly assuage his family's economic nervousness. "When I arrived in New York, in the 1930s, I had no sense of what I was going to face. It could be difficult. In those days, you looked for work without an agent. There were ten or so casting offices, and I made the rounds frequently to see if there was any work." Foote mentioned one particular casting agent, who, when an actor entered his office, would have his face buried in a script. "He never spoke to me. I'd ask him, 'Anything for me today?' He'd look up and shake his head, either up and down or side to side. For me, it was always side to side."
During those days, Foote said, it didn't take long for anyone in the theater to become acquainted with everyone else. Among his many friends was Tennessee Williams. "He was a role model for me," Foote remarked. "He had all this material to work with that was rooted in his own experience. I realized that that's what I could do, too."
Chief among Foote's experience were things he had heard around that archetypal family table. "I loved hearing people say what their day had been like," the writer said. "All the details that may have not interested others, but interested me." Did Foote keep a diary or journal of those conversations? "No. But obviously I was paying attention."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com