In play after play, Horton Foote, who died in March at the age of ninety-two, made the quotidian extraordinary. He wrote more than sixty plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man from Atlanta. He is perhaps most widely known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, and as an Oscar nominee for The Trip to Bountiful, which was based on his play of the same title.
I was so deeply impressed when I encountered his work in the 1980s that I wrote an essay for Commonweal, “Horton Foote’s Many Roads Home” (February 26, 1988). Foote found it satisfyingly accurate, wrote me a kind letter, and we became friends. He expressed enthusiasm for the piece to others, helping it become known well enough that in 2004 I was invited to speak at Baylor University as part of the Horton Foote Festival.
The appeal of Foote’s work begins with its dialogue, which captures the idiom of his homeland, southeast Texas, so precisely and memorably that you come away from his productions expecting everyone to speak that way. He is hilariously funny, achingly sad, always persuasive, and never sentimental. Though he was considered by some to be a goody-goody who recorded only the acts of nice people, that assessment missed the undercurrent of vice and violence present in all his plays.