When you get old, you tend to look back. In the last few decades, at an age Americans optimistically call “golden,” Horton Foote has been writing plays that seem to consist largely of retrospection: If the characters themselves aren’t oldsters who constantly reminisce, the work tends to be set in some bygone time, and built of wall-to-wall exposition—an endless narration of events and family relationships stretching back generations. It all tended to sound much like an elderly small-town historian, anecdotally going over the local genealogical tables for the amusement of tourists who found him a divertingly quaint “character.”
As if to remind us that the elderly can still manage some feisty surprises, Foote’s latest New York premiere—written some years ago, but demonstrably an old-age work—is a reminiscence of a different sort. Though like its coevals it’s set in the past (1955) and deals with old folks looking back, its mood is turbulent, even frenetic, rather than nostalgic. Superficially, the ambience is that of American realism, of O’Neill and the Ibsenite well-made play, but the story’s crazily piled-up twists suggest not Ibsen but his Parisian predecessors, Augier and Dumas fils, while the lurches into high-pitched emotionality evoke the time of O’Neill’s father, the theatrical era from Boucicault and Fechter to Clyde Fitch and Eugene Walter. By the time of Foote’s childhood, that theater was merely a stimulus to parody in New York, but it was still viable on the road; surely enough of it was left to grip the heart of a small-town Texas boy with literary ambitions.
And in old age, those heart-gripping memories come back. When was the last time someone in a seriously intentioned American play said, “My curse will follow you into the grave”? This is not the diction of Texas, 1955, but of Under the Gaslight and A White Slave. Foote’s free use of such extreme expressions is a tribute to the daring that comes with old age, and it’s a particular tribute to director Michael Wilson and his cast (to Pamela Payton-Wright, in this specific instance) that nobody snickers audibly, while more than a few audience members gasp. The only lingering question is, how seriously can we take such a thing? As a story, The Day Emily Married is a simple, bittersweet anecdote: An old-fashioned small-town couple, trying to guarantee the happiness of their divorced daughter’s second marriage, end up destroying it instead. A great short-story writer, like Turgenev or Eudora Welty, might have nailed the whole thing in eight pungent pages. For Foote, it summons up phalanxes of side issues and backstories: the pioneer history of Texas’s settlement; the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, with its attendant destruction of memory and tradition; the post–World War II shift in perspective, from a local and personal outlook to one that’s global, pragmatically based in maximizing profit.
This concatenation of themes, crowded together like the family portraits that clutter the old couple’s parlor wall (a major bone of contention between mother and daughter), is matched by a kudzu-like proliferation of plot materials: the hidden danger of creeping senility; a secret history of heart disease; a past love affair that may or may not be continuing; an unpaid debt; a compromising letter; a high-risk oil investment scheme (over which knowing audiences mentally hang a sign that says, “Walter Lee Younger’s liquor store”); the hovering offstage presence of the daughter’s alcoholic ex-husband. There’s even a panoply of omens and ghosts, making the family history that weighs down the characters palpable in the atmosphere as well as visible on the parlor wall. And buried below all this, waiting to emerge on cue at the pivotal second-act moment, is the bleak, not altogether probable, truth about the marriage itself.
The mixture of melodramatic excess with despairing bleakness is an odd one—Romanticism and the Absurd shaking hands across the corpse of Realism—but it gives the play an indefinable quality that is all Foote: Nobody else contrives well-made plays with his distinctive untidiness; nobody else breaches the naturalistic fabric with his quiet, calm outrageousness. Mary McCarthy said of the American realists—her examples were O’Neill, Dreiser, and James T. Farrell—that their integrity lay in their inability as writers; their choice of vocation, she said, was “a triumphant catastrophe.” (She described A Moon for the Misbegotten as having the transcendence of “a homemade Trojan Horse.”) In a sense, Foote belongs in their ranks: He is a duffer who is also a visionary, whose dogged accumulations of dramatic data never fully resolve themselves as plays, but nonetheless evoke, in their failure to cohere, a true and surprisingly full picture of a country that has equally failed to decipher what it means to itself. It is not an accident that Foote comes from Texas, the current locus of our cultural despair: His loving, devastating depiction of good, down-home Texans constitutes both an explanation of George Bush’s success and an indictment of everything the latter’s loathsome presidency stands for.
Given such lushly proliferating material, ranging from the overripe through the everyday to the starkly barren, a skilled cast needs only the common sense to play each moment for what it’s worth. That Estelle Parsons, William Biff McGuire, and Hallie Foote, as parents and daughter, respectively, find ways to impose a coherent presence on their roles suggests exceptional gifts of empathy; Parsons’s ability to make the dotty, jabbering mother simultaneously infuriating and heartrending is a particular triumph. Teri Keane, as a gossipy relative, and Delores Mitchell, as one of those infinitely devoted black servants enshrined in the Southern literary tradition, work their brief scenes to the fullest, while Payton-Wright, as a distraught tenant farmer’s wife, finds truth inside preposterousness in a pitch-perfect way that makes her this play’s equivalent of the late Eileen Heckart in The Bad Seed. James Colby, as Emily’s bridegroom, stuck with a role that resembles a seven-layer cake of arbitrary reversals, solves the problem by handling even extreme moments with a kind of pained smoothness that never overflows its banks.