Handing It To Foote
Wilborn Hampton's new biography of the late playwright is among the many new theater-related books deserving of readers' attention.
While not the most riveting read, the book nevertheless benefits greatly from Hampton's encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. We follow Foote from his childhood in Wharton, Texas to drama school in Pasadena, California, then struggling to find a niche in New York, writing in the "golden age" of television, and finding resurgent success on the stage, to which Foote devoted much of his life up until his passing. (A complete staging of Foote's nine-play Orphans' Home Cycle, a co-production of Hartford Stage and the Signature Theatre Company, comes to New York next month.)
While Hampton successfully weaves in anecdotes from Foote's personal life, there's little to tell beyond the mundane happenings of raising a family, leaving scandalmongers little satisfaction. In fact, the most salacious bits of this tome are reserved for passages about Foote's contemporaries, such as Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and Agnes DeMille. Indeed, one of Hampton's arguments as to why Foote and his work has been so undervalued -- as compared to Williams and other writers of the twentieth century -- is that the public is simply more drawn to the troubled and inscrutable artist.
Hampton does a particularly good job of fitting Foote into the larger context of what has colloquially come to be known as "The Greatest Generation." For instance, Hampton reveals that during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Foote personally telephoned trusted friend Walter Cronkite to get an assessment of the severity of the situation -- because daughter Daisy was attending nearby Dickinson College.
Stories like that one make it even more remarkable that Foote was able to lead the modest and unassuming life that he did. Indeed, Horton Foote: America's Storyteller provides a glowing example of how an artist really can have it all without burning out too quickly.
Day is by no means likable, thinly masking deep insecurities with a masculine and arrogant bravado, but he is utterly sympathetic in his desire to get away from his painful past and stake some sort of claim for himself in the big city. When the book is at its best, Day's pretense melts away and we get a sense of how he really feels, making this a true confession. Even though we hear the story through his perspective, it is abundantly clear that Day is just as responsible for the tragic events of this book as every other character.
The crux of the story concerns the love triangle between Day, his girlfriend Madeleine, and Guy Margate, another actor who eerily resembles Day and who also loves Madeleine. After Margate saves Day from drowning off the Jersey shore early in the book, Margate begins to expect a certain amount of obedience from Day, as is customary in a life debt. This is the central source of conflict in the story, and Day's ambivalence about his savior follows him for over a decade. While Day would not have survived without Margate's intervention, carrying such a debt proves extremely detrimental in a world as fiercely competitive, yet superficially pleasant, as Martin's small community of actors.
Martin seamlessly blends real-life figures (acting gurus Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner make cameos) with completely fictitious yet true-to-form characters like Teddy, the closeted homosexual trust-funder who seems to be acting as a hobby, and Mindy, his clueless musical-obsessed girlfriend. Similarly, the author smartly incorporates real New York City institutions like Phoebe's (now known more as an NYU undergrad hangout than an actor dive) and the Public Theater. Still, Martin casts a black cloud over this familiar Manhattan, making everything feel darker, lonelier, and more desolate. Reading the book is like watching an approaching storm from a picture window.
The book is divided into four parts: Broadway, American Regional Theaters, Canadian Theaters, and West End Theaters. Each chapter then covers a particular theater or opera house and the various ghosts and specters known to haunt them. The section on American Theaters, in particular, doubles as a helpful (if less-than-comprehensive) guide to America's great regional theaters, giving a brief history of The Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Harvard Exit Theater in Seattle, and The Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, to name a few.
Almost every one of these chapters ends with a hokey warning or pun. For example, to end the chapter about the presence haunting Her Majesty's Theatre, where Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera plays in the West End, Ogden writes: "Perhaps you'll get to see two Phantoms for the price of one." While these quips become irritatingly formulaic, one gets the sense that Odgen really relishes the role of a storyteller at a campfire. He's like that corny uncle you cannot help but like.
Also recommended: Wallace Shawn has written a small book of essays, simply titled Essays, in which he explores issues of culture, politics, and art. David Alan Grier, who will soon appear in the world premiere of David Mamet's new play Race on Broadway, takes a slightly irreverent tone in his new book, Barack Like Me (Touchstone). The Library of America has released Ira Gershwin: Selected Lyrics, edited by musical theater historian Robert Kimball. Theater Communications Group offers a wealth of play scripts including Richard Wilbur's three new translations of Molière (Lovers' Quarrels, The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold ) and the first edition of Lynn Nottage's Pultizer Prize-winning play Ruined. The American Theater Wing has compiled a book of anecdotes from 19 of America's most prolific playwrights called The Play That Changed My Life: Americas Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them (Applause Books).