Like fellow southern fiction writers William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Horton Foote derived much of his inspiration from his strong identification with a region he knew intimately. Also like Faulkner and O’Connor, Foote drew from his knowledge of local information a powerful sense of larger truths, particularly that of the human potential for spiritual nobility in the face of suffering. Unlike these authors, however, Foote does not allow the intensity of his perception to shape his art into the macabre, and he achieves his best effects with a certain lightness of touch that never reduces his work to triviality but instead magnifies the significance of casual things. Foote’s mastery of the rhythms of conversation must be to some extent a product of his years of studying the art of acting, but many of those rhythms come from the endless conversations of his Wharton childhood. Because most of Foote’s plays are set in Harrison, Texas, a fictional version of Wharton, the playwright’s preoccupation with the past constitutes a significant element of his dramaturgic vision. A descendant of families who had established themselves in Texas in the nineteenth century, Foote was thirteen when the Great Depression struck. His father, a diehard Democrat, became an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, who was one of the principal advocates of political reform. Thus Foote, who, given his ancestry, might have joined many of his fellow southerners in resisting change, saw in his father an example of openness to change. His experience in California and in New York also gave him a better sense of some of the less laudable aspects of southern life in the middle third of the century. Combined with this wider perspective, however, was an abiding sympathy for the ordinary people who live in a town whose economy is at the mercy of the notoriously unreliable cotton harvest. Always important to Foote is the relation of the individual to family, to the community, to hardship, and to death.
Only the Heart
Originally titled Mamie Borden, this play explores the relationships among the members of the Borden family. Mamie Borden, the central character, copes with life by controlling others, orchestrating a marriage for her daughter so as to maintain power over her. Mamie’s machinations, however, only estrange Julia, who departs with her new spouse. Because Mamie’s schemes of power have already alienated her husband, who has become unfaithful to her, Mamie finds herself finally isolated. This play bears an odd resemblance to Sophocles’ Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), if one considers the similarity of Mamie and Creon, each of whom allows a domineering spirit to annihilate the possible effect of good intentions. Foote’s play, however, emphasizes the danger of dissociation of heart and mind in personal relationships.
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