The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Trip to Bountiful opens in a neat and sparsely furnished three-room apartment in Houston, where Ludie Watts and his wife, Jessie Mae, are lying in their bed. Ludie quietly moves into the living room, where his mother is rocking in a chair and humming an old hymn. When she speaks to him, her first three words are “Don’t be afraid”—words that are in accord with the bracing message of the hymn of comfort.

As Ludie and his mother chat quietly in their country dialect, clamorous traffic noises from the urban street outside create a sense of incongruity. Mrs. Watts tells Ludie that she has never been able to sleep when the moon is full and reminds him of a night long ago in their home in Bountiful when she took him for a walk under a full moon. Ludie initially claims not to remember that night but near the end of the play admits that he does remember it. Her words indicate the contrast between that night in Bountiful, when she comforted him and dismissed his childish fear of death, and the present moonlit night in a cheap apartment in Houston. When Ludie complains about not having a yard, his mother sings a few lines of a song he liked as a child and offers to fix him hot milk. The nostalgic moment is suddenly interrupted by a loud traffic noise that awakens Jessie Mae, who goes to the kitchen and begins quarreling with Mrs. Watts. Ludie, who evidently loves his wife despite her shrewish disposition, returns to the living room and gently asks his mother to apologize to Jessie Mae. Without argument, his mother does so. Jessie Mae is concerned that Mrs. Watts’s pension check has not arrived and evidently needs it to pay for her own frequent visits to beauty shops, movie houses, and drugstores. However, Mrs. Watts finds her check and hides it in her nightgown.

In the bedroom, Ludie discusses with Jessie Mae his mother’s attempts to run away to what Jessie Mae calls “that old town” and tells Jessie Mae that he plans to ask for a raise the next day. When she falls asleep, he returns to the living room, where his mother tells him she wants to go home. He explains that he can only make a living in Houston and goes back to bed. His mother then packs her suitcase and hides it.

The following morning finds Mrs. Watts asleep in her chair. As she awakens, Ludie prepares for work, and Jessie Mae again asks about her check and sends her mother-in-law down to the mailbox to see if it has come. After Jessie Mae calls her beauty shop to make an appointment, she notices that Mrs. Watts is pale, but Mrs. Watts assures her that nothing is wrong. After Jessie Mae goes out, Mrs. Watts takes her hat, coat, and suitcase and leaves the apartment.

The second act opens in the Houston bus terminal, where Mrs. Watts enters the ticket line to buy a ticket to Bountiful. However, the agent tells her that she must buy a ticket to Harrison, a town near Bountiful, leaving her slightly confused. In the waiting room, she sits next to a young woman named Thelma, whom she asks to watch her bag as she paces the room. Suddenly, she retrieves her bag and dashes toward the rest room, as Ludie enters the station, followed shortly by a furious Jessie Mae. When Ludie spots his mother’s handkerchief on the floor, he gets Thelma to admit to having seen his mother earlier. Ludie and Jessie...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most significant dramatic device is Mrs. Watts’s journey itself, along with the recurring hymn “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus.” On several previous occasions, Mrs. Watts tried to escape from her son’s apartment, but this time she is successful, at least for a while. The incompetence she exhibits, partly because of her deteriorating faculties and partly because she clings to a lost past, makes it clear that in any ordinary sense she has no business taking off alone for Bountiful. She keeps her pension check hidden throughout the play but when the play closes, her check has not yet been cashed, although it has set off a number of minor panic attacks. When she tries to escape the urban nightmare of Houston for the rural atmosphere of a romanticized past, she succeeds in some measure, only to find that that past, like her old house, is falling apart. Although the farms and old buildings are disappearing, she finds abiding human compassion and consideration in her chance encounters with Thelma and the sheriff.

The old hymn itself expresses a paradox. Sung as it was by churchgoers within the ceremonies of the rural church, it touches on the fundamental isolation of individuals and the necessity of their depending upon Jesus instead of other humans. Clearly, this hymn has sustained Mrs. Watts in her struggle against both the tyranny of Jessie Mae and the good-natured, loving ineffectuality of Ludie. A Christian reading of the play might well assert that in the moment of Mrs. Watts’s recognition of her son’s suffering she finds it possible to emulate the founder of her faith.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Briley, Rebecca. You Can Go Home Again: The Focus on Family in the Works of Horton Foote. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Places special attention on family dynamics and values and Foote’s work.

Foote, Horton. Beginnings: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2004. The playwright’s informative narrative of his professional life, from young actor to award-winning writer.

Foote, Horton. Genesis of an American Playwright. Edited by Marian Castleberry. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2004. Insightful chapters on the author’s experiences as a writer for stage and screen. Includes a chronology and a bibliography of published and produced work.

Moore, Barbara, and David G. Yellin, eds. Horton Foote’s Three Trips to Bountiful. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1993. In-depth study of the play’s evolution, from teleplay to stage to film. Includes texts of the three versions with production and interpretative information, illustrations, artist interviews, and bibliography.

Porter, Laurin R. “An Interview with Horton Foote.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 6, no. 2 (1991): 177-194.

Wood, Gerald C., ed. Horton Foote; A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1998. Essays by twelve writers address significant aspects of Foote’s life and work. Contains a chronology and a valuable annotated bibliography of both the author’s works and critical works about him.

Wood, Gerald C. Horton Foote and the Theater of Intimacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.