For all that the good old New Critics warned us not to, sometimes it’s really hard to avoid questions of biography when assessing a work of art.
Daisy Foote, daughter of the late great playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, has a new play, Him, that opened last night at 59E59 for Primary Stages. The play is about a trio of siblings in a New Hampshire town suffering rapidly declining economic prospects and anticipating the impending death of their father. The center of and motive force in the drama is the daughter, whose relationship with said father was strained to say the least. He dies part way through the play, and his will provides the answer to their financial prayers – if they are willing to flout his last wishes. It turns out that the old man owned a huge chunk of pristine real estate, a whole mountain overlooking the town, which he willed to his children – with the proviso that they never develop it. Needless to say, his daughter is determined with the same stroke of the pen to better herself and finally get her revenge on the father she hated, and she’s not going to let anyone else’s attacks of sentiment get in the way.
Although he is never seen (the father has had a stroke before the play begins), his personality is the dominant one from the beginning of the play. I say we never see him, but we do hear him – the play is punctuated by snippets from his journals, recited by the actors playing his children. (One problem with the production is that, for the first half hour or even more, it’s tough to figure out what the actors are doing when they break character for these recitations – there’s no indication that these are bits of the father’s journals until much later in the play.) And from his writing we get the picture of a man estranged not only from his family, but from humanity itself. He was disgusted by his wife, by his children, by the customers in his store, by the people he knew from town, by the people moving into town and sprawling out onto the mountain – disgusted by the body (he is viscerally repelled by his own children as they nurse) and by the mind (he is seized by contempt when his customers try to make ordinary small-talk with him). The only escape he finds from this comprehensive disgust is to run off to his mountain, which he has purchased secretly (itself a rather implausible plot point – isn’t there a registry in the town? wouldn’t developers have looked up who owned the mountain, and been knocking on the guy’s door for years?), and commune with the silent trees and stones and with the wordless beasts.
He’s a strange man, but for that reason strangely compelling. Which is precisely why I couldn’t help wondering what led Daisy Foote to create such a character, and to create the character of the daughter, Pauline (did I mention she was played – with great force – by Daisy’s sister, Hallie Foote?) who so hates him, blames him for his so-frequent absences and recoils from his persistent presence, in her life and in her mind. I know absolutely nothing about the Foote family, but I couldn’t help thinking about her father’s art, the palpable humanity of it, and wondering: how well do we know the man from the art? After all, among other things the father in the play was a writer – when his son, Henry (played with moving understatement by Tim Hopper), drags a newfound box of his journals onto the stage, we can see just how committed a writer he was. He did not just leave his family, mentally and physically, to be alone with nature. He left to reflect on his experience, at length, in writing. There is something profoundly antisocial about writing as an activity, something that inevitably separates the writer from humanity. Was that experience, as both a writer and the daughter of a writer, the source of this character for Ms. Foote? And it doesn’t seem a crazy stretch to read the fierce attachment that the father in the play has to his unspoiled mountain as, on one level, an allegory for Foote the father’s art, which professed a fidelity to place and to history that the dying father might have appreciated, even if he didn’t have a similar attachment to people.
These were the thoughts that preoccupied me as I watched the play, and as I reflected on it afterwards. Unfortunately, this preoccupation bespeaks an at-best ambivalent reaction to the play itself. I’ve already mentioned the confusion produced by the first few intrusions of the father’s journals into the flow of the drama, but this was not the only infelicity in the text. The characters – particularly Pauline – had a tendency to speak in exposition, and a number of plot points – Henry’s infatuation with a married man of his acquaintance, Pauline’s haunting by the ghost of the baby she aborted decades ago – were introduced in a pat manner, and never truly developed. The only really vivid relationship was between Pauline and her father, and between her father and his mountain.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. The family includes a third sibling, Farley, who is, as his sister describes him “a little slow.” More than a little, actually. Farley is played very finely by Adam LeFevre, and good thing, too, because he could have been a disaster if played too broadly. As it is, he provides a great deal of the much-needed comedy without ever becoming a punchline. A subplot involves his relationship – then marriage – to the girl next door who is similarly handicapped (played somewhat too broadly by Adina Verson), and theirs is the other genuine relationship in the play – Farley seems genuinely thrilled to discover he has a soulmate, and to be seeking some measure of real independence from his sister’s government; then genuinely to tire of his wife, and of being bossed around by her; and finally, when his wife has abandoned him and their newborn baby, to be genuinely resigned to life under his sister’s well-nigh immovable thumb. (It’s striking how spiritually ugly the only female characters in this play are, and how consistently sympathetic the males’s efforts to get out from under the womens’ thumbs are – particularly since the play was written by a woman.) He’s got a fully-persuasive interior life, which is why he works and doesn’t come off as a device.
But he did come to seem to me to be yet another symbol pointing in Foote the father’s direction. I’ve written before in this space about the striking simplicity and directness of Horton Foote’s characters, how often they put their feelings plainly into language, how little his theatre partakes of indirection. Well, Farley talks the way a Horton Foote character does. He says what he feels. He loves, and acts directly on his love – and when love is thwarted by anger and frustration, he says that, too. It’s often the responsibility of characters who are “a little slow” to speak the obvious truths that other characters are evading, but Farley isn’t being used that way by Daisy Foote; what he says, we all already know – but he says it with honest, direct feeling. Until he is crushed into submission.
As a play in its own right, Him is uneven, both in the writing and the construction of the plot, though the characters – particularly Pauline and the father – were powerfully drawn and complex. But for me, the author’s dead father loomed as large – or larger – than the titular patriarch of the play, and the play is particularly worth seeing for anyone interested in how Horton Foote’s considerable artistic inheritance has been managed by his daughter heirs.