The Play’s the Thing

PROLOGUE:  The first reports I heard about legendary Texas playwright Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle insisted it was one of the most brilliant, riveting productions ever to grace the likes of New York City.  You know, the kind of raves that make you feel like you’d be a total loser philistine to miss it (especially if you were, say, a Texan).

Nine hours of sheer brilliance and, in December 2009, you couldn’t get tickets till March 2010.  This simply made it all the more irresistible.  I had to go.  My husband told me to forget it if I wanted him to go with me.  No way.  What did I mean, a play that lasted nine hours?  Was I crazy?

Appalled by his cultural insensitivity, I talked to my good friend, Robert Leleux, a Foote fanatic. culture lover, aesthete.  Naturally, Robert was highly enthusiastic.  “I can’t wait,” he screamed over the phone.  Robert screams a lot, but this was extra-loud.  “This is going to be so much fun!”  So, I got us tickets for March.  Nine hours of peerless theater in a short week!  What could be more perfect?

“I’m going to the Foote plays with Robert,” I told my husband, who said that sounded copacetic to him.

ACT ONE: I’ve never written a play, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to introduce conflict till the second act, are you?  But I can’t help it.  Life intervenes on its own damned schedule.  The minute the calendar hit March, conflict began to flare.

“You know the first Foote play is next week,” I nagged Robert.

Robert said he couldn’t go.  He was committed to going to the Veteran Feminists of America conference in Dallas.  “Have you heard about it?” he wanted to know.

“Of course I’ve heard about it,” I said.  “I’m going, too.  I’m being honored as a veteran feminist.  I think it means I’m old.”

“Then you can’t go to the play, either,” Robert pointed out, very unhelpfully.  I think he said something about my not being old, too, but I’m not sure.

“Get this,” I told my husband.  “Robert and I are both going to miss the first play in the Orphans’ Cycle.  Do you want to go?  It’s the hottest ticket in town.”

My husband looked up from his computer and said he’d go, since we’d already ponied up so much money for the tickets.  “Just to help you out,” he said.  He emailed another friend who agreed to go.

ACT TWO: Right on schedule, the conflict started to deepen.

Robert and I both went to the Veteran Feminist gathering in Dallas and missed the first Orphans play.  I called my husband later that night to find out what he thought of the play.  He and our friend Kent, who’d gone with him, were at a restaurant.  The play, he informed me, screaming over the restaurant din, had sucked.  “It was boring and disjointed,” he said.  “The narrative was lacking and the characters were uninteresting.  I almost fell asleep.”

“It’s supposed to be wonderful,” I said.  “That’s what The New York Times said.”

“Ha,” he said.

“He said he hated the play,” I told Robert.

Robert looked unperturbed.  “Your husband is such a riot,” he crowed.  “I love the way he always says exactly what he’s thinking.”

“That’s because you’re not married to him,” I said, feeling grumpy about my husband’s whole art-hating tirade.  “Well, at least you and I can see the other two Orphans plays when we get back to New York,” I told Robert.  “At least you appreciate art — unlike some of the other men in my life.”

Robert frowned and looked guilty.  “Didn’t I tell you?” he said.  “I’m going to be out of town next week, too.”

ACT 3: RESOLUTION  Well, sometimes you have to go it alone and stop depending on the kindness of strangers or anybody else, for that matter.  I returned to New York with my tickets for two of the Orphans‘ plays and managed to wangle a third.

Before I went to the first play, I re-read the synopses and reviews of the works.  Briefly, The Orphans’ Home Cycle is composed of nine one-act plays Horton Foote wrote in the 1970s.  The plays, most of which have been individually produced for theater or movies since then, have never appeared together before this production.  To make them fit into nine hours, all of them had been edited by Horton Foote, who was still working on them when he died in March 2009.

The plays take place early in the 20th century in the country and small towns of Southeast Texas and in Houston.  Horace Robedaux, based on Foote’s father, is the center of Orphans.  His alcoholic father dies when Horace is only 12 and his mother remarries a man who loves her and her daughter, but hates her son.  Abandoned by his immediate family, Horace learns to make his own way in the world.  He struggles to succeed in business, he marries happily, he has a family, one of his children dies, he tries not to rage at the unfairness of life.  The first world war begins and ends, the influenza epidemic claims too many, most people struggle financially, but the new rich prosper so they can boast, build big houses and travel to Europe only to be disappointed.

The Wall Street Journal called the Orphans’ Cycle a masterpiece.  The New York Times raved that it was “the great adventure of the theater season,” “heart-piercing,” with a “pulsing narrative vitality.”  All three performances I went to were sold out.

I went to part one on a Tuesday night, then parts two and three the next day.  I can tell you the production was hauntingly beautiful in its presentation, wonderfully acted, and dauntingly ambitious.  I can tell you I wanted to like it as much as the cultural authorities, I wanted to be deeply moved and engrossed by it.  I wanted to tell my husband he was seriously off the mark and I wanted to tell Robert he missed the theatrical event of a lifetime.

Instead, I was underwhelmed, instead of being overwhelmed — and I’m still trying to understand and articulate why.  To me, the entire cycle was flat and episodic, with scenes that were often brief and almost meaningless.  They told you about Horace’s life to his middle years, yes.  But maybe they were too much like life itself, with meandering conversations, major and minor characters who come and go and resurface again, random events that happen because life is capricious and indifferent.

But a life is random and meaningless on its own; it requires a narrative to give it meaning.  Hour after hour, I kept waiting for more emotion, more structure, more humor, more comprehension of the major characters themselves as they grew older and more battered by the years.  Horace emerged as a sympathetic character, struggling against dire odds.

But his story was over-populated with seemingly random encounters and an assortment of relatives and friends who were mystifying and superficial.  Why did his mother abandon him and his stepfather loathe him?  Why was his sister an annoying, piano-playing twit?  What did his wife’s parents learn from their initial rejection, then halfhearted acceptance of him?  Did any of the characters understand themselves any better at the end?  And, most important, what did it all come together to mean?

I’ve read enough books and seen enough theater in my life to realize one man’s masterpiece is another woman’s “so what?” moment.  I can live with that.  I can survive, knowing that much of the nine-hour masterpiece by one of Texas’ greatest writers was lost on me and maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but it’s my honest opinion.  I can endure spending lots of time and money on a production I found admirable in many ways, but puzzling and lacking in others.

But I’ll tell you what really gets to me: Telling my husband he was right about the whole damned thing.


(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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6 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Sometimes people build things up so much that it simply must be a disappointment because it’s been built up so much.  Maybe that’s what happened to you.

    All I can say is that I bought really expensive tickets to Phantom of the Opera six months ago, was wild with anticipation about this famous must-see event, and then slept through the last half hour.  I am ashamed of myself but can’t help it — I absolutely hated it.

  • How disappointing for you, Ruth. I have to admit that I’m a rather lazy reader and playgoer. I want the writer/playwright to do the work for me, not just lay out great slabs of life and expect me to work out their significance in the scheme of things. I’m all for omniscient narrators, but I’ll even settle for a few clues or some kind of internal logic. From what you write of Orphans, it sounds like the kind of play I would hate, where nothing makes sense, and not in an entertaining way, at that.
    As to your husband? Fake it!

  • Hi, Ruth.  As always, I enjoyed your post very much.  I haven’t seen the actual play, because I’m a hick.  But I’ve felt the same way after several books I’ve read.  All the big, glossy reviewers say a book is great.  Everybody raves.  Then I read the damn thing, and the writing is underwhelming at best.  Nobody dares to point that out (except for hicks like me).  After all, if some great reviewer says it’s the best literary achievement of the century, then who am I to not like it?  Blech.  In reality, there’s a whole lotta back scratching going on when it comes to the arts.
    I’m sorry you had such a crummy time, but I enjoyed the laugh (especially about your hubby being right).  I hate when that happens!

  • Craig Link

    You better leave the Foote to me then. I am just enough the pedantic syncophant  to  lap up that nine hours of nothingness and still have about three or four hours of gushing left. I will take all the german cinema you have as well. 

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    How can I leave Foote to you when you won’t even show up in New York?  The Germans you can have.

  • Winston Link

    I like Horton Foote’s work.   But perhaps all those one-acts shouldn’t have been edited into a serial stage offering.  There is a thing called television and a form of presentation called the mini-series– an ideal way to showcase longer works.  Discussions of multi-nightly stage or theatrical release offerings have always been a bad idea.  Most novels could have been better served via the TV mini-series.  Then nothing in a novel need be expunged, juggled nor cropped in order to service a two-hour time frame.  A case in point: The Secret Garden has been a favorite novel of mine since it was read aloud to me in my fourth grade class.  I have seen the Hollywood treatment with Margaret O’Brian (1949) as well as all other theatrical releases.  By far, the 1975 BBC production is the best in my opinion.  Produced as a 7-hour series in 30 minute installments, it was rebroadcast in America on PBS.  I was bowled over with the first scene.  A moody, near-silent scene of a lone child, Mary, sampling food from the plates of a dinner party that had been abruptly abandoned the evening before.  That scene was verbatim from the first pages of the novel, filmed just as I had imagined it through my many readings of The Secret Garden.  And, happily, that entire production was just as faithful to the novel as that opening scene.  Seven hours with nothing truncated!  The luxury of time that a mini-series affords can aid a novel’s journey from page to screen without any cuts or bruises .
    As to the reviews of critics, they too-often suffer from being too close to a production’s internal machinations and suffer the symptom of not being able to view the forest for the trees.  Hold your chin up if you fail to agree with critics.  So you’re NOT a lemming.  That’s a GOOD thing.
    And present your husband with profuse apologies for being wrong, offer him a steaming bowl of broccoli (laced with salmonella) and just move on.

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