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)
Read one of my favorite posts about birthday cakes: the horror, the horror