A menace lurks below the placid surface of Horton Foote’s brilliantly crafted drama of an aging couple coping with a son’s suicide. The menace is the unspoken secret connected with the young man from Atlanta, their former son’s roommate, and neither Houston businessman Will Kidder nor his childlike wife, Lily Dale, will name it or discuss it.
So read the blurb on the inside jacket of my edition of the play. It led me to explore this Pulitzer Prize winning drama with extraordinary expectations. How fast the story failed to meet them astonished me.
The first issue I had concerned the drama’s poor pace. The play opened with Will working as a successful businessman at Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery. He and his wife, Lilly Dale, recently lost their son and wanted a new start. To that end, Will was in the process of having a larger home built for them. After the dialog revealed this tiresome exposition, Will lost his job. From my reading of the exchange I thought he accepted the news very fast. The guy was cocky and planned on starting his own business, but I still couldn’t accept his reaction. After all, the son of the person who hired Will terminated him. This whole sequence seemed contrived and, dare I write it, cliché to me.
Another example of poor writing occurred when Will asked his wife, Lilly, to return all the money he’d been giving her as gifts over the years. He needed the capital to start his business and the banks wouldn’t give him a loan. During that discussion Lilly’s stepfather Pete was present. In a long, drawn-out back-and-forth, Lilly revealed that she no longer had the money.
One of the key tenets of any writing is to get to the point. This scene dragged on far too long. The fact that Lilly already told Pete what she did with the money before Will’s entry made this section even more insufferable.
Aside from extending scenes longer than he should have Mr. Foote also included unnecessary exposition. Here’s how Pete introduced his relative, Carson.
Pete: Carson brought along a picture of my sister, who was his grandmother. I wouldn’t have recognized her. She married a Mr. Stewart. She had four children, including Carson’s mother.
Lilly Dale: Oh? Sit down, Carson.
Pete: Carson says they’re all dead except his older sister Vivian and his youngest sister, Susette.
Carson: Vivian never married. Susette married and has six children. Two of them not quite right. It’s a real burden for her. (Page 54)
There’s a reference at the end of the play that may tie in with some of this information. I’m not sure, though, as I found the later dialog unclear on the subject. Beyond that, I didn’t see how the majority of this information Pete and Carson delivered had anything to do with the overall story.
Speaking of the “overall story”, now I come to the young man from Atlanta. The figure never appeared in the text. The reader learned about him through the other characters’ descriptions. In essence, a big secret about Will’s and Lilly Dale’s son came out through the discussions regarding him. I won’t give away spoilers, but while audiences in the mid-1990s may have found it slightly out of the mainstream, a modern audience would think it blasé.
Which brings me to the biggest issue I had with the play: as any writer knows the protagonist’s journey must be shaped by the choices and decisions he makes. In this case, all Will Kidder’s decisions were contingent on things beyond his control. He decided to start a business when he lost his job. He couldn’t do so because the banks wouldn’t loan him the money. He sought other sources, but neither his wife nor his family had enough to help. Then he had health issues. When the story resolved Will did end up making a choice; but he selected the only option available. This made for a very poor character arc.
I’ve read reviews where critics compared Will Kidder to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. I disagreed. Arthur Miller showed how Willy’s personality directly influenced the choices and decisions he made. He shaped his destiny, albeit, very poorly. As I wrote in the preceding paragraph: Will reacted to events. A strong protagonist would have shaped them. This one was even weaker than the writing.