The Austin Chronicle


By Robert Faires, July 2, 1999, Arts

The Texas I saw in the darkened rooms of my youth was, without question, a magnificent place. Great expanses of land, spreading out in all directions. Endless carpets of green rolling to the horizon, usually teeming with cattle. Oceans of sand flecked with islands of stubborn scrub and cactus. Massive outcroppings of rock rising from the terrain and casting colossal shadows across the landscape. A vast canopy of blue soaring overhead, sometimes filled with banks of clouds like mountain ranges. It was a land of epic dimensions and the dramas played out upon it had an epic cast to them, too: the taming of the frontier; the founding of oil and ranching dynasties; the driving of cattle across staggering distances; the fighting of a revolution against impossible odds. The movies that spun these stories -- Giant, Red River, The Alamo, and dozens like them -- gave me a majestic Texas, a place of monumental scope in which a person could expect to be challenged by the elements in all their fury, by threat to life and limb, by human forces at their most daunting, a place where if you met those challenges you could ride tall in the saddle, a land of heroes. This Texas seized my imagination, as it has so many people across the country and even the world, and I was irresistibly drawn to this Lone Star State.

But as compelling as this Texas was, it was not my Texas, the Texas where I lived. My Texas had no sweeping tracts of desert, no towering mesas, no cactus except the potted kind for sale in the local nursery. The Texas I lived in was a country of tall spindly pines and oaks draped with Spanish moss; its thick stands of timber rose up from land as flat as a tabletop, much of which was barren of trees and sodden -- paddies for the farming of rice; its roadways were chiefly winding strips of two-lane asphalt woven through small towns built around courthouse squares. My Texas was a place modest in scope with a corresponding meagerness in the tests and triumphs that took place there. To me, it was a land of ordinary folk whose lives were spent ticking off the annual events by which their calendar year was measured: the family reunion, vacation Bible school, dove hunting season, Thanksgiving dinner. Its casseroles and beauty-shop gossip were nowhere to be seen on the silver screen.

Eventually, I found my Texas in a darkened room, but not the one in the cinema. Instead, it was the playhouse which first showed me a Lone Star State I recognized from my own experience. In the early Eighties, as I was first immersing myself in Austin theatre, I encountered a string of shows in which Texans shuffled their way through life. Their worlds were small, circumscribed by the Kiwanis Club billboards on the roads into town and the inconsequential routines they followed day after day, year after year. They were dry goods clerks and waitresses and barbers, appliance store salesmen and mechanics, and they spent their time punching the clock and sleeping through the preacher's sermon, having burgers at the drive-in and Pearls at the bar, playing 42 at the VFW and shooting the breeze on the porch. They chatted about trucks and recipes, football games and family get-togethers, about great aunts and second cousins and the neighbor child who wasn't quite right, about who was laid out at the funeral home and who got laid out at the bar, and they busied themselves especially with local indiscretions -- whose pick-up ended in whose prize flower bed after last Saturday's bender, which high school jock was caught behind the field house with the Baptist preacher's daughter -- that may have happened the night before or 20 years in the past. And if they talked long enough, someone always noted how nothing ever changes in their little corner of the world. There was no majesty about it, nothing valorous and little noble, but by god on a John Deere, that was Texas, too!

illustration by Robert Faires
illustration by Robert Faires

To me, the dramatic portrayal of the Lone Star State in all its smallness was a revelation. What I didn't realize at the time was that I was not alone in this reaction; it was revelatory for the rest of the nation as well. Prior to the Seventies, plays about Texas were still relatively rare, at least in terms of registering on the national consciousness. A handful of playwrights had made names for themselves beyond the borders of the state -- among them Ramsey Yelvington and Horton Foote -- but they were so individual in their approaches to the state and made their mark at different enough times that they were unable to generate, separately or collectively, a sense of Texas drama that could stand in contrast to the image of Texas stamped indelibly on the public mind by decades of movie Westerns set between the Red River and the Rio Grande.

Come the Seventies, however, that changed, and Texas hit the theatre big-time. A longtime actor at the Dallas Theatre Center churned out a trilogy of comic dramas set in a fictitious West Texas town called Bradleyville, and suddenly the rest of the country was curious to see our state onstage. Preston Jones' Texas Trilogy -- The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, and The Oldest Living Graduate -- wasn't exactly a radical departure in dramatic form or structure or pioneering in its depiction of small-town life, even small-town Texas life (Oliver Hailey's Who's Happy Now was one West Texas saloon comedy that hit the playhouses a half-dozen years before Jones' Trilogy landed); still, it raised up a portrait of Lone Star lives in bold colors and a raw and rowdy style that captivated audiences, and its three-fold perspective of a single community across a span of decades provided a scope that echoed, if not equaled, the epic quality of such familiar cinematic sagas of Texas as Giant. The plays' success on native soil was natural, but the turning point in their impact on the culture came when the plays were staged in the nation's capital. The 1976 Kennedy Center productions, staged by Alan Schneider, were heralded with great fanfare and ultimately received with tremendous enthusiasm and monumental praise, with D.C. critics hailing Jones as a major talent on par with Tennessee Williams. That grand embrace didn't extend to Broadway, where the press was largely dismissive of the work, but by then the Trilogy's reputation had been made, and the idea of a Texas play -- one that had a character distinct from the mythic Texas film -- gained purchase in the culture.

The next decade saw that idea grow in prominence, as Texas plays sprang up like bluebonnets and won greater and greater national attention. Quick on the heels of the Texas Trilogy came an unlikely Lone Star musical that nevertheless captured the heart of Broadway and has become a staple in the regional theatre: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Whether the show's success owed more to Tommy Tune's choreography or the bawdy book by Larry L. King, it was unquestionably a hit and spurred the journalist and professional Texan to make a second career in playwriting. He has since penned such Lone Star dramas as The Night Hank Williams Died and The Golden Shadows Old West Museum. During the same period, a handful of non-musical plays added to the number of -- and stature of -- Texas dramas: Jack Heifner's Vanities and the paired one-acts Patio/Porch; James McLure's one-act Lone Star and its companion piece Laundry & Bourbon; and Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. These were all works which figuratively and literally worked the same territory as Preston Jones' Texas Trilogy -- the dusty West Texas burg where nothing ever changes and yet so much does -- and mined from it a common sense of insularity, frustration, and brash, wicked humor.

Perhaps the next significant Texas play popped up in the early Eighties, in a little theatre in Austin, Texas: Greater Tuna. This series of comic vignettes set in the state's "third smallest town" won legions of fans wherever it played, and it played and played and played, in theatres across the country, in the form of an HBO special, and in hundreds of amateur and professional productions throughout the land. Five years after its premiere, it was the most produced play in the country, and it has spawned a cottage industry for its two creators and stars, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, who enjoyed enough success with it to create two sequels and to be touring with them constantly after 18 years. While their works were the most overtly and deliberately comedic of the nationally known Lone Star works to emerge after the Texas Trilogy, they shared many of the characters and themes of the other Texas plays.

Tuna may have been the only Texas play from Austin to win a national audience at that time, but it was far from the only Texas play written here in the early Eighties. That period saw a substantial increase in the amount of local playwriting and with that came a wealth of Texas plays: Tom White's Willie the Shake, Dennis Paddie's The Quail in the Pines and Last Night at Mary's; Ellsworth Schave's The Texas Silver Zephyr; Ken Johnson's Final Touches and American Realism; Doug Dyer's Splendora, adapted from Edward Swift's novel; and Alice Wilson's Workin' Texas, to name but a few. Their stories and approaches were too diverse to allow for much in the way of easy generalizations about them as a body of work, but perhaps a couple of common qualities can be drawn from them: Most focused on some aspect of small-town life -- the familiarity of it, the seeming lack of change -- and, contrary to most of the more famous Texas plays, drew on Central and East Texas for their settings.

East Texas also began to receive its due on the national stage with the resurgence in the career of Horton Foote. With the release of the film Tender Mercies and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar to his credit, Foote was again the acclaimed dramatist he had been in the Fifties and Sixties, as the author of numerous plays for television and the Oscar-winning adaptor of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen. The veteran writer took advantage of his second shot at stardom to bring other of his plays to the screen -- The Trip to Bountiful, Courtship, On Valentine's Day, 1918 -- and in the process theatres began to rediscover his elegant tales of courage and charity, persistence and grace, among the decent people in a small town in Southeast Texas. In the years since, Foote's plays have been produced with greater and greater frequency, and he has been honored with a full season of his dramas being produced by the Signature Theatre Company in New York and with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his 1995 play The Young Man From Atlanta.

Foote's Pulitzer may be a fitting measure of how well-accepted the Texas play has become over the last quarter century. In many ways, his Young Man From Atlanta is little different from Jones' Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander or James McLure's Lone Star (all of which may be seen on local stages in the next week). It, like those earlier works, takes us into a family of Texans for whom life once was rich with dreams like oil-field gushers but who must face up to the passage of time and changes which have made their dreams go dry. It's a running theme in Texas life -- the dream of the big, the biggest in the country, the frontier ripe with opportunity, and the crisis when it turns, when the opportunity is squandered or the riches of the frontier are tapped out -- one we've seen played out in the oil and ranching businesses, in real estate, in politics, in football dynasties. Texas writers come by it naturally. But it's taken a while for that drama to assert itself on our stages and for it and the small towns in which it's so often played out to seize the imagination of the rest of the country in the way that the more magnificent dramas of its cinematic cousins did. Now, it has, and a story that is tightly drawn, that is intimate in its portrayal of the people of this state, that is as small and focused inward as the movies of Texas were huge and encompassed heaven and earth, is recognized with one of the most prestigious prizes that can be awarded to a work of theatre. The casseroles and beauty-shop gossip have won out. Now everybody knows, by god on a John Deere, that's Texas, too.

Lone Star runs July 2 & 3, Fri & Sat, 8pm, at the Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs. Call 320-0827.

Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander runs July 8-18, Thu-Sat, 8pm, Sun, 3pm, at the Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs. Call 454-TIXS.

The Young Man From Atlanta runs July 9-August 8, Wed-Sat, 8pm, Sun, 5pm, at the State Theater, 719 Congress. Call 472-5143.

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