In Search of Happier Times: Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful
by Glenn D. Novak – Assistant Professor of Mass Communication West Georgia College
The NBC Playhouse had tradition of casting competent but relatively unknown stage actors into the roles of its television plays. Through moving performances in one or more of the better dramas produced by Coe, these actors began to make names for themselves, later broadening their careers into motion pictures. Actors and actresses like Joanne Woodward, Rod Steiger, Kim Stanley, and others were thrust from relative obscurity into national popularity through fine performances in live television drama. Big Hollywood names were avoided, for reasons discussed by Associate Producer Gordon Duff in an interview in April, 1953:”If you have an expensive Hollywood name, more people would tune in, but I’m not sure more people would like the show. A name’s great, but we’re not in the business to keep the press agent happy” (“Grownups ‘Playhouse”).
The Trip to Bountiful represented a break with this tradition. The part of Mrs. Watts was played by Lillian Gish, 57 years old at the time. Her performance was hailed by many critics as one of the finest, if not the finest, of her entire dramatic career. Foote dedicated the play to Ms. Gish, and it is so noted on the title page to the play as it appears in the anthology, Harrison, Texas.
A complete list of the cast of The Trip to Bountiful, presented on the Goodyear Television Playhouse at 9:00 PM, EST, onMarch 1, 1953, follows:
- Mrs. Watts: Lillian Gish
- Jessie Mae Watts: Eileen Heckert
- Ludie Watts: John Beal
- Thelma: Eva Marie Saint
- Ticket Man_(railroad station): Dennis CrossBus
- Driver: Charles Sladen
- Ticket Man (bus station):Will Hare
- Attendant: Larry Bolton
- Sheriff: Frank Overton
- Ticket Man (second bus station):William Hansen
The director of the production was Vincent Donehue. Fred Coe was producer and Gordon Duff was associate producer.
Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful is especially significant because it marked a reversal of the common trend during the earliest days of live television drama, the reliance on successful Broadway plays as material for television. Not only was The Trip to Bountiful an original play specifically written for television (a common practice by 1953), but it became the first television play ever produced on Broadway. Time magazine commented on this unusual situation soon after the play opened: “While seeming to throttle stage and screen with one hand, television is generously offering help with the other”(“Friend and Foe”).The stage play opened on November 3, 1953, at the Henry Miller Theatre, and enjoyed a run of about a month. The producer and director were unchanged from the television broadcast, and Ms. Gish continued in her role as Mrs. Watts.
Ludie was played by Gene Lyons, and Jo Van Fleet (who would turn in a powerful performance two years later in East of Eden) replaced Eileen Heckart as Jessie Mae. The play marked Eva Marie Saint’s first appearance on Broadway, as she re-created the role of Thelma (“Trip to Bountiful” Theatre Arts). The reviews of the stage play were mixed, but the majority of negative comments seemed to concentrate more on acting and sets than on the situations or dialogue. Eric Bentley’s criticism in the New Republic, however, did raise an in teresting question regarding Foote’s characterization of Ludie Watts:”The plot, the theme, the exigencies of theatre all demand that he speak, that he explain himself, but he is maddeningly and fatally silent, pleading some fifth amendment of the dramatic constitution.”Critics were in general agreement, though, concerning the moving performances of Gish, Van Fleet, and Saint, and more than one expressed surprise and sadness at the fact that the play had such a brief run.
The television writing of Horton Foote can best be described as the careful and sensitive exploration of the human mind and spirit. In The Trip to Bountiful he endeavors to portray that quality in all of us which spurs us on to an important goal, the attainment of which will satisfy an intense longing.