catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 19 :: 2008.10.24 — 2008.11.07


Identity and vocation

Some time ago, I re-read a one-volume work entitled Selected One-Act Plays of Horton Foote. This playwright sets us an excellent example of the interplay between identity and vocation.

By way of introducing you to Horton Foote, consider these words from the introduction of the collection I’m reading. The plays contained in this volume were selected by Gerald C. Wood. In the introduction, Mr. Wood explains his admiration of Horton Foote. First, he describes the nature and scope of Horton Foote’s work:

Since the early 1940’s the plays of Horton Foote have been praised for the truthfulness of their language and characterization, for their realistic portrait of the Coastal Southeast Texas he knows so well. They have been favorably compared with the dramas of Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov, and with the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter and William Faulkner. Now, as the deeply personal and universal qualities of the plays are being discovered, Foote’s work is taking its rightful place “near the center of our largest American dramatic achievements.” He has been claimed as “America’s greatest playwright” and “a national treasure.” Although he is well known for his two Academy Awards for screenwriting…the theater has been Foote’s abiding love.

That last phrase is a statement of vocation: “the theater has been Foote’s abiding love.”

There are no fewer than 17 one-act plays contained in this volume. All of them are set in a fictional town Horton Foote created called Harrison, Texas. What’s remarkable about Foote, however, is that there are many other full-length and one-act plays that Horton Foote has written that are not contained in this volume which explore in greater detail the conflicts and inter-relationships of Harrison, Texas.

For example, Foote has written a series of nine plays called The Orphans’ Home Cycle. This cycle deals entirely with the joys and sorrows of Harrison’s residents. The beauty of The Orphans’ Home Cycle lies in its adaptability. Consider:

1. Each play could be performed on its own. For example, the play 1918 makes a beautiful stand-alone piece. On its own, 1918 treats on the interplay between suffering and courage. Or…

2. One could group three of the plays together to form a trilogy. In this instance, the play 1918 would serve as a capstone, telling the final part of the story of Elizabeth Vaughn and Horace Robedaux. The first part relates their courtship and tells how Mr. Vaughn (Elizabeth’s father) resists his daughter’s interest in Horace. It is appropriately titled Courtship. The second part of the trilogy relates events surrounding Elizabeth’s and Horace’s first year of marriage. It deals in part with issues of reconciliation and is titled Valentine’s Day to remind us that Elizabeth and Horace eloped one year before on that holiday. 1918, the third play in this “center” trilogy, relates a series of events touching on disease, war, death and control. It tells how Elizabeth and Horace lose their first baby to a terrible flu epidemic-and how they come close to death themselves. Or, believe it or not…

3. One could group three sets of three plays together to form a cycle of nine plays touching on the same town and the same characters, but from different vantage points.

Yes, a trilogy of trilogies. Now, this alone would be quite an achievement, but Horton Foote has many other plays (and even another series of plays called The Roads to Home) about this town and its people. The depth of his exploration is astounding.

What’s more, Mr. Foote does not allow sentiment to overburden his writing. In the words of Gerald Wood, Horton Foote “writes to discover, not to preach.” He says of Mr. Foote: “Rather than lecture his readers, he investigates with them the ‘great mystery’ about the sources of courage and personhood.”

And this too reflects the notion of vocation nicely, for Mr. Foote possesses not only a love for theater but a love for place and people.

Among all of that, there is still something more basic, more eternal, more foundational in Horton Foote’s writing and life that tells us he’s driven by true vocation. I’ll explain.

The first words of the introduction to this volume are a quote from author Katherine Anne Porter. She puts vocation (specifically, the artist’s vocation) into perspective with these words:

There seems to be a kind of order in the universe, in the movement of the stars and the turning of the earth and the changing of the seasons, and even in the cycle of human life. But human life itself is almost pure chaos….  We don’t really know what is going to happen to us, and we don’t know why….  [T]he work of the artist-the only thing he’s good for-is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things, things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning.

That’s vocation. That’s what we call a “life-work.”

Artistically, we refer to a person’s life-work as a body of material that, when viewed in its totality, adds up to more than the mere sum of its individual parts. There are a handful of artists we could explore to delve into this idea of life-work.

Take, for example, Stephen King. He’s more than a writer of horror. He’s written short stories and screenplays (many of which people do not know he’s written because they are not of the horror genre). He’s even written a book on writing. In fact, I’m told it’s quite good. The question is: what does his life-work tell us?

Or take Pablo Picasso. Picasso is best known for cubism. But, in Barcelona there is a museum that shows Picasso’s pre-cubist era. Were we to view the entire body of Picasso’s work, what would it tell us?

We could do this with many “great” artists: William Shakespeare, Elvis Presley, Victor Hugo, Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther. (And, yes, I do find it strange that I put Elvis Presley in that list, in case you’re wondering!)

But with each of these, there is more to consider as concerns this issue of life-work. For an artist’s life-work, in my opinion, includes not just the pieces of art they produce but also the real-life legacy they leave behind. What do their lives actually tell us?

We could take Michael Jackson, for example. It is one thing to view his body of work as a musician. It is another to view his life-work (his legacy) from another vantage. Viewed that way, we would include the way he lived, what he was known for apart from his music.

With that in mind, consider: Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Madonna, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Ghandi. Each had (or has) a life-work. What is it? What distinguishes one from another?

This is the question of vocation and you can see it is also a question of identity. To a large extent each person’s identity is derived by their vocation. But, in some strange way, their vocations are driven by their identities.

Here again, Horton Foote gives us an excellent example of the interplay between identity and vocation. The fact is: Mr. Foote was born and lived almost his entire childhood and adolescence in Wharton, Texas. Like Harrison (the fictional town Mr. Foote created), Wharton is an eastern Texas small town, with all its blessings and curses. In exploring Harrison through his life-work, he’s exploring his roots, his very identity. And his exploration is such that he’s intentionally looking for patterns, putting things “together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning.”

Consider these words from Mr. Wood’s introduction: “But courage is only one of many topics in these plays. Foote is more generally interested in what he calls the ‘patterns…in people,’ only one of which is their capacity for courage.”

Mr. Wood then quotes Horton Foote to illustrate this “pattern-seeking” compulsion.

I think what has been increasingly interesting to me (And I suppose, you see, I’m in touch with six or seven generations living in Wharton. The seventh generation has now begun.) is trying to bring order out of disorder…to try to make sense out of what sometimes seems just total confusion. And if you see the patterns…in people…

Mr. Wood then continues to comment on this, tying this theme back to Ms. Porter’s opening quote. He writes:

The uncovering of these patterns is, as [Horton Foote] explains it, his means of bringing “order” and making “sense.” Like Katherine Anne Porter before him, he is using art as a “frame to give…shape and meaning” to the otherwise “almost pure chaos” of human life. The Texas voices, characters and stories in his work are Foote’s tools in his quest for continuity and tradition. But the goals of his search are not just particular and regional. He wants to discover the roots of courage, the peace of identity, and the healing power of myths and legends. For an artist who commits himself to the eternal struggle of order against disorder, nothing less will satisfy.

Can you hear “vocation” in these words? Vocation is formed by identity but it is also an exploration of identity, a search for roots, patterns, meaning, order, purpose. And this life-work possesses the power to heal.

True vocation is a fire in your soul. It is what you cannot help but be and do. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning.

True vocation is what you were created for. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft says, it is the gift that God gives to each of us: “the dignity of being causes.”

And you can see that vocation is different than “career.” One can have a career in art, but that does not mean that one’s art is one’s vocation. As Konstantin Stanislavski (former director of the Moscow Art Theater) asks: do you love “yourself in the art” or “the art in yourself”? That is the difference between “career” and “vocation.”

The good news is: God gives everyone a vocation, not merely a career.

For starters, there is that work God gives every human by virtue of the stamp of creation. It is the work to care for the world, to tend the land, to “name the animals.” In a general sense, this is the common human vocation. In a similar way, God calls all humans to worship him. Worship, then, is our eternal vocation and it could be stated that even stewardship is an act of worship.

And then there is a common Christian vocation: to make disciples of Jesus. This is the work Jesus commissions all Christians to perform, regardless of age, gender or occupation.

Yes, we all are commissioned to this base-line vocation. But God also invests each person with a unique identity, and this too is a gift. Because of that, the way in which we carry out the common vocations of worship, stewardship and disciple-making varies from one person to the next. Because of God’s freedom, we are free to embody our vocation in unique ways. So, God will also give to each of us, in this sense, a unique vocation.

This is how we can explain the fact that Augustine’s vocation involved theology while Bach’s involved music. Michelangelo’s life-work involved visual art, while Immanuel Kant’s involved philosophy, a world of abstraction. Each person has a unique vocation-which is to say we express distinct identities within the framework of a common vocation.

At any rate, let it be remembered: vocation (whether general or particular) is a gift of God. And everyone has one.  If you don’t know what yours is, you would do well to begin exploring that soon, for to live without a sense of vocation is to live without a purpose-and aimless living diminishes one’s soul. 

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