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The house used to look so big

I don’t know how to say my exit line.

I don’t know if y’all know the play. Essentially, A Trip to Bountiful is about Clara Watts, who lives with her son and her daughter-in-law in a small one-bedroom apartment in Houston. She grew up on a farm in a North Texas town called Bountiful; after her husband died, she brought up her son at that farm, too. She hates the city, fights with her daughter-in-law, and dreams of returning to live in Bountiful. During the play, she sneaks away and takes a bus to the nearest big city, and then sweet-talks the local sheriff into driving her the rest of the way to her old house, which is now falling apart. Her son and daughter-in-law meet her there to drive her back to Houston.

She claims to have “found her strength and dignity” in Bountiful, or perhaps on the trip; she returns to Houston and her daughter-in-law meekly enough. There is some talk about everybody getting along, but the daughter-in-law is clearly not reconciled, and she herself twice ignores her daughter-in-law’s direct questions. So we’re not talking about a redemptive epiphany here, we’re talking sad, sad, stuff. If you care about the people at all, at that point, I suppose.

Anyway, I am playing the son, and I have no idea how to say my last line. It’s the end of the play, right? Jessie Mae (the daughter-in-law) has gone ahead to the car, and I fall behind to speak quietly to my mother.

LUDIE: Mama, if I get a raise, you won’t—
MOTHER WATTS: It’s all right, Ludie. I’ve had my trip. You go ahead. I’ll be right there. Look, isn’t that a scissortail?
LUDIE: I don’t know. I didn’t get to see it if it was. They fly so fast. The house used to look so big.

And I exit. And then Mother Watts says “Goodbye, Bountiful” and exits as the lights go down.

So. How do I say the line The house used to look so big? I mean, clearly, what I’m saying is that the house no longer looks big to me, either because I have grown (physically? emotionally?) or because it is so dilapidated that it appears shrunken. Or is it that the house used to loom large in my imagination, during the years that I refused to visit?

Digression: One of the things I find irritating that actors do is to come up with background details about their characters that are (a) irrelevant to the actual production, and (2) juicy beyond anything really conceivable by non-actors. I try to keep my back-story within reason. For instance, I eventually decided that Valmont was having a little E.D. problem, rather than deciding it was the early stages of syphilis… anyway, Ludie is so adamant about not remembering his childhood home, even refusing to set foot in it once he is compelled to go to the doorstep, that it’s awfully tempting to imagine some very juicy reason for his behavior. Abuse, not to put to fine a point on it. I imagine Horton Foote would be horrified to have an actor read that in to the part. And the play belongs to Mother Watts; my job is to support her, not to draw attention away from her with Acting! that will not be understood by the audience anyway. So I am repressing that thought. But still. End Digression.

The house used to look so big. What an awful thing to say. At that moment, I mean. To my mother, who has claimed to have found her strength and dignity at last in visiting it. I mean, whether you believe that claim or not, it seems so utterly heartless at that moment to say to her The house used to look so big. It’s so dismissive. And I know that Ludie is not a perceptive guy; Jessie Mae for all her bitchiness knows Mother Watts much better than I do. He never understands, for twenty years fails to understand, how much being in Bountiful would mean to his mother. And he is, I think, ashamed to have let his reluctance deny his mother that visit. Possibly ashamed of the reluctance itself. And after all that, there he is, in front of the house. Not in it, but in front of it. And it’s collapsing, the roof is probably half gone and the walls leaning and bending, and his mother is standing there convinced, convinced that just being on the land has been her salvation. And he says The house used to look so big. If his mother was listening at all, how would she take that? Or can he just assume that she isn’t listening? Or is he really so self-absorbed and oblivious that he can’t hear what that sounds like to her?

So. How do I say it? And I don’t just mean, what am I thinking when I say it, what emotions are intended to come out, that sort of thing. I mean, do I emphasize so or big? The Texas voice tends to accent the final word of sentences, but not if the speaker wants to emphasize something else. Do I say it fast or slow? Do I pause between so and big as if I am trying to think of what to say, or as if I was going to say something else and stopped, or do I run the words together as if I were trying to get the thing out and go? Do I gesture at the house? Or at the past? Or not at all? Do I say it while walking out, or say it standing still and then walk out? I’m not going to face Mother Watts (unless the director overrules me, which would be great as it would solve the dilemma), but should I face the house or the audience or the car or just away-from-her?

If you have any ideas about it, please shout ’em out. I really am stuck over this, and it seems important. I don’t know that I will actually do what you suggest, but I will probably try it, and your suggestions will very likely spark something in my brain. And yes, I will ask the director, but I’d like to try a few things first.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Hm. It's certainly a rich line, if apparently distasteful.

I haven't read the play or seen the movie, so I know nothing about Ludie, but if he is

1) adamant about not remembering the house,
b) been denying his mother a chance to visit,
iii) now ashamed of his reluctance


a) this statement is an admission to her that he actually remembered the house very well, and perhaps
2) it offers an explanation, if not an apology, for that reluctance.

The line is dismissive, in some respects, of the house as it is, but it reveals that the house has loomed large, has it not, in the memory of a man who, if I am remembering your comments correctly, thinks of himself as a failure. His reluctance to allow the visit, perhaps, was founded on the extent to which the house and the big life that it stood for, would shame him for what his life is now.

YMMV, but that's one reading that suggests itself to me.

Random thoughts: Do you have to compare the house now to the house in your memory? If you gesture with your hands on "so big", defining a small space, you can reverse the meaning. If you point at something, you can compare the house to the thing you're pointing at.

I like Chris Cobb's take.

I'm also not convinced that it has to be mean, or even contrary. Without knowing anything about the characters other than what you've written here, my first impression was that Ludie was mourning a loss he has just realized. He's taken the house for granted, never feeling the need to pay attention to the actuality of it, like the bird that he's just neglected to notice. "They fly so fast. The house used to look so big. Something happened, and I wasn't paying attention."

Am I wrong in thinking, also, that the house is a metaphor in the play for the personhood of Clara Watts? In which case, there's something there about coming to terms with his mother's mortality.

I like Chris's interpretation and was thinking, along those lines, that perhaps the line is a statement that the house has lost its power over Ludie. It was a symbolic battleground between himself and his mother but now, confronted with the actuality of it, it isn't so big.

If you want to get a peek into the heads of many people with dysfunctional families, spend a bit of time at http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/011672.html

I'm with Chris and the other posters on this one--it could be a comment on his mother's mortality, his relationship with her, his coming to grips with his childhood or the expectations it set up for him. If it's not completely out of character or the mood of the scene, could you try saying it with some relief in your voice?

I'd say: emphasize "house," rather than "so" or "big." I'd also say it as if it had only just then occurred to him.

She says "isn't that a scissortail?" and he looks to see if it was, but he missed it, as he says in his line. But as he looks, his surprised gaze falls on the dilapidated ruin of the building, and he makes what to him would be an off-hand remark, crushing his mother with his lack of perception. He leaves her to her loss, triumph, both...


Lots of help, here. Thank you all. This also can connect to his mother's comment that it is the land—the river, the fields, the trees—from which she draws her strength. Perhaps Ludie is taking that at face value.

And to clarify: I don't think that Ludie is trying to be mean. Mostly, I think he is utterly clueless about people. So it makes some sense that he attempts to say The house used to look so big in a conciliatory manner. It still is a terrible thing to say, viewed from the point of view of the listener (as one should measure these things), but it gives me an idea of what to think.

As for the location of the scissortail, at the moment Mother Watts is looking in pretty much the opposite direction of the house (or of the notional house), but perhaps I can ask her to change that…


P.S. We open two weeks from tonight!

Dan P's reading matches mine, that "The house used to look so big" somehow belongs with "They fly so fast," expressing regret for a loss -- of independence? beauty? childhood? -- only just realized.

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