By Marlo M. Ihler
Take a world-famous actor and a major fantasy writer and add the back hills of Appalachia, and what do you get? The Tony-award winning play, Foxfire, of course. Actor Hume Cronyn and author Susan Cooper combined their extensive talents for storytelling and created a charming tale of generational connections, the challenges of aging, and finding joy in life.
Cronyn and Cooper, both extremely versatile and well-respected artists in their own rights, came together in 1980 to create Foxfire. This was their first collaboration together to create a vehicle for Cronyn and then-wife Jessica Tandy to act together. The main source for this play came from The Foxfire Books, a compilation of magazine articles written by Georgian high school students in the 1960s about their grandparents’ homesteading generation in the Appalachian Mountains.
In 2007 critic Nancy K. Wellard said of their collaboration:
“When Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn wrote this play, they offered, in addition to the sociological considerations we associate with the “Foxfire” books, a kind of metaphorical appreciation that they developed around the qualities assigned to the foxfire effect . . . dealing with the decay of the old orders as they pass and are pushed aside, no longer valued as long-established ways of living . . . that the old way must fall that we may see the luminescence of their decay as emblematic of a transition (The Island Packet, www.hiltonheadtheatre.com/ index.php/reviews/33-about-scrcs-production-of-foxfire).
Foxfire was the starting point of a long friendship and playwrighting partnership for Cronyn and Cooper that, after Tandy died, eventually resulted in marriage.
Hume Cronyn was a prolific stage, screen, and radio performer, director, producer, and writer. He was born in London, Ontario, Canada, in 1911, son of a brewing company heiress and prominent businessman and politician. His affluent family played an important role in the civic, political, and religious affairs of the region.
Growing up, he was an avid fisherman and, while in college, he was an amateur featherweight boxer. He was even nominated to be on the Canadian Olympic boxing team in 1932.
His parents wanted him to study law, but after a year at McGill University in Montreal, he longed to drop out to pursue acting instead. His mother convinced him to stay at the university one more year, after which he began to follow his dream of acting. He moved to New York City to study at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts under the renowned director and teacher Max Reinhardt.
He made his theatre debut at the Montreal Repertory Company in 1930, his Broadway debut in 1934, and his film debut in 1943 in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. He appeared in other Hitchcock productions and was also a writer for Rope and Under Capricorn.
His first marriage was a short, discreet affair. He married Emily Woodruff in 1935, a fellow student at the AADA, who wanted to keep their marriage a secret from her family. They never lived together and were divorced the next year.
In 1940 he met the woman with whom he would spend the next fifty-four years of his life. He and Jessica Tandy married in 1942 and had two children. They frequently appeared together on stage, screen, and radio, including such shows as A Delicate Balance, The Gin Game, The Marriage, Cocoon, and Foxfire. They became one of the most celebrated husband-and-wife acting teams of the twentieth century.
Some of his other popular films were The Seventh Cross (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), Sunrise at Campobello, Twelve Angry Men, and The Pelican Brief. He was a multi-Emmy and Tony-award winning actor, including a special Lifetime Achievement Tony presented to him and Jessica Tandy in 1994, the year she died. Other honors included induction into the American and Canadian Theatre Halls of Fame, the National Medal of Arts Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Medal
In 1991 he published his autobiography, The Terrible Liar, interestingly, at Susan Cooper’s urging. They had maintained a strong playwrighting partnership as well as a personal friendship throughout the years. Cronyn and Cooper were married in 1996, until Cronyn’s death of prostate cancer in 2003.
Susan Cooper’s writing career was, and still is, as equally successful as Cronyn’s acting career if one can compare the two. She was born in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England in 1935 and was an Oxford college graduate. Her first job was as a reporter (under Ian Fleming’s direction) and a feature writer for London’s The Sunday Times. She wrote books in her spare time, the first of which were Mandrake, a fantasy novel for adults, and Over Sea, Under Stone, a fantasy novel for younger readers.
“To the horror of my friends and relations,” she says she left England at the age of twenty-seven to marry a widowed American MIT professor with whom she later had two children, but would divorce in 1983 (http://www.kidsreads.com/authors/au-cooper-susan.asp). She continued to write for a British newspaper and wrote several more books, including a biography of her friend and British writer J. B. Priestley, and Dawn of Fear, a sort-of autobiography about her childhood during World War II.
Her next series of books, the award-winning The Dark Is Rising, centers around a battle between light and dark and employs elements of Arthurian and Celtic legends. During this time, she was terribly homesick for England and this may have been part of the reason she decided to write these books. This series is the one for which she is best known.
Following this successful period she met Hume Cronyn and collaborated on Foxfire, her first major play. It was initially performed in Stratford, Canada, and then at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis before it went to Broadway in November of 1982. It had a successful eight-month run there at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Later, Cooper adapted the play for television and received an Emmy nomination for her work. John Denver, Cronyn, and Tandy (who won an Emmy) starred.
Along with Cooper and Cronyn’s award-winning screenplay for The Dollmaker starring Jane Fonda, they also adapted Terry Kay’s novel To Dance with the White Dog for television in 1993.
Cooper has also written children’s picture books, essays, lectures, stage works, and additional youth and adult fiction, including King of Shadows about her “greatest hero,” Shakespeare (http://www.kidsreads.com/authors/au-cooper-susan.asp). She is considered a major fantasy writer, having written most of her life. She charmingly talks about her busiest time as a writer . . . at age ten:
“The busiest time of my life as a writer was probably the year I turned ten. . . . I wrote three plays for a puppet theatre built by the boy next door, collaborated on a weekly newspaper with the son of my piano teacher, and wrote and illustrated a very small book” (Something About the Author Autobiography Series, vol. 6. 1988).
Margaret K. McElderry of Horn Book highly praised Cooper’s career, saying “Music and song, old tales and legends, prose and poetry, theatre and reality, imagination and intellect, power and control, a strong sense of place and people both past and present—all are part of the magic that has touched Susan Cooper” (1976, p. 367).
Both the papers of Hume Cronyn and Susan Cooper are preserved, Cronyn’s at the Library of Congress (as the Cronyn-Tandy papers) and Cooper’s in the Lillian H. Smith Collection at the Toronto Public Library.
“The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives.” Vol. 7, 2003-2005, pp 112-114, Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007.