Cormac McCarthy’s only published screenplay, The Gardener’s Son (Ecco Press, 1996) was actually written in 1976. It was McCarthy’s first screenplay and his first historical work, predating his historical novel, Blood Meridian, by almost a decade. The completed film of The Gardener’s Son, directed by Richard Pearce for the PBS series Visions, was originally broadcast on December 16, 1976. Based on actual events which took place in the mill town of Graniteville, South Carolina in 1876, McCarthy’s drama concerns two families: The Greggs, founders of The Graniteville Manufacturing Company, and the McEvoys, an Irish Catholic family, previously farm owners, who have come to Graniteville to work for the mill with the promise of steady wages, “a sealed house and a garden patch.”
At the opening of Act One Dr. Perceval, the Gregg family physician, has come into Graniteville to check on the condition of William Gregg, the mill’s founder, patriarch and avowed idealist. Gregg, “a ghost lying in the bed,” is near death. But Gregg’s wife (played in the film by Nan Martin) has asked Perceval if he would also visit the McEvoy home to see about “the boy.” Robert McEvoy, 17 (played by Brad Dourif), and the gardener’s son of the title (his father Patrick, played by Jerry Hardin, tends the mill’s garden and peach orchard), has severely broken his leg. It is “badly in sepsis”, and Dr. Perceval insists that the leg must be amputated in order to save the boy’s life. Mrs. Gregg accompanies Perceval to the McEvoy home, and it is she who convinces a recalcitrant Robert that he must have the surgery.
Mrs. Gregg’s dutiful solicitude for Robert demonstrates the Greggs’ quasi-familial relationship with their workers. But when William Gregg dies, his son James (Kevin Conway) takes over as the mill’s superintendent. As the young McEvoy, now recuperated from his surgery, looks on, James Gregg cruelly turns away several families who have journeyed a considerable distance in the hope of work. Later, James attempts to “seduce” McEvoy’s sister Martha (Anne O’Sullivan) by offering her money. Gregg openly despises his indigent, “crossbred” employees; he is not his father.
Robert McEvoy goes back to work at the mill as a broom pusher. His hatred for the mill is exacerbated by the loss of his leg and James Gregg’s conduct. He would have his family go back to their farm where conditions were miserable, but at least they were free to live their own lives. His father observes that Robert has “a troubled heart and they dont nobody no why.” Robert soon quits his job and leaves Graniteville, concluding Act One.
“Act Two” begins with Robert’s return to Graniteville two years later. By chance he meets a pair of gravediggers who are digging his mother’s grave. He chases them off saying, “That woman’s not to be buried up here. She dont belong to the mill.” After speaking briefly with Martha, he finds the mill’s greenhouse and orchards abandoned: his father is no longer the gardener. He seeks his father at a local doggery and learns from one of the men (Ned Beatty) about the difficulties the mill community is having under James Gregg. But McEvoy does not see his father until, less than a day after his arrival in Graniteville, he has murdered the hated Gregg.
Robert’s lawyer Jordan will not allow him to testify on his own behalf; despite protests from his father. Says Jordan, “We wont get anywhere in an attempt to blacken the Gregg name…. We’ve agreed with Mrs. Gregg to call no female witnesses and I dont have to tell you that we have exacted every consideration from the family in exchange. Her anxiety to protect the family is one of the things most in our favor.” This passage makes clear that both the lawyers and the Greggs suspect that McEvoy has murdered Gregg in defense of his sister’s honor, but as Martha says to Mrs. Gregg, “Bobby could not have knowed nothing about it [the attempted bribe and seduction]. You know I wouldnt of told him hotheaded as he was.”
Robert never articulates his reasons for killing Gregg and we can only guess at his motives. In The Gardener’s Son, as in many of McCarthy’s novels, dialogue is the beautifully observed dialect of the inarticulate. The characters of The Gardener’s Son are inarticulate to both comic and tragic effect, quoting and misquoting scripture and emptily repeating popular folk sayings to compensate for their clumsiness with words. This tragicomic tying of tongues is parodied in the climactic confrontation between Robert and James Gregg. When Robert says plainly that Gregg is a liar, Gregg asks, “Are you calling me a liar?” McEvoy replies, “I didnt stutter.”
It is a recurrent tragedy of The Gardener’s Son that human beings can never really know one another. McEvoy repeats the phrase “You don’t know me” or ‘I don’t know you” in several variations throughout the latter half of the screenplay, echoing the denials of the apostle Peter. However, man’s futile attempts to be his brother’s keeper will continue. To quote one of the men at the doggery, “I guarangoddamntee ye!”
The preceding précis is Copyright © 1997 by Raymond Todd.