Preston Jones Essay - Critical Essays


The plays of Preston Jones are remarkably consistent in their concentration on character over plot, in their exploration of the poetry inherent in ordinary speech, and in their emphasis on certain prominent themes. From the beginning of his literary career, Jones’s central theme was time. He explored—sometimes seriously, sometimes humorously, but always sympathetically—the effects of the inexorable march of time on people never quite prepared for the changes it will bring. His characters are usually lonely, isolated, cut off from the mainstream of the world by social changes, by geography, by ghosts from their past. They are often people who would be considered failures by normal standards but in whom Jones finds strength and emotional depth that mitigate their lack of the usual hallmarks of success.

Jones’s concerns with the fear of failure, the pain of loneliness, and the effects of time are presented principally through character. Jones’s great strength as a dramatist lies in his depiction of original and distinct characters who are able to engage the audience’s emotions in a profound way. Like the plays of Chekhov, Jones’s theater is often singularly undramatic. If his plotting is sometimes weak or contrived, however, his language never is, and it is primarily through dialogue that his characters are rendered. Jones possessed a sure ear for dialogue, an ability to capture the idiosyncratic phrases, the natural rhythms, the inherent poetry of everyday language. If that language is often rough and profane, it is just as often lyrically beautiful, reverberating with a poetry that transcends its common origins.

Jones represented a new and important force in American theater. As a successful playwright who lived and worked entirely outside New York, he helped establish a new acceptance of the work of regional theaters and writers around the country. The weaknesses of his plays, his often thin or contrived plots and an overreliance on the Southwestern setting, are more than balanced by the strength and originality of his characters, the realistic density of his imaginative world, and the natural poetry of his dialogue. His plays grew out of the life of the American Southwest, but they deal with more universal and immediate human problems. In a very short span of time, he created a body of work that should secure his place among the best American playwrights.

A Texas Trilogy

Jones is best known for the three plays that make up A Texas Trilogy: The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, and The Oldest Living Graduate. These plays are not unified by consecutive events, as is typical in dramatic trilogies, but by a single setting, shared characters, and common themes. The action of each play is separate and independent of the others, but each deals in its own way with Jones’s themes of failure, isolation, and time. The town of Bradleyville, of which Jones created a map with the locations of various characters’ homes and other important landmarks carefully noted, is isolated from the present and the future, bypassed by the new highway, and its people are isolated from one another by racial prejudices, past events, and present needs. The town is a relic of a past way of life, in which most of its characters are trapped by their own pasts: Lu Ann by her marriages, the Colonel by his war experiences, Skip Hampton by his failures and his alcoholism. In the three plays, Jones examines different aspects of the passing rural way of life that Bradleyville represents.

The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia

The first of the plays to be produced was The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia. The plot of the play is very simple: The members of a social lodge gather for their monthly meeting, expecting the usual evening of drinking and playing dominoes, only to find the last remnants of the dying fraternal order disintegrate during the evening as they attempt to initiate their first new member in more than five years. Neither the individual members nor the lodge itself, with its basic ideals of white supremacy and unquestioning patriotism, has been able to adjust to the social changes of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Although Jones ridicules the ludicrous aspects of such fraternal orders—the mystical ceremonies, the pointless rules and regulations—and while he never excuses his characters’ basic ignorance and bigotry, he presents sympathetically their need for companionship and sense of community and their fears and confusions at the potential loss of these values. The play is uproariously funny, but it never loses sight of the basic humanity of the characters, each of which is etched with depth and precision. The most memorable figure is that of Colonel J. C. Kinkaid, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I whose physical and mental deterioration during the course of the evening graphically parallels the dissolution of the group and, in a broader sense, of the Bradleyville way of life.

Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander

While The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia presents a general view of...

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