The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia

by Preston Jones
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia opens in the meeting room of the Knights of the White Magnolia in the Cattleman’s Hotel. Ramsey-Eyes sweeps in preparation for the evening’s meeting, giving the audience time to take in the play’s single setting. The room is run-down, with stained walls and shabby furnishings. At one end is a podium decorated with a grimy painting of a white magnolia. Behind it, flanked by Confederate and Texas flags, hangs a cross ornamented with light bulbs. Opposite is the doorway, with a coatrack and tattered banners on the upper wall.

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Rufe Phelps and Olin Potts enter arguing, setting the tone for the meeting, which will be marked by petty bickering. They totally ignore Ramsey-Eyes’ greeting and other pleasantries, as does Red Grover, who enters next. Ramsey-Eyes, snubbed, leaves to return to the hotel lobby and is thereupon accused of being “uppity.”

L. D. Alexander enters, and, after some ribbing, the men plan a practical joke on Skip Hampton, the lodge lush. When Skip comes in, they hide the bourbon provided by Red, claiming that Skip was to bring the “refreshments.” Skip is fooled only briefly, much to Red’s irritation. When Rufe and Olin leave to fetch Colonel Kinkaid, the rest discuss Floyd Kinkaid, his son, venting their resentment because Floyd has never joined the lodge.

Rufe and Olin, followed by Ramsey-Eyes, carry in Colonel Kinkaid, an invalid, and set him in a wheelchair. Once Ramsey-Eyes is dismissed, L. D. administers the oath and announces that instead of playing dominoes and drinking, the usual activities, the Knights are going to initiate a new member, one Lonnie Roy McNeil, from Silver City. The others manage to placate the Colonel, who damns all Silver City men as cowards, but Skip and Red break into a quarrel over Skip’s desire for a drink. Their wrangling is interrupted by the comic arrival of Lonnie, who enters held by Ramsey-Eyes like a captured spy. Red, with characteristic intolerance, sends Ramsey-Eyes packing back to the lobby.

Once underway, the meeting is frequently interrupted with abrasive confrontations. The audience does manage, however, to get a brief history of the organization, which flourished during the 1920’s and 1930’s but has since come on hard times. The lodge in Bradleyville, clearly verging on extinction, is the very last. The momentary optimism prompted by the anticipated initiation is punctured by Skip, who calls the hope of restoring former glories “a damn-fool dream.” A new round of arguments ensues, and Lonnie, beset with doubts, has to be drawn back by L. D., who assures him that the initiation will be the “high by-God point” of his life. Lonnie is then sent from the room for the vote but is soon ushered back by Milo Crawford, who, as Ramsey-Eyes had done, has accosted Lonnie as a spy. Finally, with Lonnie once more dismissed, the brethren vote affirmatively on his membership, only to discover that the new member is nowhere to be found.

In act 2, the action continues with no break in time. Learning that Lonnie has not left the hotel, the others are speculating as to his whereabouts when he returns. Relieved, they prepare for the initiation. At first they are stymied because the lodge book is missing, but when the mystery of its disappearance is solved, L. D. is able to begin the ceremony. The members don ritual costumes and take their positions. Then, after some grumbling, the maimed rites begin. Each member intones some brief lines counterpointed by Lonnie’s choric “Stempco, Stempco, Stempco,” Colonel Kinkaid’s senile meandering, and various verbal gibes among the members. As a finale, the cross is lighted, but the bulbs, covered with grime, are barely visible. Rufe cleans them and for a moment they shine brilliantly, but then they sputter and go out.

As if on cue, the bickering starts again, becoming increasingly vehement. As L. D. tries to calm everybody down, the cross suddenly flares up again, then goes off, sputtering now and then through the remainder of the play. Colonel Kinkaid becomes catatonic, and when Red tries to revive him by pouring some bourbon down his throat, the old man spits liquor all over him. Angry again, Red starts another fight with Skip, who threatens him with what proves to be a tire gauge. Chaos ensues. Lonnie, frightened, backs into the Colonel, who grabs him and sends him screaming from the room. Red smashes Skip in the stomach with a whiskey bottle, and L. D. makes an obscene remark about Milo’s mother. Insulted, Milo, refusing an apology, goes off, pursued by Red’s invectives. Rufe and Olin, after searching for Lonnie, wheel Colonel Kinkaid out of the room.

With cynical amusement, Red announces that the brotherhood is finished, that “the sun’s done set, the moon’s gone down, and the west wind’s got a big splotch on it.” L. D. makes a feeble effort to argue with him, but even he must face reality. Red exits, as Olin and Rufe return to reveal that Floyd Kinkaid is shutting down the meeting room. Dejected and resigned, L. D. announces that the brotherhood is “adjourned.” He takes the lodge book and walks out. Rufe, Skip and Olin, arguing to the end, soon follow, meeting Ramsey-Eyes on the way in.

Ramsey-Eyes, now alone, turns on the cross and under its brilliant light reads from a piece of paper he has found on the floor. The words, from the initiation rites, the last words in the play, are faultlessly read by an old black man assumed by Red Grover to be too ignorant to write his own name.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

The principal theme of The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia is enhanced by visual symbols. Chief among these are the movement’s emblems: the cross adorned with light bulbs and the painting of the white magnolia. The stains on the latter suggest the degeneration of the brotherhood’s values, while the cross, the central symbol, suggests the movement’s fate. It shines brilliantly for a brief moment, then dies out, to be relighted by Ramsey-Eyes, who, ironically, possesses a generosity of spirit the brethren sorely lack.

Other elements suggest decay. The floor is splintered and warped and the walls stained and faded, creating the impression that the Cattleman’s Hotel is itself a relic, a shabby reminder of the agrarian myth. Symbolic motifs include the disappearance of the book and the degeneration of the initiation ritual into mere travesty. The book, finally carried off by L. D., is missing the scrap from which Ramsey-Eyes reads, with its “journey toward de truth” that the lodge members cannot make.

Although taking a tough if oblique look at racial bigotry, the play remains comic in perspective. The regional dialect of the characters is often amusing. Red’s cynical gibes, for example, are very colorful. He says of Skip that he “wouldn’t pass up a drink if he had to squeeze it out of an armadillo’s ass,” and that letting Skip have the key to his liquor store “would be like givin’ old L. D. . . . a Charg-a-Plate to a whorehouse.” The rancor and hostility soften some with such comic leavening.

The regional dialect also suits the play’s serious purpose, reinforcing the ignorance of its users. These are men unaware of a world larger than their own, as is suggested by the flags flanking the cross. When Red observes that Floyd Kinkaid might turn the Cattleman’s into a hotel “for Coloreds only,” he and the others seem oblivious of the nation’s angry mood toward the old separate-but-equal doctrine. Furthermore, the unlettered and uncultured speech rides roughshod over standard English syntax.

The narrow, provincial perspective of the characters is also revealed in what they say. Though Olin knows the history of local families, he and the others reveal an appalling ignorance of a larger world. Lonnie, the novice, is able to identity Adolf Hitler as being “on the German side in World’s War II,” a ridiculous understatement reflecting his deficient education. Colonel Kinkaid, out of touch with reality, perceives the Germans, threatening in “them spiky helmets,” as enemies still, while Rufe, from reading a magazine in the local drugstore, asserts that “them Russians got old Hitler hid out in a little room over there in Moscow.” These are men holding an insensitive, paralytic finger on the pulse of change, vegetating in a small town that progress, represented by the highway, has been busily bypassing.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

Sources for Further Study

Busby, Mark. Preston Jones. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1983.

Clurman, Harold. “Theatre.” Nation, October 9, 1976, 348-350.

Cook, Bruce. “Preston Jones: Playwright on the Range.” Saturday Review, May 15, 1976, 40-42.

Marsh, Annemarie. Preston Jones: An Interview. London: New London Press, 1978.

Prideaux, Tom. “The Classic Family Drama Is Revived in A Texas Trilogy.” Smithsonian 7 (October, 1976).

Thomas, Les. “A Star Rises in Dallas.” Southern Living 13 (January, 1978): 60-63.

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