A Texas Trilogy
As with everything else in Texas, when you fail, you fail big, especially in the small town that superhighways have bypassed. The lower-middle-class citizens of Bradleyville fail emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually partly because they have failed materially; the upper-class citizens fail partly because they have succeeded materially. It is the smallness of the town, its social and cultural scope, that breeds a smallness in the citizens—that isolates, limits, and stunts them. A Texas Trilogy is about the failure and loneliness of people whose dreams of glory have rendered them sterile and stagnant.
Born and reared in Albuquerque, Jones graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1960 and joined the Dallas Theater Center’s professional company as an actor in 1962, and also became one of its directors. Practical experience has taught him what works in the theater. The plays in A Texas Trilogy are actor’s plays. But the paradox is that much more theatrically adept plays have been written by playwrights who have come no closer to the stage than a seat in the second balcony. These plays work, they play, but they have a crude simplicity and an overall amateurish aura about them that is apparent not in ineffective moments (those are few), but from moment to moment. The audience is thinking, these stereotyped, predictable characters, this clichéridden dialogue, these simple situations, this commonplace realism, this great bulk, should not work, but it is working. A Texas Trilogy is “dynamite theater.” Jones’s solid background in the theater and his audacious amateurishness may account for this happy fluke.
This play is exactly what pretentious anglophile New York theater needs to put it in touch with its own deepseated provincialism. But under the easy rubric of “regionalism,” it spurned this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Outside New York, reviewers could unself-consciously rejoice, hailing the trilogy as a work as “satisfying” as Death of a Salesman and Jones as the most promising new playwright since Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—relevant choices, for these plays generate continuity with the kind of theater the 1940’s and 1950’s produced, the theater of William Inge, Richard N. Nash, Clifford Odets. But sophistication is not so easily dethroned, especially with a British critic, Clive Barnes of the New York Times, holding the scepter. The epithet “regional” became the trilogy’s epitaph, as if plays set in New York City or any other “foreign” place more truly expressed the American experience. Despite its only, but pervasive fault, its amateurish superficiality, the trilogy is authentic theater, and Jack Kroll of Newsweek had the courage to risk revealing the hick in himself by saying, “The enthusiastic . . . reaction to the complete trilogy suggests that Jones is that rare thing, a truly popular playwright who communicates directly and clearly with his audience.”
Except for Lu Ann, the characters are not particularly interesting or memorable in themselves, even though the eccentric Colonel is strongly focused. Audiences will not think of them as they thought of Willie Loman and Blanche DuBois, nor do Jones’s characters speak as memorably as Miller’s and Williams’. But the trilogy is distinguished from the works of those playwrights by its remarkable pace. Unencumbered by the complexity of past history and present psychological anguish, Jones’s characters move across three decades in a theatrical time that is amazingly swift. With the artistic and commercially successful dramas of Miller and Williams, A Texas Trilogy—at least the first two plays—has this in common: dynamic, memorable images that are purely theatrical, that endow simple action, stereotyped characters, and colloquial speech with dramatic immediacy and a sense of significance that derives as much from the nature of the theatrical experience as from an authentic and moving depiction of the way we live.
The theatrical image that generates energy in The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia is the meeting room on the third floor of the Cattleman’s Hotel, a flea-bag relic of bygone prosperity. We see a cross, made of light bulbs, that will light up gaudily in Act II and go berserk, flashing off and on erratically, like the fitful hopes and animosities of the Knights themselves. The cross hangs behind a podium bearing a fading magnolia, between two filthy flags, “The Stars and Bars” and “Lone Star.” We see an old trunk; we will watch the Knights take their initiation hats out of it. On the walls we see old grimy banners representing the sun, the moon, and the west wind. As the curtain rises, we wonder what is about to happen in this peculiar setting....
(The entire section is 1974 words.)