In the mid-1970s, I was assigned a piece by an in-flight magazine distributed on American Airlines. The story focused on three playwrights who first came to the theater community’s attention in regional theaters. The three playwrights were David Mamet, Marsha Norman and Preston Jones. I interviewed all three by phone.
I was friendly with Mamet from our days working with some of the same people in Chicago, so that was easy. The interview with Norman was the beginning of a relationship, which has continued to the present, as we both serve on the Dramatists Guild Council, and I interviewed her again for my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. My only contact with Preston Jones was the phone call for the article, and he didn’t say very much.
I think he didn’t say very much because I was calling from New York, and not too long before he had made his Broadway debut as a playwright and been shot down by the New York critics. The debut was an unusual one – three plays performed in rep under the title Texas Trilogy. The plays had been enormously successful in Texas and around the country before the New York run. My hunch is that a call from the place that had slammed the door on him was no his idea of pleasure. I don’t have a copy of the article handy, but I remember barely squeezing three or four quotable sentences out of him.
As it happens, Texas Trilogy didn’t last long enough in New York for me to see any of the plays. I gather he wrote a few more plays before he died at age 43 in 1979. I didn’t get to see those either.
I have finally caught up with one of them via a TV production dating from 1980. The Oldest Living Graduate is a portrait of an aging and cranky landowner in a small Texas town in 1962. Colonel Kincaid graduated from a Texas military academy and saw action in WWI, an experience that remains vivid in his memory. (Several of those who were students with him at the academy were killed.) Now, stuck in a wheelchair, he is in a permanent war with the modern world, and he is having a particular struggle with his son, Floyd, who wants to convert a chunk of the family property into luxury lake front homes for rich people. Kincaid is not exactly a lovable character. He is a racist and he is impossible to the people with the unlucky task of looking after him. What keeps us engaged is that occasionally he reveals a gentler, poetic side.
I don’t think it’s a lost masterpiece. It is constructed so programmatically that much of its plot is telegraphed. But the best passages are reminiscent of another Texas dramatist, Horton Foote, in that they provide what feels like an authentic sense of the cadences and perspectives of a small town in that state. It is an affectionate but clear-eyed view of people unashamed of their insularity, and I would guess that one would encounter people similar to these characters on a visit to certain towns in Texas today.
I can particularly recommend the TV production now available through Amazon Prime. Directed by Delbert Mann (one of the legendary figures of the golden age of live television in the Fifties and the Oscar-winning director of the film Marty), the cast is astonishing – Henry Fonda, George Grizzard, Cloris Leachman, Henry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow, Penelope Milford, David Ogden Stiers and a very young Timothy Hutton. Grizzard won a well-earned Emmy for his performance as the colonel’s wheeler-dealer son, but the dazzler for me is Leachman. Those who know Leachman primarily from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Young Frankenstein may be surprised by how she utterly disappears into the role of the colonel’s beleaguered daughter-in-law. In fact, it took me a minute to realize it was Leachman on the screen. (Another staggering performance from her worth digging up is in a TV movie called The Migrants written by Lanford Wilson. She looks as if she stepped out of a Walker Evans photograph. Film buffs will also remember that she won an Oscar for her searing performance in The Last Picture Show.)
The production was shot live in a Dallas theater in front of an audience, and the actors do well both projecting to the house and maintain sufficient restraint to meet the requirements of television. It’s not a great American play, but it’s a valuable one.