Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437
Childe Byron shares with a number of other Linney plays the dramatist’s interest in re-creating and reinterpreting historical figures and events. His first play, The Sorrows of Frederick (pb. 1966, pr. 1967), is a psychological study of Frederick William II of Prussia, which charts the monarch’s passage to the throne and his ultimate decline into despondency and madness as he abandons his youthful idealism and forsakes his artistic and intellectual gifts. As in Childe Byron, Linney uses a series of sketches—flashbacks brought to life—in order to illuminate both the historical Frederick and the political intrigue and web of social forces which made him the victim of his own life. A later play, Old Man Joseph and His Family: A Play in Two Acts (pr. 1977, pb. 1978), reexamines the life of Jesus Christ, showing Jesus as a cynical young rebel whose father never accepts his son’s miraculous birth.
Even when not focusing on historical figures, Linney often makes use of this structural framework, creating a series of retrospective scenes that lead the audience into the heart of the character and conflict. The protagonist of The Captivity of Pixie Shedman (pb. 1980, pr. 1981) is no Frederick the Great or Lord Byron, but a southern novelist who writes a book based on his deceased grandmother’s diary as a way of coming to terms with his problematic heritage. The play is essentially a parade of the writer’s ancestral ghosts who return to re-create incidents from the diary.
Central to the two kinds of plays that seem to engage Linney’s imagination as a dramatist (historical dramas and those that trace the peculiarities of small-town life in the American South) is the pattern of action for his main characters. These protagonists generally confront a world whose values, because different from their own, must be questioned before they are either embraced or rejected. Being outsiders of one sort or another, they are often shown to be victimized by the values they confront. In Holy Ghosts (pr. 1974, pb. 1977) a woman flees her brutish husband to join a snake-handling Pentecostal sect. When her husband appears at the height of the dangerous ritual, he gradually becomes a convert and she abandons the sect, finding redemption and independence on her own terms. It is this search for one’s own terms, the focus on characters shaping their own destinies by their choice of values, which distinguishes Linney’s work for the stage—work that has been recognized with several awards, including an American Theatre Critics Association Award in 1990, an Obie for Sustained Excellence in 1992, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Induction in 2002.
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