Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

In an interview, Romulus Linney defined the point of the play as “the very unusual ways in which people find their . . . personal salvation . . . their adjustment to life, their . . . philosophy.” Holy Ghosts incisively examines rural southern folk. Most of the characters are social or psychological misfits, rejected by a disapproving society.

Central characters Coleman and Nancy Shedman dramatically epitomize the struggle of tormented lives to cope with existence. Nancy undergoes a journey of self-discovery, as does her husband. Yearning for the respected role of wife and mother, she has entrapped herself in an unhappy marriage, from which she seeks to escape by seizing upon the communal comfort proffered by a bizarre religious sect. She discovers that neither a sect peopled by the desperate nor an equally desperate husband incapable of inner change can give her fulfillment; she must earn it herself. Consequently, she freely chooses to learn an independent livelihood in the outside world; in so doing, she displays great strength. Coleman has inherited a joyless view of life, which has led him to a joyless marriage. His scornful attitude toward the snakehandlers is reversed when he discovers that his frustration and self-loathing are equal to their own, and he experiences an emotional catharsis in the church’s ophidian worship. Like the lawyer Canfield, another converted outsider, Coleman realizes a needed dependency on the sect’s faith and fellowship.

Coleman’s transformation takes place against the backdrop of the snakehandling sect’s worship. Its followers represent a spectrum of the dispirited and dispossessed. Through their communal tolerance and their church’s liturgy, these people have gained a relief and a hope they had never experienced in the outside world. Their dangerous ritual of snakehandling is therapeutic, for in worship they are transfigured by the conviction that they are in touch with a force, higher than the society that rejects them, that miraculously grants them the power to neutralize deadly serpents. The play points to people’s need to find adjustment and personal salvation, however strange or unconventional the means. Themes of tolerance and freedom of choice are also made evident in the action of the play.

Linney neither ridicules his characters nor indicts their belief, but treats them with compassion. “People in the grip of religious experience interest me,” Linney once said in discussing the play. “It affects them profoundly for the better.” Presenting a convincingly realistic portrait of people in the midst of such experience, he effectively demonstrates his central themes. The audience is reminded that the snake (a familiar image in religion), while reviled in the Garden of Eden, also is entwined around the caduceus of Mercury, messenger of the gods, as a symbol of healing.

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