Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Romulus Linney’s most widely produced play, Holy Ghosts, is not a sociological document about Pentecostal snakehandling (a form of worship founded in Appalachia around 1909), yet it stands as the best-known dramatic work on the subject and doubtless owes much of its well-deserved popularity to curiosity about the practice. Beyond that, however, Linney’s sensitive Pentecostal group portrait occupies a high rank in the canon of the author’s works.

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Reared in Tennessee and North Carolina, Linney has drawn upon his knowledge of the rural South for most of his plays. Tennessee (pr. 1979, pb. 1980) portrays an elderly Appalachian woman who recalls a frontier youth that restricted her own self-growth. Sand Mountain (pr., pb. 1985) encompasses two short folk plays: one about a discriminating young widow who rejects bragging men for a truth-telling widower, and a second about the visit to a mountaineer family of Saint Peter and a disguised Jesus. A Woman Without a Name (pr. 1985) concerns a turn-of-the-twentieth-century southern woman whose reenactment of past memories liberates her from despairing self-doubt and strengthens her sense of self-worth.

In another context, Holy Ghosts traces a pattern of action developed in many Linney dramas, in which his protagonists enter or mature in environments where they confront values foreign to or repressive of their individuality. Usually tempted or overcome by such values, these characters ultimately reach a decision to accept or reject them. Such a pattern is evident in at least three plays besides Holy Ghosts, Tennessee, and A Woman Without a Name. In The Sorrows of Frederick (pb. 1966, pr. 1967), Prussia’s Frederick the Great emerges as a king who forsakes great artistic and intellectual gifts to pursue power. In The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks (pr. 1972, pb. 1973), a military inquiry uncovers that a patriotic army general was so shattered by the Vietnam War that he undertook a ritualistic suicide to symbolize his despair. In Democracy and Esther (pb. 1973; revised as Democracy, pr. 1974), a combined dramatization of two Henry Adams novels, two intelligent women enter the Washington society of Ulysses S. Grant’s corruption-ridden administration and renounce offers to marry two charming, influential men whose values they abhor.

Also a novelist and television scriptwriter, Linney is a distinctive writer of uncommon literateness and artistry whose dramatic writing has garnered 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—and numerous productions. He ended the twentieth century with a host of plays, including Shotgun (pr. 1994), Oscar over Here (pr. 1995, pb. 2000), True Crimes (pr., pb. 1996), and Mountain Memory: A Play About Appalachian Life, (pb. 1997).

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