The Play

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912

As Holy Ghosts opens, a young woman, Nancy Shedman, sweeps out a sparsely furnished room in a ramshackle house that contains stacked folding chairs, benches, and an old piano. She has just fled her husband of one year to join a group of Pentecostal Christians offering her sanctuary in their farmhouse-church. Disillusioned by a childless marriage punctuated by beatings and drunkenly ineffectual lovemaking, Nancy has left home with her husband’s furniture, possessions, and pickup truck. Aiding her in the move was Obediah Buckhorn, Jr. (called Oby), a passerby camper volunteering scriptural consolation who took her to his preacher father for counseling.

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In act 1, Nancy is surprised by the entrance of her irate husband, Coleman, a redneck owner-manager of a fish farm. Hurt and humiliated, he accuses Nancy of infidelity and demands both the return of his chattels and a divorce. To facilitate the latter, Coleman has brought Rogers Canfield, an elderly alcoholic lawyer escaping a depressing retirement. The shabby but gentlemanly Canfield enforces a testimonial procedure for the angry couple to air grievances. Oby, a huge, childlike man, arrives and is reviled by Coleman for adulterous wife-stealing. Oby corroborates Nancy’s story of the drunkenly abusive behavior that impelled her departure, Oby’s celibate involvement, and his father’s proposal of marriage—thereby astonishing Coleman, who thought Oby his rival. Agreeable to divorce but not to returning possessions claimed as her just due, Nancy hotly refutes Coleman’s portrayal of himself as a caring husband betrayed by a perfidious wife.

As the Shedmans argue, a motley group of poor white southerners intermittently arrive, gathering for a religious service. One carefully carries in two large wooden boxes. The group is a strange collection of human flotsam, including a terminal cancer victim named Cancer Man, a grief-deranged owner of a dead bird dog, an expelled female Sunday school teacher, two hot-tempered but affectionate homosexual construction workers, a lady churchgoer made outcast for raising her skirts for any “good Christian boy,” a shotgun-wedded couple with baby, and the simple-minded Oby. The irrepressibly foul-mouthed Coleman overtly jeers at the oddness of the gathering.

The aging Reverend Obediah Buckhorn, Sr., enters, fondly kisses Nancy “with a gleam in his eye,” calmly forestalls Coleman’s rude queries, and announces the service to begin. The pastor’s followers swiftly rearrange the room, placing the wooden boxes next to a makeshift altar. An erected sign reads, “Amalgamation Holiness Church of God with Signs Following.” After hymns and prayers, Buckhorn welcomes Nancy to the fold. Impatiently, Coleman interrupts the service and, refusing to budge until his marital dispute is resolved, seats himself on the boxes. Kicking them in anger, he discovers them to contain deadly snakes and cries incredulously to the congregation, “My God. You’re Pentecostal snakehandlers.”

The audience learns that the sect’s faith is based on a literal reading of Mark 16:17-18, which asserts the believers’ salvation from damnation, signified when “in my name . . . they cast out devils. . . . They shall take up serpents. . . . ” Should a follower be bitten and die, it is a sign of insufficiency of faith.

In act 2, Buckhorn responds to Coleman’s accusation with the admission that their religion is illegal and dangerous, confessing that absent members do lie seriously ill or dead. Coleman entreats Nancy not to stay in this “insane asylum,” but she refuses to leave. The congregation rallies around her and retaliates to Coleman’s gibes with anger and supplication. Aware of the skeptic in their midst, the church members present self-revelatory testimonials illuminating their private torments and reasons for embracing a religion of acceptance, fellowship, and faith. Buckhorn’s revelation that he has fathered seventeen children and buried five wives causes Nancy to reconsider his marriage proposal. He responds to Coleman’s denunciation of the congregation as lunatics and fakers with an eloquently impassioned recital of the sect’s creed and history, pleading with Nancy to choose between him and her husband.

As the followers sing to assuage their anger, Coleman asks Nancy not to marry “that old man” and to accompany him home, where he will change his ways. Slowly convincing Nancy of his good intentions, he notices that the congregation has stopped singing to listen to them. Enraged, he curses them for listening as he tries to talk with “my goddamn stupid wife”; losing control, he strikes Nancy. Despite his immediate contrition, she knows that he will never change, and she rejects him. Coleman sobs.

Stressing that only the Lord offers surcease from suffering, Buckhorn continues the service, now intensifying with Scripture reading and singing. Cancer Man takes out a snake and challenges Coleman to test God by doing the same. Wracked with as much pain and frustration as anyone present, Coleman takes up snakes with terror and, amazed that he is not bitten, cries out his conversion. The congregation erupts into spiritual frenzy. All shake with spasms, speak in tongues, and handle snakes—except for Nancy, who has distanced herself. Even the lawyer Canfield has now become a convert. Reaching a cathartic climax, the exhausted worshipers return the snakes to their boxes. Falling on his knees, Coleman begs to join the church, realizing who he is and where his salvation lies. Determined to go to business school and make her own way, Nancy announces her decision to leave. Bidding the congregation farewell, she departs in awareness that her salvation lies not with them but within herself. The congregation, renewed in faith, sings exultantly as the play ends.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

The play’s themes of personal salvation, self-realization, and tolerance are artfully highlighted by a conflict between a painfully frustrated husband and wife, who travel toward wholeness and end at opposite destinations. Dramatic changes in the Shedmans take place during a snakehandling sect’s worship service. The implicit theatricality of the sect’s bizarre and dangerous worship lends impact to both theme and action, in act 2 culminating in the frenzied climax of the snakehandlers’ cathartic ritual, which effects Coleman’s transformation. Around the Shedmans’ contentious relationship, Romulus Linney creates a group portrait of dispirited Fundamentalists who have found a type of grace and the binding kinship of shared belief.

Exposition delineating the nature and motivations of the characters gives voice to Linney’s thematic concerns in several ways. The initial confrontation between the Shedmans establishes their contentious personalities and is the first of many clashes that generate reactions from those around them. Further revelation of situation and character, which now extends to Oby and Canfield, is provided by the lawyer’s insistence on a testimonial procedure in act 1. This procedure foreshadows the church members’ self-revelatory testimonials. These testimonials expose the bleak past of the worshipers as well as exercising their communal protection of Nancy and one another and the defense of their faith against Coleman, the intolerant intruder. His insulting skepticism is contrasted with the patience, tolerance, and faith of the sect members and the soon-to-be-converted Canfield. The play’s characters are effectively orchestrated to display their similarities and differences.

Linney regards his characters sympathetically, never satirizing them as country bumpkins or sentimentalizing them. His compassionate humor leads the audience to care for the characters. Human frailties and tattered souls are disclosed with strong lacings of comedy: For example, the slow-witted Oby, a former pinsetter, talks of “the religious nature of bowling”; Nancy describes explicitly the ludicrous sexual failure of her bibulous husband, who is prone to passing out during lovemaking; and the pastor’s Bluebeard-like marital history is comedic in its extent. There are additional comic shadings given to characters. Even Coleman gathers audience sympathy as his confused anxieties increase and his inflexibilities are unmasked. Moreover, the language of the folk parishioners reveals a richness of imagery and metaphor, best exemplified in the Reverend Buckhorn’s biblical eloquence.


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Sources for Further Study

DiGaetani, John L. “Romulus Linney.” In A Search for Postmodern Theatre: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, edited by John L. DiGaetani. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Disch, Thomas M. Review in The Nation, September 19, 1987, pp. 282-284.

Moe, Christian H. “Romulus Linney.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Tedford, Harold. “Romulus Linney on ’Sublime Gossip’.” Southern Theatre 38 (Spring, 1997): 26-32.

Wilmeth, Don B. “Romulus Linney.” In American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip Kolin. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Wilmeth, Don B. “Romulus Linney.” In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

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Critical Essays