Romulus Linney was born in Philadelphia and reared in Madison, Tennessee. His father, a doctor and an avid outdoorsman, greatly influenced Linney’s life but died when Linney was thirteen. He and his mother moved to Washington, where she taught public speaking. After he was graduated from Oberlin College in 1953, Linney attended the Yale School of Drama, where he received an M.F.A. degree in directing in 1958. He began his writing career as a novelist, writing Heathen Valley in 1962 and Slowly, by Thy Hand Unfurled in 1965. After some struggling, he wrote his first play, The Sorrows of Frederick, and found his true voice. After that time, Linney wrote many plays. He was a member of New Dramatists for seven years, and he continued to write, lecture, and conduct workshops at several colleges in the New York area, where he settled.
Linney’s first attempt at Broadway, The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, while beautifully acted and staged, did not receive the necessary rave reviews to keep it running. Clive Barnes, in particular, complained of the script’s improbability: “The play could not . . . ever make a particularly convincing or satisfying evening in the theater.” Its subject matter, the double suicide of a general and his wife, was not palpable to the typical Broadway audience.
An imaginative writer, Linney wrote from two usually distinct points of view: the Tennessee-born background of such plays as Sand Mountain and A Woman Without a Name, and the cultured, historical perspective found in such works as Childe Byron and Pops, the latter being a series of short plays based on musical themes and reaching back in history to Hrosvitha, the tenth century German nun. Sand Mountain, actually two plays about the rural mountain life of Linney’s youth, contains a Christmas celebration, Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain, in which Jesus returns to earth to hear a mountain storyteller recount the story of the Nativity.
Linney succeeded tremendously well in the regional theaters, where his plays are well received by non-New York audiences. In New York, his plays get fine reviews when produced on the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) stages, in workshop and showcase productions, and Off-Broadway. Returning to Oberlin College as a guest speaker in 1990, Linney read from several of his works. A Woman Without a Name, a diary play in which the main character’s control of the English language improves as the play moves forward, was successful after various workshop productions. Linney has felt a continuing connection to the southeast. In 1996, Linney was in residence at Wake Forest University and earlier had taught or conducted workshops at other southern universities. His play Three Poets, three one-act plays centered on three female poets (Hrosvitha, Ono no Komachi, and Anna Akhmatova), was extremely successful in New York. In Louisville, at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, his play Two, about the second-in-command under Adolf Hitler, was well received in 1990; his six short plays gathered under the title Pops, and each having a musical theme, continued to be performed all over the United States in various venues.
Linney served as professor of arts at Columbia University and adjunct professor of playwriting at the Actors Studio M.F.A. Program at the New School for Social Research.
From 1997 to 2000 he served on the Tony Award nominating committee. His memberships included the Council of the Dramatists Guild, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Advisory Board of the Institute of Outdoor Drama. Linney died on January 15, 2011 at age 80.
Romulus Linney was one of the most widely produced playwrights on the American regional theater circuit, achieving the distinction without resorting to the commercialism of Broadway or Hollywood. Born in Philadelphia but reared in rural Tennessee, he lost his father at the age of thirteen, a tragedy that forced his family to move to Washington, D.C. The happy memories of those early years, however, were to inform his work, especially the rural plays of simple mountain folk. The bright, introspective young man was educated at Oberlin College, then attended the Yale School of Drama, receiving the M.F.A. in directing in 1958. After some experiments in prose writing (including Heathen Valley, which was published in 1962), Linney found his dramatic voice with The Sorrows of Frederick, a complex, nonlinear discovery of the private Frederick II inside the great public general. Since then, produced in most major cities in the United States and widely respected in Europe, Linney received virtually every national award for playwriting, including the National Endowment for the Arts Award (1974), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1980), and a citation from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1984). He enjoyed long-term relationships with many leading new theater companies involved in play development, including New Dramatists, Philadelphia Festival for New Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Repertory Theatre, and the Mark Taper Forum. In Canada, England, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, productions of Linney’s plays have been included among the best American dramatic works.
Linney’s plays can be divided into two fairly distinct kinds. His historical dramas, such as The Sorrows of Frederick and Childe Byron, portray the conflict between personal integrity and public compromise. The most complex example of this genre is The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, a postmodernist piece that dramatizes the retelling of a dual suicide by staging a reproduction of the tragedy itself, while witnesses testify to their role in the events that led up to it. With the production of Holy Ghosts, the regional theater world heard Linney’s other voice: the dramatic spokesperson for the rustic charms and simple values of Appalachia. More positive in theme and more romantic in treatment, the “Appalachian” plays celebrate the native storytelling abilities of mountain folks, re-created from Linney’s deeply remembered childhood. Holy Ghosts (still Linney’s most frequently produced play) is the story of strong-willed Nancy Shedman, who is converted to a Fundamentalist religion that uses snakes in its ceremony and who, in turn, converts the conformist community to her independent ways. The Shedman saga continues in other Linney folk plays, notably The Captivity of Pixie Shedman.
Two one-act plays collectively called Sand Mountain exploit the natural storytelling arts of Appalachia and once again dramatize a strong-willed woman teaching men the value of independent thinking. These tales take advantage of the built-in drama of oral tradition, in which the storyteller acts out the tale while reciting it. In Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain (which, with Sand Mountain Matchmaking, comprises Sand Mountain), a rural mountain family is asked by the Lord to “tell” the story of the birth of Christ. Their enactment of the ancient story, adding their own personal interpretations, is a model of what Linney himself does with his folk plays, bringing a fresh, personal approach to the storytelling art.
A short play trio collectively entitled Three Poets skillfully delineates three women of disparate centuries who fight courageously for their lives and art: Komachi, Hrosvitha, and Akhmatova. Another threefold play collection called Spain forcefully treats themes of guilt and responsibility in the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.
A work that departs from Linney’s usual subject matter is Pops, a series of short plays for six actors, showing Linney’s understanding of the structure both of dramaturgy and of the human heart. Scenes move back and forth through time, accompanied (as in many of Linney’s works) by music that underscores the mood of each piece.
Heathen Valley, adapted from Linney’s 1962 novel, is an award-winning minor masterpiece treating the struggle between primitivism and theological dogmatism in a remote North Carolina town. Unchanging Love, another play set in the rural American South, weaves a tale of compassionate morality versus greed as a store-owning family prospers by exploiting impoverished neighbors.
A National Theatre Critics Award winner, Two perceptively explores the self-deceptive character of Hermann Göring at the 1945-1946 Nuremberg Trials. Göring ferociously and jestingly defies the Tribunal, generates racism in two American guards, manipulates his own suicide, and blames his crimes on humankind’s base nature and the prejudice existing in every country.
The critics’ reception of Linney’s canon has been positive. He gained a following both Off-Broadway and in major American regional theaters. Linney proved an excellent example of how regional playwrights and theatres can bypass Broadway to discover, nurture, and present an authentic American voice. Linney’s plays, which deal with substantive issues while remaining theatrical, evince by their range of structural variety an imaginative craftsman who stands as a major talent among contemporary dramatists.