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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1588

Music, virtually always present in his work, is Romulus Linney’s universal metaphor for the harmonies and cadences of human interaction. Linney stated that, because his plays are often episodic, they fall into a natural structural rhythm, like music. His words are musical as well; Linney’s works reveal his fine ear...

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Music, virtually always present in his work, is Romulus Linney’s universal metaphor for the harmonies and cadences of human interaction. Linney stated that, because his plays are often episodic, they fall into a natural structural rhythm, like music. His words are musical as well; Linney’s works reveal his fine ear for dialogue, especially for the regionalisms embedded in folktales, old saws, and sayings, and figurative language born of the mountain life. An authenticity of expression, along with a sensitivity to linguistic rhythms, characterizes Linney’s dialogue. From a position of healthy skepticism rather than cynicism, Linney sees a world of humor and warmth, in which the search for relationships based on mutual respect is never ending.

Despite his rural childhood, Linney was a sophisticated and very well-read author, drawing on his education and scholarly research as much as on his personal experiences to bring a surprisingly simple but authentic worldview to his work. Fascinated by the storytelling traditions of Appalachia, Linney found a gold mine of material in the folktales of that region. Yet what separates his work from the anthropologist’s was his ability to exploit the inherent dramatic qualities of the storytellers themselves.

Appalachian Plays

In Linney’s mountain plays, he makes use of the natural storytelling power of the stage to spin fascinating yarns about simple folk whose intuitive understanding of human relationships is expressed in superstitious old wives’ tales. The action is often the dramatization of a story to witnesses—a play-within-a-play device that works well because the characters are natural storytellers. Linney’s own storytelling powers are enhanced by this format because the characters, by their attitudes toward the value of tall tales, reinforce for the audience the magical qualities of theatrical reenactment. Yet Linney’s work never descends to simple recitation; the personality of the storyteller, the reactions of the character-listener, and the presence of “something at stake” for both always keep the dramatic tension intact.

Sand Mountain

The best illustration of the texture of Linney’s mountain plays is the one-act play Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain, which, together with Sand Mountain Matchmaking, constitutes the evening of drama Sand Mountain. An old mountain woman named Sang Picker (she gathers ginseng root for a living) asks the audience if they know any good “Smoky Mountain head benders,” and proceeds to tell one of her own, a story that comes alive before her as the Lord and Peter enter, looking for Sand Mountain. When they find Jack, Jean, and Fourteen Children (played by one actor), the Lord and Peter are treated to another story: a reenactment of the conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus, reared by Joseph (acted by Jack) and Mary (acted by Jean), embellished with apocryphal details. “He’d come to Sand Mountain,” Sang Picker tells the audience, “to hear tell about his Daddy, and Mary and hisself as a child, and he had.” Jean supplies the moral (a favorite of Linney): “Hit ain’t the ending whut’s important. Hit’s the beginning.”

Sand Mountain Matchmaking pursues the dramatic potential of the courtship ritual. The widow Rebecca listens patiently to three suitors (in the traditional folktale format), then follows the bizarre but effective advice (“Cure a cold sore—kiss a dog”) of an old mountain woman. The final match is an equal partnership based on mutual honesty.

Holy Ghosts

One early success, which has been re-created in many regional theaters, is Holy Ghosts, about a primitive Fundamentalist sect that uses snakes in its worship services. A convert to this religion, Nancy Shedman, leaves her husband, Colman, to marry the old father of the religion, Obediah Buckhorn; Colman follows her to the church and debunks her quasi-religious conversion. At the play’s climax, however, Nancy chooses neither her husband nor her “savior”; she exercises a newfound independence from both and leaves for business school. Thematically, Linney deals with the shortcomings of unquestioning obedience (implied in Obediah’s name), but Nancy’s decision is a typical Linney signature: women turning their backs on men, the weaker sex.

In a Woman Without a Name

In A Woman Without a Name (based on Linney’s novel Slowly, by Thy Hand Unfurled), serious in theme and tone, the nameless central figure keeps a journal, clumsily at first, but more and more articulately as the years pass. In the journal, she collects her feelings about the loss of her children one by one, the guilt she feels because she believes that she has somehow caused their deaths, and the indifference of the men in her life to her longing to express herself and to live a full life. The outcome of the play, partially drawing on historical fact, finds her the leader of a temperance society: “Anneal, Journal, Standard Dictionary: to put to the fire, then to freezing cold. To temper. To toughen. To make enduring. That is the word I understand now.” The play bears a resemblance to The Captivity of Pixie Shedman, in which a young man reads the diary of his grandmother and learns of her exploitation by the men in her life, who treated her like property.

Two full-length dramas of the 1990’s set in Appalachia reflect a dark mood. Unchanging Love, based on an Anton Chekhov story, sharply unveils the dishonest mendacity and lack of social compassion within a merchant family. True Crimes, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s Vlast tmy (pb. 1887; The Power of Darkness, 1888) exposes the degradation of a shiftless young backwoods lout whose lust and greed drives him to adultery, murder, and the rejection of confession of guilt so that a profitable marriage will not be impeded. Supportive of the play with reservations, critics praised Linney for not caricaturing or sentimentalizing his Appalachian figures.

Historical Plays

Linney’s erudition and penchant for scholarly research are most clearly seen in his historical dramas, which in his hands become dramatic expressions of the chasm between the conceived ideal and the practical application of that ideal in an imperfect world. Democracy and Esther, later titled simply Democracy, is a dramatic combination of two Henry Adams novels. As in Holy Ghosts, the women in the play prove to be the strongest characters, declining offers of marriage from seemingly eligible men whose strength of character does not fulfill the women’s expectations. Another historical drama, Childe Byron, deals with an imaginary meeting of Lord Byron and his estranged daughter, Ada, who challenges her father to justify his wretched life, in a mock trial at the moment of her death.

The Sorrows of Frederick

Frederick II, in The Sorrows of Frederick, abandons an important battle to attend the funeral of his dog; his greatest military triumphs are always marred by a personal loss. In Linney’s portrait, Frederick is forceful, clearheaded, and single-minded in public affairs but almost pathetically inept in dealing with his personal life. His friendship with Voltaire, his unconsummated marriage to Elizabeth Christine, and especially his love for Fredersdorf, a childhood comrade, are all clumsily handled, while his military victories often come fortuitously, without effort. Linney dramatizes the complex career of Frederick through a series of time changes, moving backward and forward from pivotal public events to the significant personal events that exacerbate or ameliorate them.

The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks

One of the most complex storytelling devices Linney has ever employed is used in the essentially antiwar play The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks. Here, by the specific instructions of the General of Schofield Barracks, his own public suicide, along with his wife’s, is reenacted by the officers and witnesses to the tragedy on the morning after the deaths. By means of disparate testimonies, which give a multiple perspective of the General’s personality, the complex motives of his act are examined.

Laughing Stock

Linney is perhaps most comfortable in the short-play format, where his storytelling abilities transform human relationships into entertaining yarns with warm-hearted morals. Laughing Stock consists of three fairly short pieces, at the same time comic and touching. Tennessee tells the story of a woman whose husband promised to take her to Tennessee, only to drive in circles until she was only seven miles from her childhood home. Goodbye Howard, despite its hospital setting, is a comedy in which three elderly sisters prematurely announce the death of their brother, only to discover that they have simply got off the elevator on the wrong floor. In F.M., which takes place in a college writing class, a Faulkner-like novelist pours out his heart in the classroom, incidentally reminding the teacher of her own sidetracked talent and writing career.

Pops

The most ambitious collection of short plays, however, is Pops, a series of six short plays on the theme of love, designed to be performed by the ideal company of actors: juvenile, ingenue, leading man, leading lady, character man, and character woman. Sometimes working with historical material (as in “Ave Maria”) and sometimes with the present (as in the delightful “Tonight We Love”), Linney finds the universal question in all love stories: whether two people fall in love through fate or through their own efforts.

Spain

Spain, another collection of three short plays (Torquemada, Anna Rey, Escobedo de la Aixa), forcefully compels a critical look at religiosity and crises of conscience in the fifteenth and twentieth centuries. The playlets are linked by the fifteenth century Abbot Escobedo, who humanely treats the insane and is persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. His life furnishes an inspiring example that restores a despondent twentieth century psychiatrist to normalcy.

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