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.
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.
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.
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...
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