Romulus Linney (1931-2011)

The theater loses a true American playwright

The American theater’s ability to conceal its best gifts from itself and the world has probably never been better exemplified than in the career of Romulus Linney, who died on Saturday, January 15, age 80. That he was one of America’s best playwrights, that his output was dazzling in its variety and exceptional for its depth as well as its breadth of scope—these truths seemed to matter little even to our theater’s own mind. More important to it was the awareness that Linney was not a “commercial” playwright; that the artistic complexities he embodied kept even his simplest works from being readily marketable; that he did not tailor his scripts to fit any conventional set of demands.

So Romulus Linney lived and wrote, actively and uncompromisingly, in a kind of publicity limbo. His only Broadway production, an unresounding flop, occurred in 1972, on what now seems a different planet. I don’t know that he ever had a London production of note, and I doubt that anyone currently producing plays on Broadway or in London has ever read one of his works. So far as I know, he never wrote for television, either. He earned his bread teaching creative writing (which didn’t stop him from ridiculing creative-writing classes in one of his mordant one-acts). As a playwright, he pursued whatever matters caught his interest, without caring what anyone else thought. And he took such acclaim as came to him with the dignity of the man who pays his own way.

Such acclaim did come, from time to time. I am not the only person in the theater who has spent years telling others they ought to read, or produce, Romulus Linney’s plays. His neglect partly inspired the founding of New York’s Signature Theatre, which devotes each season to a single playwright; Linney was the first honoree. That season included a revised version of his Broadway mishap, The Love-Suicide at Schofield Barracks, and a revival of his other best-known play, The Sorrows of Frederick.

The Signature Theatre's first writer
The Signature Theatre's first writer

Taken together, the two plays give a measure of Linney’s approach, once you add that this man, brought up in the hills of North Carolina, also wrote a succession of folksy backwoods plays, variously realistic or mythic, about everything from snake handlers to shotgun weddings. A stock retailer of cornpone would not choose, for the central figure of a major work, the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great, militarist pipsqueak and Enlightenment aesthete. Even less probable would be his electing to confront the Vietnam War through the story of an Air Force general and his wife who terminate their connection with the military by adapting an ancient Japanese Kabuki play as officers’-club entertainment.

But Linney was the improbable artist who did both, and a great deal more besides. Goering at Nuremberg, Lord Byron’s daughter, the Washington novels of Henry Adams: Life, literature, and history were all his materials, not to be milled down into iconic emptiness, but to be explored for the values they might carry. He was, it now seems clear, the working definition of an American playwright. That he could not make more than a partial living from his plays, and that the recognition he could earn by them was so limited, are facts that America, in its current time of terrible transition, might find worth pondering.

 
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8 comments
Keith Fowler
Keith Fowler

I miss Romulus very much. I am just now writing a memoir that includes portions when we worked together on The Sorrows of Frederick, Democracy, Holy Ghosts, Love Suicides, and in '77 premiered Childe Byron, the play that led to a delightful censorship scandal at the Virginia Museum. He was a close comrade, had a great heart, and always dazzled me with his unique perspective. Farewell to a dear man.

Zbarsky888-care2
Zbarsky888-care2

Romulus certainly gave me, and probably most anyone who had the good fortune to orbit around his sun for awhile, much more than could ever be expected to be given back in return. He submerged, immersed, saturated, ate-drank-and-breathed himself into his passions and expressed these passions in his work...the theater, though he was devoted to her, never loved him enough.

Chris Schneider
Chris Schneider

That San Diego Rep production of "Holy Ghosts," the one Billhaven mentions, was a fine thing indeed. I didn't see in New York, but in San Diego where it started out it was superb.

Guest
Guest

I wish Mr. Fiengold were able to translate his feelings about authors like Linney, to other genres and styles which he's thrown rocks at over the years. When Mr. Fiengold uses the word 'theater' as if it were a single mind, he unthinkingly expresses the same attitude that gave authors like Linney a hard time.

Taylor Mac
Taylor Mac

Romulus was an early mentor of my playwriting. I still use techniques he taught me. He was the most detail oriented teacher I've ever had. He made me examine and justify each beat. It was a great gift to share time with him.

Taylor Mac

Dgsweet
Dgsweet

I had the pleasure of seeing several of his plays, including a couple of productions he directed himself. They are real Old Testament plays -- solid, passionate, unrelenting. I always thought of him as being the closest thing to an heir O'Neill had. I owe personal debts to him as well -- he is reason I got the NEA grant that launched me in the dubious profession of writing plays, and he was kind enough to invite me to join his staff teaching playwriting at the New School. One could hardly improve on the compliment of his good opinion. He gave the American theatre more than it acknowledged, which is a damn fucking shame.

Billhaven
Billhaven

A production of his play about snake handlers, "Holy Ghosts", that began at San Diego Rep and that moved to the Joyce in 1987 was one of the most thrilling productions I have ever seen.

 
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