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.
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.