Authors: Romulus Linney

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works


The Sorrows of Frederick, pb. 1966

Goodbye Howard, pr. 1970

The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, pr. 1972

Democracy and Esther, pb. 1973 (adaptation of Henry Adams's novels Democracy and Esther; revised as Democracy, pr. 1974)

Holy Ghosts, pr. 1974

The Seasons, Man's Estate, pr. 1974

Appalachia Sounding, pr. 1975

Old Man Joseph and His Family: A Play in Two Acts, pr. 1977

Childe Byron, pr. 1977

Just Folks, pr. 1978

The Death of King Philip, pr. 1979

Tennessee, pr. 1979

The Captivity of Pixie Shedman, pb. 1980

El Hermano, pr., pb. 1981

Laughing Stock, pr., pb. 1984 (includes Tennessee, Goodbye Howard, and F.M.)

The Soul of a Tree, pr. 1984

Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain, pr., pb. 1984

Wrath, pr. 1985 (as part of The Show of the Seven Deadly Sins)

Sand Mountain, pr., pb. 1985 (includes Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain and Sand Mountain Matchmaking)

A Woman Without a Name, pr. 1985

Pops, pr. 1986 (6 short plays; includes Can Can, Clair de Lune, Ave Maria, Gold and Silver Waltz, Yankee Doodle, and Songs of Love)

Heathen Valley, pr. 1987 (adaptation of his novel)

Juliet, pr. 1988

Pageant, pr. 1988 (with others; music and lyrics by Michael Rice)

Precious Memories, pr. 1988, pr. 1989 (as Unchanging Love; adaptation of an Anton Chekhov story)

Three Poets, pr. 1989 (3 oneact plays; includes Komachi, Hrosvitha, and Akhmatova)

Two, pr. 1990

Can Can, pr., pb. 1991

Ambrosio, pr. 1992

Romulus Linney: Seventeen Short Plays, pb. 1992

Spain, pr. 1993

Six Plays, pb. 1993 (includes F.M., Childe Byron, Tennessee, Two, April Snow, and Heathen Valley)

Shotgun, pr. 1994

Oscar over Here, pr. 1995

A Christmas Carol, pr. 1995 (adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel)

True Crimes, pr., pb. 1996

Mountain Memory: A Play About Appalachian Life, pb. 1997

Gint: A Play in Two Acts from Henrik Ibsen's “Peer Gynt,” pr. 1998

Goodbye Oscar, pr., pb. 1999

A Lesson Before Dying, pr. 2000 (adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines's novel)

Nine Adaptations for the American Stage, pb. 2000 (includes Gint, Oscar over Here, True Crimes, Unchanging Love, A Woman Without a Name, The Unwritten Song, Lark, A Lesson Before Dying, and Strindberg)

Long Fiction:

Heathen Valley, 1962

Slowly, by Thy Hand Unfurled, 1965

Jesus Tales, 1980


The Thirty-fourth Star, 1976


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.{$I[AN]9810001105}{$I[A]Linney, Romulus}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Linney, Romulus}{$I[tim]1930;Linney, Romulus}

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.

BibliographyDiGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. An interview with Linney that concentrates on his influences (Pär Lagerkvist, the Swedish playwright and novelist among them) and on the relationship between language and writing for the theater. Includes good discussions of several works, including Childe Byron.Disch, Thomas M. “Holy Ghosts.” The Nation 245 (September 19, 1987): 282-283. Disch is impressed with virtually all of Linney’s New York work; he claims that Holy Ghosts should be a standard like the works of Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen. The essay provides an overview of Linney’s work and addresses his Broadway problems and Clive Barnes’s unfavorable review of The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks.Disch, Thomas M. “Theater.” The Nation 252 (March 18, 1991): 355-356. When Linney’s play Unchanging Love moved from its premiere performance in Milwaukee to its New York premiere with the same director, John Dillon, Disch once again took the opportunity to speak highly of Linney’s whole canon.Linney, Romulus. “An Interview with Romulus Linney.” Interview by Don B. Wilmeth. Studies in American Drama 2 (1986). Discusses Linney’s ideas.Linney, Romulus. “Romulus Linney on ‘Sublime Gossip.’” Interview by Harold Tedford. Southern Theatre 38 (Spring, 1997): 26-32. Linney discusses his background and motivations for the three types of plays he writes: historical plays, Appalachian dramas, and a “grab-bag of personal plays” inspired by friends in the arts and Army experiences. He states his view that literature is more or less sublime gossip but has to be good gossip at its best.Moe, Christian H. “Romulus Linney.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by Thomas Riggs. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999. Contains a critical essay, a chronology, and biographical details. Observes that Linney’s dramas often develop protagonists who enter into or mature in environments in which they confront repressive values that either tempt or victimize them. These characters test or evaluate such values against their own needs and beliefs and ultimately determine to accept or reject them.Rich, Frank. “Theater: Holy Ghosts Salvation for the Lonely.” The New York Times, August 12, 1987, p. C17. In this review of Holy Ghosts, Rich finds that Linney “unfurls an arresting sensibility closer to that of Eudora Welty than Sinclair Lewis.”
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