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Remembering Romulus Linney

Article Published: Sep. 13, 2012 | Modified: Sep. 22, 2012
Remembering Romulus Linney

Romulus Linney
Photos courtesy of the Romulus Linney Papers at Appalachian State University

The oeuvre of playwright Romulus Linney did not earn him drippy gossip, but it did win him with respect.

He was the author of three novels, 13 plays and 22 one-acts that have been produced in the United States, Europe and Asia. His plays stand brave and fragrant; the memories he left stand tall and faithful.

Susan Cole, the 30-year theater director at Appalachian State University, was a friend of Linney’s.
On Aug. 28, she gave an hour-long talk at the Watauga County Public Library about the late playwright, a prelude to the two-day celebration of Linney’s life and work to be held at Appalachian State University on Sept. 20 and 21.

Linney adapted Henrik Ibsen’s play, “Peer Gynt,” to write “Gint.” He wrote plays about Oscar Wilde, the poet Anna Akhmatova, the Nuremberg trials and the Vietnam War. Cole elaborated on Linney’s six plays that espoused the Appalachian Mountains.

Born in Philadelphia, Linney was raised in Madison, Tenn., and spent his summers in Boone.

“A Southern childhood is a very primal thing,” Linney said in a 1987 interview. “I think Katherine Anne Porter said that what happens to you after you’re 10 years old doesn’t matter very much, but the things that happen before you were 10 matter a great deal.”

During his childhood is when, Cole said, he fell in love with the mountains, their people, the 19th century and folklore.

His loves only broadened as he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Oberlin College and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama.

Shortly after, he published his first book, “Heathen Valley,” based on the 1850s histories of the idealistic bishop who established the Valley Crucis Episcopal Mission.

Published as a play in 1988, the story carved the seal of Linney’s thoughtful style. Cole said, “A common theme in his Southern and Appalachian plays is that the people are resilient and strong worthwhile individuals,” prudent, though surrounded by stereotypes of mountain people as superstitious hillbillies.

Some of his other Appalachia inspired plays are “Holy Ghost,” “Mountain Memory,” “Unchanging Love” and “True Crimes.”

One play, “Tennessee,” based on 1870 folklore, is about a woman who will marry only the suitor that takes her to Tennessee. One verbally accepts her condition, and arranges a “stark wedding that led to a long, hard existence,” Cole said.

The new husband tricks the woman by driving for hours before homesteading seven miles from her childhood home. After her husband’s death, she decides to walk home from “Tennessee.” Grimy cowbell in hand, she stumbles onto her old homestead, mournful and muttering “Why, that man. That damn man.”

But the skeletal draftings of his 1970s and 1990s versions expose mute complexity. In one, a stranger encounters the deception and leaves it; in another the stranger tells the wife, kisses her, and is then shot dead by her husband. In yet another, a son of the couple gets bit by a snake and asks his father to kill him. The father, devastated, obliges by slitting the boy’s throat, and is then plagued by madness for the rest of his life.

“His plays gradually became more harsh,” Cole said. “They weren’t melodramatic, because they showed humanity. They evolved by versions.”

In 1991, he was chosen to be the first spotlighted writer at the Signature Theater Company, a New York company that devotes full seasons to presenting the work of a single playwright.

He won two Obie awards, one for sustained excellence in playwriting; two National Critics Awards; three Drama-Logue Awards; and many fellowships, including grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave him the Gold Medal for Drama, among others.

“When this is all over, my writing will add up to the sum total of me,” he said in a 1989 interview. “The choices I make with my writing have a lot to do with myself as an unfolding personality, so that in the end your writing is really your destiny.”

Linney Celebration

The two-day celebration of Linney’s life will include master acting classes (including one with Linney’s daughter, award-winning actress Laura Linney), workshops, craft lectures and the dedication and opening of the Romulus Linney Papers and exhibit at the Carol Grotnes Belk Library and Information Commons.

The celebration also features a tribute, with readings from Linney’s works, at Valborg Theatre on campus, as well as a reception at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts.

For more information, including a complete schedule, visit

Additional Images

Romulus Linney
Photos courtesy of the Romulus Linney Papers at Appalachian State University

Romulus Linney poses with wife Laura Callanan, left, and daughters Susan and Laura.

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