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Romulus Linney

By A. R. Gurney

Romulus, or “Rom” as we knew him in our salad days at the Yale School of Drama, was a man who even in those relatively conformist days liked to stretch beyond boundaries. Arriving in New Haven at the same time as I did in 1955, both of us fresh from a tour of duty in the military, he enrolled in the School as a director, but went on to spend a good deal of his time there learning the craft of the actor. I can’t remember what particular works he directed, but I certainly remember his performances. He played a number of parts over the three years we were there, and since he was young, handsome, and athletic, everyone wanted to cast him in various classroom projects as well as in the more public performances of the School. I remember him most vividly playing what became known as “the Stewart Granger role,” namely Apollodorus in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, leaping from parapet to plinth, reciting lines about life and love. All the young would-be actresses during our three years at the Drama School seemed to be in love with Romulus Linney, and indeed, a few years after we both graduated, he married Margaret Andrews, who was generally considered to be the most talented of that lovely chorus at that time.

After graduating, Rom and I went in different directions, but I soon was surprised to hear that Romulus had not been acting or writing plays, but had produced a successful novel called Heathen Valley. This work, I believe, was pretty much his first public foray into the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, where he grew up and where he would stake his own special claim. After the novel, he turned primarily to playwriting, producing a wealth of work, long and short, set primarily in Appalachia, and soon established a solid reputation as a “southern playwright.” Working with the quirky events, distinctive rhythms of speech, rich imagery, and imaginative religious perspectives of this particular milieu, he hammered out a style of writing and type of play which was uniquely American and uniquely his, and the territory he carved out in this area he had pretty much to himself.

But he didn’t always settle there. Once again he began to stretch beyond the immediate horizons he had established for himself. His play The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, produced on Broadway in the early 70s, dealt with American responsibility and guilt for the Vietnam War. The Sorrows of Frederick probed the tensions between the pulls of power and aesthetic instincts in the life of Frederick the First of Prussia. Childe Byron was about Lord Byron’s relationship with his brilliant daughter, a play which was influenced by Romulus’s own feelings about his talented daughter Laura who was beginning to achieve exceptional success in the theatre and on film. He went on to write plays about the temptations of the flesh for a medieval monk (Ambrosio), the nature of evil (entitled simply 2), about Hitler’s number two man Hermann Goering, and A Lesson Before Dying, his popular adaptation of the Ernest J. Gaines novel, dealing with Southern justice and a Black hero facing the death penalty. Romulus also wrote what you might call “spin offs” of plays by Chekhov, Wilde, and Strindberg, and a play and later an opera libretto based on the Henry Adams novel Democracy.

Romulus’s plays, of course, have been produced in many theaters in many places for many years. He was the first playwright to be recognized for his body of work by the Signature Theatre. His deft one-acts have appeared many times in the spring festivals of the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Manhattan Theatre Club. He has been produced by the Theatre for a New City and other off-Broadway organizations. He has lectured both at the Century and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters on “The Language of Illiteracy,” where he explored the special qualities of rural American speech. His work has been celebrated a large number of times by honors and awards, the most recent being the distinguished Gold Medal for Drama, awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where he was a longtime and active member.

Yet once again, Romulus was never content to simply cut a wide swath in dramatic material and achieve significant recognition as an American playwright. As fervently as he was involved in his own craft, he was also eager to share it with the next generation. There were very few years when he didn’t spend at least a term teaching plays and playwriting at various colleges, universities, and professional organizations. He was an instructor or lecturer or adjunct professor on the faculties of Yale, Columbia, and Princeton. He commuted weekly to teach for several years at the University of Pittsburgh. He taught at the New School and the Actor’s Studio. I had the honor of being invited several times to visit a class of his, and I was always struck by the passion of his commitment, the openness of his responses to student material, and the devotion he inspired in his pupils.

His fiery love of the theater and his eagerness to create more acolytes was not limited simply to academia. Romulus went to the theatre all the time, and had his eye peeled for new original talent wherever he went. Whenever possible, he was instrumental in discovering and recognizing gifted younger writers, recommending them for awards and grants, pointing them towards productions, celebrating them in his own interviews. To Romulus Linney, the theatre was a commodious tent for those who demonstrated a desire and an ability to write for it, and the willingness to submit to its aesthetic restrictions. More than any other contemporary playwright, he was active in seeking out and welcoming newcomers to the craft. This is not to say that Romulus was always the genial host. Insisting on excellence, he could be explosively impatient with the fatuous, the negligent, or the pretentious, and though he belonged to many organizations and sat on many committees over the years, I suspect there are very few where he didn’t at one time or another explode in anger and stalk from the room. He was truly un homme de theatre, protean in his talents, devoted in his commitments, and one of the best playwrights our beleaguered profession has been able to produce.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters