I came across a book of plays by Romulus Linney. I had not heard of him, but I bought the book and was quite taken with the plays. Here was a relatively unknown playwright whose plays were superior to most of the plays on Broadway. Some time after that, I learned that Romulus was the father of Laura Linney, an actress whose work I also admired. Talent does run in families.
I met Romulus Linney about two years after I had read the book. He was giving a weekend playwriting lab at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST), and I had taken courses
and labs at EST.
EST’s summer labs were held at Lexington, New York, in the Catskills. Kurt Dempster, the head of EST, was also at the lab the weekend I attended. While EST was mainly known for its Marathon of one-act plays, it also pushed the education of actors, directors and playwrights. Kurt Dempster had the ability to attach a number of distinguished playwrights to EST. These included Horton Foote and Romulus Linney, who not only contributed plays to the Marathon, but also taught master classes.
Romulus Linney was raised in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. His father was a physician. His great-grandfather, also named Romulus Linney, had been a Congressman from Tennessee.
After graduation from Oberlin College, Romulus Linney did a term of service in the Army. For a while, he was stationed in Japan. In Japan he learned the aesthetic virtue of simplicity. Japanese artists were able to make substantial imaginative work out of few materials. This later helped Romulus as a playwright of Off-Broadway and regional theatre, where his plays were presented by theatres with limited budgets.
After the Army, he obtained an M.F.A. in directing at Yale. He did some directing at Yale, and thereafter worked as a stage manage at the Actor’s Studio in New York, but realized he preferred writing. Initially he was a fiction writer. He had two novels published in the 1960’s, before he turned to mainly writing for the stage.
Romulus was never quite able to earn his living as a writer. He taught at a number of Ivy League Schools, including Yale and Columbia. He eventually retired from the New School, although he continued to do some teaching at EST and Sewanee College in Tennessee.
Yet his plays were consistently of high quality. They were imaginative and diverse and often very moving. Some of them achieved greatness. One such play was Childe Byron, presenting an imagined relationship between the ghost of Lord Byron and his daughter, who had been quite young when he died. Perhaps Romulus’s greatest play was 2, a study of Field Marshall Goerring at Nuremberg.
But Romulus Linney’s writing was not his only major contribution to the theatre. He also was an excellent teacher. I have spoken with former students of the New School, who were quite grateful for what they had learned from him. And I learned more about playwriting from him in one weekend than many students learn in a semester.
Romulus was of the playwriting school that believed in structure. More so than the novelist or poet, the playwright must proceed by certain rules. Romulus often cited Aristotle’s articulation of these rules. I had read Aristotle twice before, but with some hostility. Yet at that lab in the Catskills, I found myself finally able to accept Aristotle into my playwriting process.
Romulus Linney died on January 15, 2011, at the age of 80. He will be missed.