Romulus Linney, Prolific Writer of Erudite Plays, Dies at 80

By Robert Simonson
January 16, 2011

Romulus Linney, a respected playwright who wrote dozens of plays on a wide variety of subjects over a multi-decade career, and who achieved a different sort of fame in later years as the father of actress Laura Linney, died Jan. 15 at his home in Germantown, NY. He was 80.



 

Romulus Linney, a respected playwright who wrote dozens of plays on a wide variety of subjects over a multi-decade career, and who achieved a different sort of fame in later years as the father of actress Laura Linney, died Jan. 15 at his home in Germantown, NY. He was 80.

Mr. Linney never achieved the status of household name, but in theatre circles he was considered a writer's writer, the kind of steady intellectual talent who is routinely referred to as unsung. James Houghton, the founder of the Signature Theatre Company, which devotes each season to the work of a single playwright, felt so strongly about Mr. Linney's oeuvre that he devoted the troupe's inaugural 1991 season to his plays.

 

The plays featured in that line-up are illustrative of Mr. Linney's wide-ranging interests. The Sorrows of Frederick told the story of Frederick the Great, the 18th-century King of Prussia, who grappled with the legacy of his father. Ambrosio was adapted from Matthew Lewis' 18th-century gothic novel about the various temptations of a monk. FM was about a prim college writing professor enthralled by the primitive genius of a wild student. A Woman Without a Name told the Job-like story of a small town American woman in 1900 upon whom countless troubles are heaped. The role and function of religion often played a central role in his dramas, with a number of plays features priests and nuns as characters. The vagaries of love was another common theme.

His daughter, Laura, told the New York Times, "I could call and say: 'I don’t understand Shaw. What’s going on?' And he could tell me. And he loved to tell me. It's what connected us."

He often drew on history for inspiration, with unorthodox meditations on historical figures a sort of specialty. He wrote plays about August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, Torquemada and Delmore Schwartz. Child Byron took as its subject the poet Lord Byron and his daughter. And 2 examined Nazi war criminal Herman Goering.

Many of his plays were one-acts, and he found a regular home at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which produced an annual one-act festival. Among these short works were Akhmatova, April Snow, Ave Maria, Clair de Lune, Goodbye Oscar, Gold and Silver Waltz and Yankee Doodle. His single Broadway production was The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, which closed quickly in 1972.

Mr. Linney was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 21, 1930, the son of Maitland Clabaugh and Romulus Zachariah Linney III. The classical name of Romulus has a long history in the family; his great-grandfather was Republican Congressman Romulus Zachariah Linney. Mr. Linney grew up in the south, in Boone, NC, and Madison, TN. His education brought him north, however, to Oberlin College and the Yale School of Drama, and he remained an East Coaster thereafter. However, he retained an interest in the environs of his youth. Several of his plays dealt with life in Appalachia, including Tennessee, Holy Ghosts, Sand Mountain, Gint and Heathen Valley.

In many ways, he was a man in the model of the thoughtful, serious-minded, literary strivers that populated the cafes and bars of New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. As such, he made his occasional sallies in fiction, writing the novels "Slowly," "By They Hand Unfurled," "Heathen Valley" (later turned into a play) and "Jesus Tales."

But it was for his plays that he became best known. 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, among other awards, gave him The Gold Medal for Drama.

He had recently been working with composer Scott Wheeler on an opera adaptation of Frederick commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre.

Mr. Linney’s first two marriages, to Ann Leggett and Margaret Jane Andrews, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Laura Callanan, and his daughters Laura Linney and Susan Linney.  Mr. Linney’s family has asked that contributions in his name be made to the Signature Theatre Company.  A memorial service later in the year will be announced.