Beth and John want to break the news in as civilized a manner as possible. After all, they mean to have a pleasant weekend away in their cabin. So, over beers, cheerfully, they tell John’s parents that Beth is leaving him for his best friend—who is smiling in the armchair in the corner, the fifth member of the houseparty. Shotgun, Romulus Linney’s newest play, is about divorce, and political correctness, and finally despair. What starts out as painfully forced New Age civility descends into tragedy, as Linney makes the case that if asked to be too reasonable, a man has no recourse but to turn barbaric.
Shotgun was one of the better plays produced this spring at the 18th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (which deserves credit as one of the country’s best forums for new work, and which has been producing Linney’s plays since 1979). But its ending is foreseeable, and the play’s most sympathetic character (the husband, John) garbles his justification of his all-too-understandable anger. Still, even as a flawed play. Shotgun highlights many of the qualities that make its author such an outstanding writer.
For one, Shotgun addresses a real issue —divorce, and how to deal with it—in a serious way. Through his characters, Linney makes arguments that were once common sense but now are refreshing, if only because they are so seldom heard on stage or screen. As his triangle of wife, husband, and best friend shows, there is no such thing as a civilized divorce, in which a cuckolded husband and his wife and her lover can all shake hands and promptly spend a happy weekend together in the country.
John’s parents, who break their own news in telling their children that after decades of separation they are getting remarried, say unequivocally that divorce was a waste and loss. And through John, who soon rebels against the I’m OKYou’re OK attitude of his wife and friend with sexist jokes and a renewed interest in that other bugbear of the 90’s, a rifle, Linney seems to say that man—both the sex and the species—is not just politically incorrect, but politically incorrectable. While Shotgun lapses into melodrama, it does not sink into cliche, which was (unfortunately) more than could be said of some of the other plays at the festival.
Playgoers would do well to remember Linney’s other work. I have not had the good fortune to see many of his 3 5-plus plays, but I vividly remember 2, Linney’s play about Hermann Goring at the Nuremberg Trials, which premiered in Louisville in 1990. In 2 (so-called because Goring was second-in-command), Linney created a character who is both terrible and fascinating. It is hard to understand how the “drug addict” peddled by Time-Life books could have run an effective political and military organization. Linney’s Goring is much more believable as a leader, and all the more frightening because he is not a twisted caricature, but a man who is admirable in many ways. Linney’s Goring is skillful in his manipulation of others and witty in defending himself; evil but not hypocritical (and that is something). Built around the trial and Goring’s eventual suicide, the play capitalizes on the inherent drama of the circumstances. When acted as powerfully as it was in Louisville in 1990, it is a compelling play.
2 has had a curious history. After its success at ATL (earning good reviews and a National Critics Circle Award), it was optioned for one year by Sir Peter Hall in London. But no British actor would take the role. Since Hall’s option lapsed, 2 has been produced in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and at the Philadelphia Festival for New Plays, but it has certainly not received the productions it deserves, unquestionably because of its treatment of a painful subject. I sometimes wonder if it’s the honesty of Linney’s work that has kept him out of the big time—widely respected in the regional theaters, but not much in evidence on Broadway or in Hollywood.
2 is not Linney’s first historical play. His playwriting career began with The Sorrows of Frederick, an idiosyncratic three-act about Frederick the Great of Prussia. “Many people begin to write, and they write the story of their life,” Linney said in an interview in Louisville in March. “But I am the kind of writer— and there are many writers like me—who go to the other side of the spectrum”—to other people’s lives.
One of his most successful plays is another historical piece, Childe Byron, about the relationship between the ghost of the poet Lord Byron and his daughter, Ada. Historical pieces are as autobiographical as any other, Linney said. In each one of his plays, “there is always a deep and very important part of me in it, or I could not write it in the first place.”
Though he lived from age 13 on in Washington, D.C., was educated up north at Obedin and Yale Drama School (where he studied to be an actor), and has made his home in New York City since the 50’s, Linney still refers to himself as a “transplanted Southerner.” (He is also a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a fact he includes in all his biographical notes.) His parents were both North Carolinians, and he spent his early childhood in Boone, North Carolina, and then lived outside of Nashville, moving to D.C. only after his father’s death in 1943.
Appalachian accents, Linney said, “were the voices I heard around me when I was an infant, and as Katherine Anne Porter points out, the most important things that happen to a writer happen before he’s ten years old—and the earlier, the better.” For this reason, perhaps, Linney is probably best known for his Appalachian plays—among them the widely produced Holy Ghosts (about snake-handling fundamentalists) and the Obie-winning Tennessee. Even his less well-known but excellent novel Heathen Valley is set in the backwoods of prewar, 19th-century North Carolina.
As a city boy who writes about the rural South, Linney has some sympathy for Robert Schenkkan, whose play series The Kentucky Cycle opened and quickly closed on Broadway. In Kentucky, Schenkkan was widely criticized (by Wendell Berry, among others) for his made-up, hokey language; his two-dimensional characters; his factual errors; his slavishly p.c, black-and-white portrayal of good and evil—and for having written a play about a part of the country where he had spent exactly one weekend of his life.
Linney said Heathen Valley also made some rural Southerners angry when it first was published in 1962. “People feel vulnerable. People feel writers are spying on them,” he said. But to his work, at least, they have come around. He has turned Heathen Valley into a play and had the gratification of seeing it produced at North Carolina’s Appalachian State College in his former hometown of Boone.
Linney still occasionally directs his own plays (when his full teaching schedule at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania allows). He still sometimes acts, too, and has an autobiographical eight-minute monologue called “Gold and Silver Waltz” that he likes to do. He enjoyed the acting career he had as a young man at Oberlin, Yale, and in summer stock. “Not very many people saw it,” he laughed, “but I remember it with pleasure,” and it gave him some practical knowledge and an actor’s eye view of the stage that he feels has been invaluable to his playwriting.
At 64, Romulus Linney is still hard at work, in the midst of finishing a play entitled Grand View for the Capital Repertory Company in Albany, New York, with novelist William Kennedy. The characters are Kennedy’s, and Linney said he and Kennedy work well together, taking each other’s rewrites in stride. That play will be produced sometime during the theater’s 1995-1996 season.
When asked if he has a favorite piece, Linney’s answer was no. “That’s sort of like asking, ‘Do you have favorite parts of your life?’ because the plays usually come out of something in your past that’s extremely important to you, that intersects with something that happened yesterday. I don’t know how to describe the peculiar way the subconscious gets jolted into action.
“I look at [my plays] as one huge, long, subtextual autobiography, which nobody can read but me.” He tapped his coffee cup and added (graciously), “we’ll keep it that way.”