Playwright and novelist Romulus Linney was born on September 21, 1930, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The only child of Dr. Romulus "Zach" Linney III and his wife Maitland (nee Thompson), Linney was the great-grandson of North Carolina Congressman Romulus Zachariah Linney I. Linney spent much of his childhood in Boone, North Carolina, and Madison, Tennessee, but moved with his mother to Washington, D.C. after the death of his father in 1943. Linney graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1949 and attended Oberlin College. During his time as a student in Oberlin, Linney acted in a number of productions staged by the Oberlin Dramatic Association under the direction of J. Stanton McLaughlin.
After graduating with his Bachelor's of Arts in 1953, Linney began a Master's program at Yale University's School of Drama majoring in acting but left in 1954 after being drafted into the Army. He was primarily stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. While on leave in Japan, Linney observed Japanese Kabuki theater and became interested in Noh theater. Linney was honorably discharged after two years and returned to Yale to complete a Master's of Fine Arts degree with a major in directing in 1958. He used Japanese influences in the staging of Eugene O'Neill's play, "Marco Millions," his thesis production. While in college and graduate school, Linney performed as an actor in summer stock including the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the New London Barn Playhouse in New London, NH, and the Pelican Players in Panama City, FL.
Following Yale, Linney went to New York City where he worked as a stage manager for Elia Kazan at the Actors' Studio and studied writing with Hiram Hayden, founder of Atheneum Press, at The New School. Hayden optioned the novel Linney was writing in class, and "Heathen Valley" was published in 1962. A second novel, "Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurled," was published in 1965. A set of short stories, "Jesus Tales," was published in 1980. Over his lifetime, in addition to these three novels, Linney authored four opera librettos, twenty short stories, and 85 plays which have been staged throughout the United States, in Europe and Asia.
His plays include "The Sorrows of Frederick," "Holy Ghosts," "Childe Byron," "Heathen Valley," and an adaptation of Ernest L. Gaines's novel, "A Lesson Before Dying," which has been produced in New York and in numerous regional theaters. Many of his plays dealt were set in Appalachia ("Tennessee," "Holy Ghosts," "Sand Mountain," "Gint," and "Heathen Valley"), while others focused on historical subjects ("The Sorrows of Frederick," "2").
In 2010, he wrote a libretto for an opera based on his first play, "The Sorrows of Frederick," with music by Scott Wheeler, commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater. He also completed a full-length play about Alzheimer's disease, "Over Martinis, Driving Somewhere," which received a workshop at New York Stage and Film in the summer of 2010.
Among Linney's many awards were two Obie awards, one for sustained excellence in playwriting; two National Critics Awards; three Drama-Logue Awards; and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment of the Arts. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters which conferred upon him its Award in Literature, Award of Merit and its highest award, the Gold Medal. He received an honorary doctorates from Oberlin in 1994, from Appalachian State University in 1995, and from Wake Forest University in 1998.
He was a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, the Fellowship of Southern Writers, National Theatre Conference, College of Fellows of the American Theatre, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Corporation of Yaddo. Linney had been chair of the MFA Playwriting program at Columbia University's School of the Arts and Professor of Playwriting in the Actors Studio MFA Program at The New School in New York.
Linney was the founding playwright of Signature Theatre Company, which named a theater in his honor in the new Signature Center, which opened in 2012. On his birthday September 21, 2012, Appalachian State University in Boone, NC opened his archives for researchers and scholars. Linney
married three times and had two children, actress Laura Linney with his first wife, Ann Leggett Perse, and writer and editor, Susan Linney, with his second wife, Margaret Jane Andrews. Both marriages ended in divorce. In 1996, Linney married his third wife, Laura Callanan, and the two remained together until his death. Linney died of lung cancer at the age of 80 at home in Germantown, NY on January 15, 2011.
Appalachian State University Library's W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection was proud to acquire his papers in the spring of 2011. Researchers now have access to a wealth of resources with the opening of this important collection of manuscripts, photographs, correspondence, reviews, theatre programs and production posters. Linney's extensive book collection is also open for use in the Dougherty Reading Room and his theatre books are available in the Library's general collection. This exhibit commemorates and celebrates the life and work of Romulus Linney: actor, writer, teacher.