I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The best play of this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville was Romulus Linney’s 2, a portrait of Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering, fighting for his life at the Nuremberg trials. Linney’s depiction is of a man repellent, appealing and real.
Besides historical dramas including plays about Lord Byron and Frederick the Great, Linney’s work includes such plays as Sand Mountain, Heathen Valley and Holy Ghostsbased on the lives and folklore of people from the Appalachian Mountains, while plays like FM, April Snow, and Juliette concern artists working today. But all three categories use history, folklore, actual events and myths.
Craig Gholson What you’ve done in 2 runs counter to the popular climate today, which is to take heroes or celebrities and demystify them by portraying all their foibles, warts and worse. With the character of Goering you take someone who’s basically despicable and, while definitely not glorifying him, show a certain monstrous charm.
Romulus Linney I have done that in three historical plays: one about Frederick the Great, one Byron, and now this one about Goering. Of the three people, Goering is the least attractive, certainly. There are many, many things about Frederick and Byron attractive to anyone. But it is true that in all three people the consequences of their lives—Frederick’s creation of Prussian Germany, Byron’s creation of the outsider and the rebel, and Goering being the number two man in Hitler’s Germany—they are people who had great effects on history and in whose characters you can find very dark places.
What’s interesting about Goering is that he made a pretty tough argument against the legitimacy of the Nuremberg trials. Instead of hiding behind Hitler, he attacked the trials. And he did so with a scathing sense of fun and irony that was very effective, except it never got out of the room. All the people who were there admit that Goering was the dominant personality in the room because he’d been around longer than anybody else, he knew more than anybody else and he was able to be funny, charming and very tough.
CG In your portrayals of figures who might be characterized as philosopher/king/tyrants, they are as much tyrannized against as they tyrannize others. The tyranny they experience is usually self-generated by their own talents or genius or whatever it is that possesses them.
RL That’s a fair point. What’s interesting about Frederick and Byron and Goering is the psychological springs that make them what they are. In other words, what happened to them. In Frederick’s case, it’s appallingly obvious. Anybody who’s been through high school in the United States knows enough psychology to see what Frederick’s father’s treatment of him as a child would lead to, and it did. Byron is much more complicated, and Goering’s perhaps the most complicated of all in terms of a mixture of good and evil, a mixture of peacefulness and aggression. That’s what’s fascinating to me.
The other thing I like to do is find those dramatic situations which these people engender. They were dramatic people. The things they did brought about dramatic moments. I really don’t want to judge these people; the world will do that.
CG What does one ultimately gain in an examination of history?
RL I’m not so pretentious as to say that I’m magisterially examining the work of historians. They go into the matter a lot deeper than a dramatist does. What fascinates me are two things. Number one, with each of these characters there was some place in their life where I emotionally entered. There was something in common, some little tiny thing in my small life corresponding to this enormous life that had a whole lot of influence on us all. That’s exciting. That’s the fun that I get; that it involves me personally and is an interesting psychological game to play with myself and with these characters as I write the play. Nobody else knows or cares what my particular concerns are, but I think that the stage is a wonderful place to put things in order to see if they are really very likely. The stage has a way of burning away all kinds of probabilities, all sorts of things that you can get away with in a history book or a novel or an essay. You can be very persuasive on the page.
CG In A History of My Times written by Frederick the Great, he says, “Most history is a compilation of lies mixed with a few truths.” I would define your historical dramas as, “A compilation of truths mixed with a few lies.”
RL (laughter) Okay, that’s fine. I agree with that.
CG Most of the women in your plays are strong and independent—Juba, a woman in Heathen Valley speaks at the funeral of Granpa Larman which in her time and culture was a very unusual thing for a woman to do, the play Ave Maria concerns Hrosvitha of Gandersheim who was the only woman playwright in the Middle Ages—yet you’ve never written a full length historical play about a woman. Why?
RL For one reason, we don’t know enough about them. Of the historical figures who are women, somehow I never have been able to find one that had enough information about her. My second novel, which I also made a play out of, is all about a woman. I rather like that book; I think that novel’s probably some of the best writing I’ll ever do. Her character is something that I got very, very deeply into. But the way I found her was through an old diary that a friend of mine got at a church sale for 25 cents and kept for a lot of years. She gave me this diary to read. I read it and started copying its tone of voice.
CG What was the character’s name?
RL She’s nameless. It’s a woman keeping a diary. She’s almost illiterate and she’s keeping a diary. The novel is called Slowly By the Hand Unfurled, and it was published in 1965 by Harcourt Brace, and the play is called A Woman Without a Name, and that was done at the Denver Center Theater about 3 or 4 years ago. In both the novel and the play, it’s an almost illiterate woman keeping this diary and trying to figure out why her children are dying. She has four children. One’s already dead, and another dies right at the beginning of the book and the play; and as we go through, another one dies, and finally the fourth child, a son, accuses her of killing them all.
CG That, for lack of a better word, conceit, was based on the actual diary?
RL Not the murder, but the woman’s tone of voice. I got that going, and suddenly it was like I’d found something in history, and in fact, it was.
CG Both your plays themselves and the stories told within them have strong elements of parable, of stories being passed down from generation to generation. However, each time they are passed down, they get slightly warped in the process. Is this what you think happens to history?
RL Actually, in terms of the facts, I think maybe the reverse happens in history. As we go along, historians improve on the facts of the matter.
CG In terms of objectivity?
RL Yes. A historian takes up a subject that’s already been investigated by other historians, and he sees that this wasn’t done and that wasn’t done, and corrects this and pushes that around.
The evaluation of Byron is a good example. Up until a few years ago, every book about Byron said, “What a terrible man.” Now they’re saying quite different things. So historians probably improve the factual aspect of it, but the legendary aspect of it is something that is a folk art. That’s part of the people and they want to keep it. I think there’s an “other history.”
Several of my plays and one novel called Jesus Tales are about Jesus and St. Peter in folklore and what the folk did with those stories. Because they couldn’t read, the priest told folks about St. Peter and Joseph who was Jesus’s earthly father who didn’t really beget him because he was a sacred birth. But folk farming people like the North Carolina farm people that I grew up with want a reason for something. They don’t want a scientific, Einstein kind of reason that you can only understand through mathematics. They want to know what A was and how it equals B, you know, boom. So what they did to the life of Jesus, and the friendship between Jesus and St. Peter, is riotously funny. The Bible contains no humor in it whatsoever, and you just know that there must have been some somewhere, because people can’t live without humor. And folklore is just full of it.
There’s the history in books, but there’s also the history that arises when you say “Hitler” or “Frederick the Great,” “Lord Byron,” or “Jesus and St. Peter.” Something quite different comes from people and it’s fun to fool around with that stuff.
CG When you start with an idea, how do you determine that this is going to be a novel, or this is going to be a play?
RL There’s a central situation that’s inherently dramatic, and once you see that it is inherently dramatic, then it just has to be on the stage. There are other kinds of situations which will need the voice of narrative or something that will appeal to one person listening. But if you begin to see that the story you’ve got could be done on a stage and a whole lot of people would shut up and listen to it, and would be very rapt—creating the group mind that an audience becomes in a good play, and doesn’t become in a bad play—then you get very excited and go ahead and do it. I was an actor for a long time, and a director, which I still do now, and I love the theater. I respect and enjoy my novels though they were written a while ago, but I think that basically I am a playwright.
CG In the Appalachian plays in particular, you choose characters who are, in a very real way, grappling not only with questions about God, but sometimes with God himself in the form of Jesus. What would you say to people who say that that’s not a pertinent issue today?
RL I would say that the truth or falsity, or the theological concerns, are not an issue with me either. What fascinates me about religion is not whether any one of them are true or false or anything like that, but it is the fact that, like history in certain cases, it takes people to extremes; people go to extremes in religious situations. I believe Katherine Anne Porter somewhere says that the only interesting things are religion and art, because you have to go to extremes in order to be successful in them. I certainly still find that relevant today. People pushed beyond reason, beyond anything sensible at all, into certain actions by the pressures of religion, are absolutely fascinating to me. A play of mine called Holy Ghosts is about snake handlers. I’ve seen those people and it’s no joke. A lot of those people, I respect them very much.
CG Although you respect the lay people, the officials of organized religion don’t fare very well in your work.
RL Of course not. What is moving to me is the truthfulness and the devotion of individual people. What is repugnant to me is the hypocrisy of organized religion. All you have to do is look on your television screen and you see all those slimy, American Tartuffe’s parading across the screen. They are, to me, hateful.
When I was a kid in this little suburb eight miles outside of Nashville, the Methodist church that my mother made me go to on Sundays, I really didn’t like it very much. It was boring. Not because it was bad or anything; it was just dull. The big moment was when they passed all the money around, and everybody had the feeling everybody was rich because they could give all this money to the church. But they rented that church out to evangelists. One time I went there when an evangelist came through. I was astounded, because here was this church that I was used to seeing on Sunday mornings, changed into a completely different place. A whole different kind of people came, the preaching was certainly different, everything was extremely emotional, the hymns were banged out, and people got up and pounded on the floor. There was a kind of enormous group therapy going on that was thrilling and moving.
CG It was real.
RL That’s right. These were people who really did believe they were sinful. You had the feeling that the other people on Sunday morning didn’t believe for a minute that they were sinful or anything like that. I felt like it was all hypocrisy and I just hated it. I didn’t hate it, because you’re a little kind and you can’t formulate these thoughts.
CG Children certainly understand the concept of “thoroughly boring,” though.
RL Boring; you’re not kidding. And they understand the fact that somebody’s not telling the truth here, that this is glib bullshit. And conversely, you understand when a grownup man is standing up there weeping about getting drunk all the time, or the death of his kid, or getting mad and hitting his wife and he can’t help it, all those things. Then you say, “This is life as it is, and not life as somebody else wants me to believe it is.” I was very moved by it.
CG How is it that you came to see snake handlers?
RL I was teaching in 1961 at the University of North Carolina. There was a book out then describing some things that had happened in Durham and I nosed around over there. I began to find out where some of them were, which I’ll never tell anybody about.
CG So they still exist?
RL Damn right they exist. It’s illegal now. They had a case that they took all the way to the Supreme Court. The thing that was, I think rightly, worried about, was innocent people being killed. You go to church, you’re curious, and somebody throws a rattlesnake at you. In some of these churches, they used to throw the snakes in the air.
CG As a test of faith.
RL Absolutely. The snake handlers don’t do it because the snake is evil. They believe that water runs downhill and the sun comes up and if you grab a Diamondback rattlesnake, he’ll bite you. That’s nature. What happens to these poor people at the bottom of the white ladder of our society, is that they truly believe that God gives them a power that allows them to change nature.
CG They’re graced.
RL The best that I can get is that these people who are nameless, anonymous dust—nobody will ever care who they were or anything about them—somehow think that the power that moves the stars and the sun and great God himself in the heavens looks down and sees little Joe Morgan down there in a little town and says, “Joe, you really believe in me and I see it. I’m going to give you the power so that this snake can’t bite you.” Logically, that’s ridiculous. As far as any kind of sophisticated thought it certainly can’t be entertained for a minute. Handling snakes is not the answer to curing the ills of the world. But, by God, those services are beautiful. They’re beautiful in a primitive, stark, truthful, straightforward way that moved me beyond anything I’ve ever seen in all of the other religions.
CG Underlying all your plays is the idea of the temporal state of the world. In Tennessee, the Old Woman is betrayed by community and family into thinking that she’s living in Tennessee when, in reality, she’s only been taken into the mountains of North Carolina and driven around for a long time. Things are not as they seem; ownership, including family and land, is an illusion. A character says, “It’s all yours—for awhile.” It’s a very Oriental viewpoint.
RL Not really. It’s the viewpoint of a boy who, when he was 13, his father died. I’m one of many children who lose a parent in childhood. Once that has happened to you, you have experienced an earthly finality that is going to affect everything that happens to you the rest of your life. My father, I liked him very much. He was a good man. He had a hard life. He was a doctor and a very good one, but he had a tough life and he died at 42, and I had to watch him die. When that happens to you, your consciousness is quite changed, so I don’t need any Oriental religions to tell me that life is short and unpredictable. That was borne home to me when I was a boy of 13.
CG You don’t choose to write about characters who own “bottom land” very much. You choose characters up in the mountains. There aren’t too many rich people in your plays. Why is that?
RL Again, I suppose I’m much more interested in people in extreme situations.
CG Wealth can be an extreme situation.
RL You’re quite right. And why am I not interested in that? I don’t know. Maybe because as a child I grew up during the Depression—I was born in 1930—and what I saw all around me was not extreme poverty, but it was hard scrabble for a lot of people, including my family. Then my father’s practice began to catch on and things worked out all right. Also, maybe it’s a big myth and maybe it’s just a part of being an American and liking the illusion that there is a bottom level of truthfulness to people from which they aren’t dissembling. When people hit that level, they become really interesting. I’m not interested in manipulators or movers or people who are very complicated. William Gaddis writes very well about those people.
CG However, your historical characters are incredibly complicated people.
RL They’re complicated, but they’re not dissembling. They’re not sophisticated, let’s put it that way.
CG If Goering isn’t a Sophist, I don’t know who is.
RL (laughter) Yes, I suppose you got me. I would have to admit that you can hardly call Frederick and Byron and Goering simplistic characters. But they are most interesting when what they do is tell the truth. When somebody tells the truth, it can seem like the craziest bullshit if the situation is completely otherwise. Nobody paid any attention to the things Goering said at the trial. They said, “That’s that fat bastard Goering, and we’re going to kill him,” and that was that; it didn’t make any difference what he said.
What fascinates me is when you get a character backed up to the wall, and he’s going to be shot, and he opens himself up and lets come out what is really there. If the person is an interesting person, then that’s what fascinates me.
CG In Sand Mountain, the secret of life seems to be relatively simple—you chew ginseng and ponder the Bible.
RL A lot of people who live in the mountains of North Carolina hate to come down. If they have to take a trip to Charlotte, they moan and carry on—the water doesn’t taste good, the motel beds are not good, nothing is any good. If you live in the mountains for a summer, you may understand how they feel. Physically, that’s the chewing of the ginseng part of it. The pondering of the Bible relates to the fact that all Southern life is conditioned and illuminated and given momentum and form and shape by the King James version of the Bible. And it’s as much the King James version as it is the Bible.
CG Because it’s so beautifully written.
RL It’s gorgeous. It’s loquacious. People talk like that. The way I’m talking is in this headlong, nonstop way. I tumble all over my words and that’s the way the Bible is written. Even now, with television and everything else, Southerners love to sit out on the porch in the evening and just talk over family history. And they do it in this loquacious, colorful style.
CG You direct, and I notice that mostly the plays you direct are the Appalachian plays. Is there a practical reason for that?
RL Yes. I’ve had a lot of trouble, in New York especially, getting anybody to understand that you have to have a certain kind of American rural quality to the actors and the staging. It’s not the fact that they have to be Southern, it’s just not urban; it’s rural.
CG I noticed in all your stage directions that you stress very symmetrical, face-forward sets and directions. In Sand Mountain it even says, “Business and movement should be kept to a minimum.” That warning sounds like a philosophical credo that you have about your work and how it should be done. Your work should be presented straightforward in all senses.
RL My plays, otherwise, look terribly pretentious and literary and phony. If you try to impose a concept which has to do with stage direction or with some director’s idea of how to make them grand, it just wrecks the plays. The plays need to look like nobody directed them at all.
I don’t really direct my plays because I’m dying to do it; directing is hard work. I’ll be 60 years old in a month and I’d rather not do it. But very often extremely good directors, fine people, they just don’t get it, and the plays look pretentious.
CG Your work is full of folk cures and potions and poultices—”For teethin’, rub his gums with a cool minnow. For the colic, make him chimney-soot tea.” Would you stand by these cures?
RL (laughter) No, I wouldn’t.
CG But you don’t make them up.
RL I don’t make them up. There is an extensive literature of folklore to every state in the Union. North Carolina has a very vigorous folklore society and there are many books with a lot of those recipes in there. So I’m afraid to tell you the truth; most of them are ones I’ve gotten out of books.
CG I bet they probably work.
RL Some of them are outlandish. Like to cure a fever, you split a trout, put the halves on the soles of your bare feet and walk around.
CG In reading FM, I thought it prefigured a number of censorship issues that have emerged recently. It seems to me that there’s always a very uneasy truce in the South between the personal and society. It’s really the most rigid of societies at the same time that it tolerates the most incredible eccentricities. Did you find you had to remove yourself from the South to write about it?
RL I don’t know that I really write about the South. These characters have more to do with some kind of secret, unknown psychological process going on in myself, rather than writing a book that has a lot to say about the modern South. I certainly don’t purposely do that. I left it when I was 13. But the thing about the South is that, exactly as you say, you can see how it doesn’t make sense. In a small town in the South, you’ve got the church and the high school and that’s it. There’s no history of secular gathering. A wonderful actor named Ken Jenkins, who played Byron at the Actor’s Theater of Louisville, and I once decided that the reason why there are fewer theaters in the South now is that when you get a lot of people at the end of one room, and you put the lights on, and they get up and start talking, that’s church. And when you start saying, “Shit, piss and fuck,” you’re saying it in church and Southerners get really upset.
CG In Heathen Valley, there’s a note which says, “Production thus depends on a very few elements very well done and on the skill with which they are used and re-used.” That, to me, sounds like a definition of what you hope to achieve each time you sit down to write a play.
RL That’s right. I try to make it as simple as possible. As a director, I try to tell the designer, “I don’t want anything on the stage that isn’t used. I don’t want anything used that isn’t consumed so that when it’s used, you’ve used every ounce of it.” I hate to see enormous amounts of scenery dragged on the stage or somebody’s concept paraded all around. None of that has to do with what I go to the theater for and what I love about the theater more than any other art form. The theater at its best is just absolutely wonderful. You see it at its best only a few times in your life. That’s all, but that’s enough.
CG Enough to make you fall in love with it.
RL And if it hits you while you’re young, watch out. My mother was an amateur actress in a little Nashville theater and as a boy, I went and saw her play Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town. To watch your mother play that woman in that death scene where they’re all sitting up there in limbo—oh, yikes. That took care of it for me.
RL Yeah boy. Yeah boy.
—Craig Gholson is a playwright and Associate Editor of BOMB
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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