The Kentucky Cycle
ROBERT SCHENKKAN 1992
When he first conceived the idea of The Kentucky Cycle, Robert Schenkkan never believed that it would grow into a history making, award winning, epic drama of Americana. He began the work in 1984 after a trip through rural eastern Kentucky as a wedding present to his wife, Mary Anne. The play grew as Schenkkan researched more about the region and his desire to say something about how modern America thinks of and rethinks its past and what that history means. The Kentucky Cycle won a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, which allowed Schenkkan to complete the cycle by fall of 1991 when it premiered at Intiman Theatre in Seattle. The 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama propelled The Kentucky Cycle to New York, where it opened to mixed reviews. Schenkkan captures the essence of America’s past and its fears and translates them into a work that many critics see as the best theater in the last two decades of American drama.
The Kentucky Cycle is a series of nine plays that spans over 200 years of American history in a small portion of eastern Kentucky. Although the features are local, the issues raised in the play are universally American and draw on the very best and the very worst in America’s history. The plays explore violence as a part of American life—whether that violence is racial, gender-based, or environmental—and how each generation deals with and works through the American tendency to use force first and ask questions later.
Born in 1953, Robert Schenkkan wrote the The Kentucky Cycle after a trip to the Appalachian mountains in the early 1980s. There he was impressed by the rugged beauty of nature and the utter devastation that strip-mining had brought to the landscape. Schenkkan was also struck by the great divide between rich and poor in such a compact area as eastern Kentucky. He says that he began writing The Kentucky Cycle in 1984 as a wedding present to his wife. The cycle of plays grew into a tale about “America from its “discovery” by Europeans to its rediscovery” in the 1960s.
Schenkkan originally began his career as an actor, appearing in films with Christian Slater and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he soon discovered his talents for writing and scripting. His plays have won multiple awards and critical acclaim. He won the Julie Harris/Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Award in 1989 for Heaven on Earth, the LA Weekly’s Critic’s Choice Award for Tachinoki, and a “Best of Fringe” Award at the Edinburgh Festival for The Survivalist. Schenkkan has also written screenplays for Oliver Stone, Denzel Washington, and Ron Howard.
The Kentucky Cycle won Schenkkan the largest grant ever presented by the Kennedy Center for New American Plays and broke box-office records when it premiered in Seattle in 1991. In 1992, he made history when The Kentucky Cycle won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, the first time a play had won the Pulitzer without having first played on Broadway. After the Pulitzer Prize, The Kentucky Cycle was also nominated for Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards.
The Kentucky Cycle has become more than just a series of plays for its author. Schenkkan sees this work as a metaphor for how America works. It has also become his statement on the functioning of the American Dream. He originally envisioned one or two plays, four at the most, but as he wrote the story got bigger and bigger until it was a full seven hours long, with nine plays, spanning over 200 years. Schenkkan wanted his epic play cycle to reflect the beauty, the reality, and the brutality of modern American life.
The first part of The Kentucky Cycle contains five plays: Masters of the Trade (1775), The Courtship of Morning Star (1776), The Homecoming (1792), Ties that Bind (1819), and God’s Great Supper (1861). These plays explore the motives of violence and revenge, all in the name of family and land.
Masters of the Trade concerns Michael Rowen and how he comes to acquire the land in the first place. Michael is an Irish immigrant whose family has been killed in a Cherokee attack in eastern Kentucky prior to the American Revolution. Michael expresses no real remorse for his wife and daughter, but rather sees their deaths as an opportunity. He finds the man who sold the Cherokee their guns and he and his accomplice, Sam, kill the man. The shots bring the Cherokee warriors, who do not trust Michael, but decide to trade with him. Michael then kills Sam to show that he, Michael, can be trusted as the one to kill the man who killed their friend, Earl Tod. Michael trades the guns, powder, and shot that the Cherokee want for the land that he wants. However, Michael is not a good man. Not only has he killed two men, but the blankets that he Page 84 | Top of Articlegives the Cherokee are infected with smallpox. Michael knows that the disease will wipe out the tribe.
The Courtship of Morning Star, the second play in the cycle, concerns Michael’s marriage to a Cherokee girl, Morning Star. She is one of the few survivors of Michael’s smallpox plague and she knows that he is the one who has decimated her tribe. He has kidnapped her because he needs a woman to complete his plan. He needs children. Michael is brutal in his rape and treatment of Morning Star. He gives her no choice but to live with him and bear his children. When she tries to escape, he catches her and cuts her Achilles tendon. He does this so that she will never be able to run away from him again. Michael continues to threaten her. He tells her that their first child MUST be a boy or he will kill the child. Morning Star’s fear and loathing for this man become clear in her speeches during her pregnancy. She mourns for her family and fears for herself. The play ends as Morning Star sings to her son and Michael expresses his fear of the child.
The Homecoming picks up the story sixteen years later as Patrick Rowen tries to make sense of his life and of his fear of both his parents. Patrick is in love with Rebecca Talbert, daughter of a neighboring farmer, Joe, but both families oppose the match. Michael is too jealous of his son and Joe just does not like the Rowens. Morning Star convinces Patrick that Michael intends to disinherit him and the only way Patrick can secure his claim to the land is to kill his father. After a trading trip, Michael returns to his home with a female slave. All successful farmers in the South had slaves and Michael was determined to be a success. Patrick stabs his father while the man is bathing in front of his mother, the slave, and, unfortunately, Rebecca and her father, Joe. However, this is exactly what Morning Star planned. She wanted to get rid of Michael and her son, but Patrick’s violence was too strong for her. He killed Joe, the only man she had ever loved, and threatened to kill Morning Star as well. Neither the slave, Sallie, nor Rebecca, whom he would rape and “marry” could help her. Patrick drinks a toast to his “wedding” over his father’s dead body.
Fourth in the cycle of plays is Ties that Bind. This play takes place in 1819, over twenty years later. Rebecca has died in childbirth with the second of two sons, and Patrick never remarried. Zeke and Zach have grown up with Sallie acting as mother and her son as brother. They are vaguely aware of an approaching disaster, but the true depth of Morning Star’s revenge becomes obvious slowly. Patrick is heavily in debt and the bank is foreclosing on his loans. The justice of the peace comes to Patrick’s farm, armed to the teeth, and sets out the terms of his bankruptcy. An unidentified man holds all the loans on Patrick’s land and slowly, piece by piece he forces Patrick to give up everything, including Sallie and her son, Jessie. Even the news that Jessie is Patrick’s half brother does not stop him. Finally, with nothing left, Patrick begs the stranger for mercy. Only then does Jeremiah Talbert reveal himself and Morning Star appears as well. Patrick realizes that they have tricked him and his family out of everything they own and his anger burns deep. However, there is nothing he can do about it at the moment. Zach, disgusted by his father’s selling of his own flesh and blood, leaves and is never heard from again. Patrick survives, nursing his hatred and vengeance.
The last play in Part One is God’s Great Supper. This play is the climax and focal point for all the other plays. Patrick has aged to a drooling old man and his son, Zeke, and grandson, Jed, are bent on revenge against the Talberts. Jed pretends to befriend the young Randall Talbert, Jeremiah’s grandson, thus alienating his own family. Jed, of course, is only doing this to please his father and his hatred of the Talberts runs just as deep as the other members of his family. Jed volunteers for Richard Talbert’s unit in the Civil War and kills Talbert by pushing him off the boat after they have escaped from the enemy. Jed joins a group of outlaws for a while before he comes home to oversee the murder of Randall and the rapes of his two sisters. The Talbert family home is destroyed and Jed claims the land back as his birthright. There is no one left to oppose him.
Part Two of The Kentucky Cycle has the remaining four plays: Tall Tales (1885), Fire in the Hole (1920), Whose Side are You On? (1954), and The War on Poverty (1975). All four of these plays deal with coal mining and its affects on the people of eastern Kentucky.
The first play of Part Two, Tall Tales narrates how Jed Rowen finally lost the land that his ancestors had fought and died over. Jed is now middle aged with a young daughter, lots of land, very little money, and less sense. His family is isolated and his Page 85 | Top of Articlewife and daughter dream of far away places and luxuries that they simply cannot afford. A storyteller, JT Wells, arrives at the Rowen farm and starts to spin his magic. Although he claims to be from the area, he says he has lived in New York City, New Orleans, and other exotic places. Mary Anne, Jed’s daughter, and Lallie, his wife, are mesmerized by JT’s hypnotic tales. The only one who is not happy is Tommy Jackson, who is in love with Mary Anne and thinks that the stranger is there to steal her heart. In reality, he is there to steal her land. By fake “hard” bargaining, JT convinces Jed to sell, not only the mineral rights, but his entire farm for $1 per acre. This does not sit well with Lallie and she tries to convince him not to sell even a rock of his place. Jed, however, will not listen to a woman’s advice and sells his property thinking he has made a great deal. Though the land was actually worth millions, Jed sells everything that he and his ancestors had built for $170. In a fit of remorse, JT tries to tell Mary Anne what the deed really means, but she cannot comprehend that other people would be so sneaky. Tommy attacks and kills JT; and Jed, again refusing to listen to a woman, stands by his signature. Mary Anne’s favorite tree is the first thing the mining company cuts down.
Fire in the Hole and Whose Side are You On? make up the core of Schenkkan’s cycle of America’s rise and fall. These two plays deal with the conditions in eastern Kentucky after the mining companies take over and the workers’ attempts at unionization. Mary Anne Rowen and Tommy Jackson are married and she has watched five of her six sons die of the typhoid that hits the area with horrible regularity. The mining company literally owns the entire town; there is no other employment. Tommy and Mary Anne cannot even pay for the medicine to heal their last child, Joshua. Where Mary Anne’s father had once owned the entire valley, she and her family are reduced to renting a house from the company, buying food at the company store, and loading ten tons of coal a day, six days a week. The miners are not even paid in money, but given company script good only at the company store. A stranger, Abe Steinman, arrives on the scene and attempts to organize the miners. He pays for Joshua’s medicine, thus winning Mary Anne’s eternal gratitude and devotion. Tommy, however, is not so easily swayed. He does agree to help Abe organize the workers and even arranges to buy guns from Cassius Biggs, his cousin (although neither admit to being related). But at the last moment, Tommy panics and tells the mine owners everything. Abe and the other organizers are killed, setting off a chain of angry events. Mary Anne blames Tommy and he is dragged off and killed by other miners. She takes back her maiden name and forms the union that Tommy was afraid would destroy their lives. As with all such labor organizations, the blessings are mixed.
Schenkkan portrays these mixed blessings in the eighth play Whose Side are You On?. Joshua has become the president of the local chapter of the United Mine Workers Union and quite a skillful politician. He lacks the idealism of his son, Scotty, preferring instead, a jaded realism. He allows major safety violations to go uncorrected because James Talbert Winston, the owner of the mine, threatens to shut the operation down completely if he does not. James, Franklin Biggs, and Joshua play with the numbers of layoffs, severance packages, and wages without any real concern that they are playing with people’s lives. Scotty has problems with his father’s callous attitude and refuses to play along with his game. Joshua and James’s corner-cutting on safety causes a cave-in at the mine and Scotty is killed. Even in the face of his personal tragedy, Joshua plays the part James wants him to and he passes the cave-in off as a mere accident, not something that was preventable. The play ends as Scott Rowen’s name is read as one of the victims.
The final play in The Kentucky Cycle, is called The War on Poverty. It takes place twenty-one years after Scotty’s death. The mining company has gone bankrupt and there is nothing left of either the company, the union, or the community. Joshua, James, and Franklin are wandering out on the land that was supposed to become the county hospital and was originally the Rowen homestead. Although Joshua does not know it, he feels a connection to the land and he is not ready to give up as the other two men are. They discover the mummified remains of a child, wrapped in bead embroidered buckskin, that was unearthed by a pair of scavengers. The audience realizes that this is the body of Morning Star’s girl child that Michael had killed in 1782. While James and Franklin want to take the buckskin back to town to sell, Joshua suddenly feels the need to rebury the child. He threatens his friends with his rifle and they put the body down. Joshua feels his connection to the land and celebrates the beauty of the Kentucky landscape by howling with a lone wolf nearby.
Franklin Biggs is a black man, descended from Sallie Biggs, Michael Rowen’s slave. He “controls” the African-American population in Howsen County. He makes deals with both Joshua and James, neither of whom seems to really like him, but he does not care. He gets what he wants for his community. He is a successful business man, who can deliver the “black vote” and can influence his community to go along with whatever Blue Star Mining wants. Franklin also lacks any connection to the land and does not share in Joshua’s joy at seeing the wolf.
Sallie Biggs is the slave Michael Rowen brings home just before Patrick kills him. She is pregnant with Michael’s son, but she does not tell anyone who the father is until Patrick tries to sell the boy to pay off debts. She begs Patrick not to sell her son, but he does anyway. Her descendants lead the civil rights struggle in the latter parts of the cycle.
Tommy is Mary Anne’s husband. He has been in love with her for most of his life. He took a mining job when all the farm land was sold to the Blue Star Mine. He works hard and tries to help with the unionizing effort, but gets frightened at the end. He sells out his fellow organizers and Mary Anne publicly rejects him and he is killed by a group of angry strikers.
Morning Star is Michael Rowen’s Cherokee wife. He kidnaps her from her tribe, rapes her, and treats her badly. After she attempts to escape, he cuts the tendons in her leg so that she will always limp. Morning Star becomes resigned to her fate; she teaches her son, Patrick, to hate and fear his father. She finally convinces Patrick to kill his father so that she can finally be free to live with her lover, Joe Talbert. When Patrick kills Joe as well, Morning Star is devastated, but swears revenge. Years later, she forces her son and grandsons to forfeit their land to Talbert’s heir. While Morning Star may love her son, she never forgets that he is his father’s child, nor what his father did to her and her people. Nor does she forgive.
As Patrick Rowen’s direct heir, Zeke (also known as Ezekiel) inherits not only his father’s bloodlust, but also his grandfather’s as well. Zeke becomes a minister bent on revenging for his family against the Talberts. He devises a plan to kill all the male Talberts, including ten-year-old Randall, and destroy the two daughters (through rape and torture) so that there will be no one to stop the Rowens from reclaiming the land. Unlike his brother, Zeke does not see anything wrong with Patrick selling his own half-brother, nor in threatening Randall, nor anything wrong with a minister planning rapes and murders.
Jed Rowen carries on the family tradition of lying and murder when he kills Richard Talbert and then oversees the murder of Randall Talbert and the rapes of his sisters, Rose Anne and Julia Anne. Jed reclaims the Rowen land but proves to be just as unlucky as his grandfather was. He sells the mineral rights to his land for a dollar an acre when it is worth $15,000 to $20,000 per acre.
Joshua Rowen, along with James Talbert Winston, and Franklin Biggs, is one of the major characters in the last part of The Kentucky Cycle. He is, unlike the rest of his ancestors, an honorable man. He is president of the local miners’ union and tries to balance what is good for the individual members and the overall industry. He agrees to allow the mine to keep operating even though it is not safe and his son, Scotty, is killed in a cave-in. Joshua feels a connection with the land, raped and neglected as it is, which the other characters do not feel. He is connected to the land in a way that not even Michael or Morning Star were. He feels the land’s pain and rejoices in the opportunity to save it at the end of the cycle. He discovers the body of Patrick’s sister, buried 200 years before and forces the other men to return the mummified body to the earth. Joshua ends the cycle in the sheer joy of the wilderness as he watches a wolf run across the ridge.
Mary Anne Rowen
Mary Anne is Jed’s daughter. She is almost destroyed when the mining companies come in and cut down her trees and rip the guts out of her mountains. In a final defeat, she marries a local boy, Page 87 | Top of ArticleTommy Jackson, and watches as all of her sons die of typhoid. Abe Steinman encourages Mary Anne to think about a miners’ union. After his arrest and Tommy’s betrayal of the cause, Mary Anne rejects her husband, takes back her maiden name, and leads the fight for a union in the mines. She becomes a mythical figure who inspires future generations of miners and their families.
Michael Rowen is the founder of the Rowen family and the main character in the first two plays. He also establishes the moral tone of the plays. He is a thief, a liar, and a murderer. As the cycle opens, Michael kills Earl Tod, the Scottish trapper who trades with the Cherokee in the area. He then kills his accomplice, Sam, to prove his “trustworthiness” to the Cherokee. Michael’s bloodshed continues as he infects the Cherokee with smallpox and kidnaps a young Cherokee woman, Morning Star and makes her his wife. He continues to threaten her and even kills the girl child that she has after giving birth to a son. The violence, rage, and murder within Michael get passed down to all of his descendants, so Michael is the key character to understanding the other characters in the play.
Patrick Rowen is Morning Star and Michael’s son. Their other child, a girl, is killed by Michael when she is born. Patrick never forgot that action and hates his father for it. He also fears his father. He feels victimized by everyone around him: his father, his mother, his love, Rebecca, and her father, Joe Talbert. He kills his father, Rebecca’s father, forces his mother to flee for her life, and rapes Rebecca in a watered-down version of his own parents’ “marriage.” When Morning Star returns years later, she witnesses Patrick selling everything to an unnamed stranger who owns the mortgage on his property. Patrick even sells his own half-brother, Jessie Biggs. His own son, Zach, cannot stand Patrick’s actions and flees. Unlike his father, Patrick lives to be an ancient man who drools and fantasizes about revenge.
Zachariah (also known as Zach) Rowen is Patrick’s youngest son. He sees no difference between himself, his brother, and Jessie Biggs, the son of his family’s slave, Sallie. When he finds out that Jessie is actually Patrick’s half-brother, he pleads
with his father not to sell him, and when Patrick does, Zach leaves the farm never to be heard from again. Zach represents the Rowens’ conscience and without him they descend into moral depravity.
Abe Steinman is a union organizer who decides that The Blue Star Mine, built on what used to be the Rowen land, is ripe for unionizing. He is successful in getting the miners’ wives and some of the miners to join him, but they are betrayed by Tommy and he is killed.
This is Joe Talbert’s son, who returns to get revenge against Patrick. Aided by Morning Star and the legal system, Jeremiah forces Patrick to sell him everything he has and forces him to become a sharecropper on his own land.
Richard Talbert is Jeremiah Talbert’s son and so owns the land that was formerly Patrick’s land. Zeke and his son, Jed, plan their revenge and begin with Richard. Jed joins Richard’s Civil War company and kills Richard in the middle of a battle.
James Talbert Winston
James is the owner of Blue Star Mine, descendant of Jeremiah Talbert, and an emotionless capitalist. He does not care about the safety of his workers, but only his profit margin. When the cave-in kills over twenty miners, including Joshua Rowen’s son, James cannot really apologize because it is his fault. However, he and Joshua and Franklin Biggs become friends as the movers and shakers of Howsen County. He digs up the body of Patrick Rowen’s sister and wants to sell the beautifully beaded baby quilt Morning Star had made for her doomed infant. At the end of the cycle, he realizes that mining is a dead profession, but he cannot see any value to the land nor can he feel any connection to this place. He, like Franklin, looks on as Joshua yells with the wolf, thinking he has gone crazy.
See Zachariah Rowen
See Ezekiel Rowen
Violence looms large in the text of The Kentucky Cycle. Every play contains physical and emotional violence, or the threat of that violence. Schenkkan wants to explore the role of violence in the shaping of American history. Michael Rowen murdered, stole, and raped his way to a family legacy. That legacy was continued with Patrick’s violence, Jed’s murdering the Talbert men, and finally the way the Blue Star Mining Company raped the earth and the lives of its workers. Violence becomes an inescapable part of American life in these plays, although Schenkkan suggests that when violence is used to protect the land, as when Joshua threatens to shoot James and Franklin, or for benefit of others, as was the case with the unionizing miners, it can be productive. However, in most respects, violence simply breeds more violence and revenge in an almost never-ending cycle.
The American Dream
The idea of the American Dream, a land where anyone can come from nothing and become someone, is a powerful theme in American literature. All of the characters in the first half of Schenkkan’s cycle want the American Dream, but they rarely find it. Michael Rowen is killed by his own son before he can realize his dream of “owning” all the mountains, while both Patrick and Jed see their portion of the dream legally stolen out from under them. Yet, through it all, the dream remains alive, as it does in real life when it is battered by reality. The characters in the second part of the cycle have all given up, except for Mary Anne and Scotty. Mary Anne is able to forge a better life for her son, but Scotty’s idealism dies at the hands of his father’s cynicism.
Rewriting American History
In one of his speaking tours after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Schenkkan suggested that this cycle of plays is the American history that remains unwritten, a cultural “dirty little secret.” In this sense, The Kentucky Cycle is a mirror for America and its blood-spattered past. No one likes to think about how the settlers moved the native peoples out of the Page 89 | Top of Articleway. It was done through murder and disease. No one wants to think about slavery or the treatment of women, or the way some Americans swindled other Americans out of their homes and farms. Yet everyone likes the stories of the wild frontier, brave mountain men living by their wits, gun in hand. Everyone likes to hear the rags to riches story of successful Americans like John Paul Getty and Andrew Carnegie, but no one talks about the workers who were underpaid, underfed, and overworked as the means for these men to attain the wealth they did. Schenkkan wants his audiences to realize exactly how much pain, heartache, sorrow, and bloodshed went into making the America of today.
Personal Integrity versus Greed
The characters in The Kentucky Cycle have problems with personal integrity. Except for Mary Anne and Scotty, virtually all of them place personal greed above morality. Michael does not care that he killed dozens of people as long as he has his land and family. Morning Star does not care about her child except to see him broken and begging, Patrick, Zeke, and Jed live only for revenge and murder, while Joshua thinks only about the art of the deal. The only character who succeeds is Mary Anne, because she puts the needs of her community above her personal needs. Scotty tries, but gets caught in his father’s lies and pays the ultimate price. Joshua is redeemed by his connection to the land and the ghost of his ancestor when he refuses to give into the greed consuming James and Franklin. Ultimately, Schenkkan seems to be saying that personal integrity is more successful and rewarding than greed can ever be.
Classical Greek Structure
Schenkkan uses a traditional plot structure, borrowed from classical Greek tragedy, which combines climactic structure on the level of the individual plays with episodic structure for the entire cycle of plays. Each play focuses on individual characters, involving them in a series of ever-greater complications and bringing them to a startling climax. Together these plays function as a series of episodes in the entwined family histories of the Rowens and the Talberts. Each family is bound up in the fate of the others, yet each generations follows the path of the previous ones. The Talberts are generally always in control while the Rowens are always fighting to reclaim something that they had stolen in the first place. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, the Biggses live on the fringes of the action, providing both labor and an audience for the feud between the Talberts and the Rowens. The use of classical Greek tragic elements includes the character flaws that run through all the major characters: violence and greed. The long hard fall of the Rowens from land owners to sharecroppers to day laborers is also a familiar trait of Classical Greek Tragedy.
Setting and Set Design
Since this cycle of plays takes place over 200 years and involves over thirty characters, setting and set design are major elements in how the play is put together. Throughout the entire cycle, the physical setting does not change except for a few scenes where the action is not on the thirty-nine acres Michael Rowen originally bought from the Cherokee. The stage directions are purposefully spare since Schenkkan is not aiming for realism, but rather for mood. In the preface to the plays, he suggests a large box of dirt to represent the land with the actors adding tombstones as the plays progress. He suggests that excessive properties (props) and costuming will get in the way of the message, and should be minimized as much as possible. The sparsity of the stage and set design helps to focus attention on the words of each character.
Dramatic Irony and Cycling
The characters in The Kentucky Cycle are caught in a never-ending circle of murder, betrayal, and revenge. Schenkkan uses the repetition of situation and events to build dramatic irony and tension. The struggle seems pointless since the next generation is just going to do the exact same thing that the previous generation did. However, this cycling builds the dramatic irony to its highest point in The War on Poverty. In this play, the audience knows, although Joshua does not, that he is standing on the land of his forefathers and that the found body is that of Patrick’s sister killed so long ago by her own father. Here is the irony. All Michael, Patrick, Zeke, Jed, and Mary Anne ever wanted was to carry on the family name, but they were completely cut off from their strength, the land. Yet, Joshua, whose only child is dead, and with whom the Rowen line will die out, realizes his connection to the land and his responsibility toward it. This last member of a dying family rejoices in the sight of a wolf in the wild. Wolves were supposed to be extinct in most of the United States in 1975, save for Wisconsin, Minnesota, Page 90 | Top of Articleand North Dakota. The cycle of life, like The Kentucky Cycle itself comes full circle and the play ends were it began: a futureless individual in the wilderness.
There is a greater difference than is often thought between the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s, on the one hand, and the later 1990s, on the other. The 1980s saw the creation of huge personal wealth for some; but this was contrasted with the widespread problems of unemployment, homelessness, and lack of universal healthcare, as well as the expansion of the national debt to grotesque proportions. To many, the Reagan-Bush era in American politics seemed meaner than those of the 1970s; the policies of “trickle-down economics” and bankrupting the Soviet-bloc countries seemed harsh and expensive. Cast against this political background, there was a growing “green” or environmental movement pushing for stricter enforcement of air pollution laws, automobile exhaust emissions standards, and awareness of the devastating effects of strip-mining and coal burning factories on the environment.
By the late 1980s, America was again involved in foreign wars that did not seem to serve any real American interests or obligations. The economy was in recession, federal money for social programs was being used to make interest payments on the national debt, and people were ready for a change and a new beginning. Issues like race relations, women’s rights, and the state of the environment became less urgent, not because they were solved, but because people got tired of talking and thinking about them. In this atmosphere, Robert Schenkkan wrote The Kentucky Cycle as a way to force people to reexamine these issues.
This cycle of plays specifically took on the issues that were dying in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Schenkkan wanted to force people to explore treatment of and attitudes towards women, African-Americans, and the poor in America. He wanted to exploit the righteous anger many people felt at seeing the destruction of the Appalachian mountains by strip-mining and turn it into action to reclaim the land for the people of the area. He wanted people to recognize the inherent violence in our history, in an America based on conquest and blood rather than community and cooperation.
The production of a piece as large and grand as The Kentucky Cycle can hardly be met without both praise and disdain. While it has won many awards, including the Kennedy Center New American Plays Award, the Critics’ Choice Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Schenkkan’s work has not been heralded by all. Many critics doubt its value and some saw it as being the death of American theater. However, most reviewers found it powerful in its message, sparse in its presentation, and humbling in its catharses.
The early reviews were the best. The reviews in Seattle, at its premiere, and Arizona were stunning. Theatre Week called the production marvelous and brutally honest in its depiction of American history. The California reviews were just as good. The Kentucky Cycle started to run into critical problems when Schenkkan decided to take the play to Broadway after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Many New York theater critics found the plays boring, too long, and too unsophisticated for the New York audience. As it turned out, The Kentucky Cycle performed well in New York, although not as well as Schenkkan had hoped. The plays’ popularity did get a boost from Stacey Keach’s appearance on Good Morning America as he was starring in the plays at the time.
Many critics felt that the lack of stage design and the use of actors for multiple roles detracted from the cycle’s power and dramatic force. New York critics, basking in the age of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lush productions like Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Phantom of the Opera seemed disappointed in Schenkkan’s ideas of dialogue-inspired drama instead of set-driven spectacle. They wanted a costume piece, but he wanted to talk about America. Schenkkan intended for a group of about ten to twelve actors to play all the roles, thus putting the burden of dramatic production on their skills and on the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” However, many New York critics found this burden to be too heavy, and panned the plays. In regional theaters and touring shows, The Kentucky Cycle fared better, and struck a chord with most of its audiences.
Academic criticism has been relatively sparse. Both Marianthe Colakis and Charles Edward Lynch take Schenkkan to task for his approach to language and violence in the cycle, while Lynch criticizes the playwright more harshly for what he sees as an insult to the people of Appalachia. Harold Dixon, an enthusiastic supporter of Schenkkan and The Kentucky
Cycle, understands the reluctance of people in Kentucky to embrace the play: “the characters are ignorant, their speech is rough. But this play is not meant to put down Kentucky. Rather, it’s a play about America that happens to be told through the particularities of the Bluegrass State.” Jim Stoll, another supportive critic, states that “The Kentucky Cycle is exciting, compelling and memorable. The critics who say it is not worthy of its Pulitzer Prize become irrelevant once the lights dim. Whatever else it is, it’s a damn good show.”
Whatever the critics say, in performance The Kentucky Cycle moves its audiences. Some find it boring, guilty of regional stereotyping, and silly; and some find it wrenching, an important milestone in modern American culture, and inspirational; but most audiences say that the six hours the complete cycle takes is well worth it.
Rex has a Ph.D and specializes in literature, poetry, and drama. In the following essay he explores the intersection between gender and violence in Robert Schenkkan ’s series of plays.
Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle has been called one of the best examples of unwritten American history; the stuff Americans do not like to talk about. Violence, racism, and domestic abuse are America’s dirty little secrets. The West was the great Frontier, our “Manifest Destiny,” but how often do Americans truly look at what “moving West” meant? The lands beyond the Eastern seaboard were already populated and America’s expansion meant that these peoples must be displaced. Schenkkan suggests that this primary displacement of the native peoples tainted the West and the American identity. The Kentucky Cycle shows that violence, particularly men’s violence, has become an inherent part of American life and history. The characters of Michael, Jed, and Mary Anne Rowen clearly show that male-dominated thinking and action causes the rise in the level of violence and the degeneration of the American Dream.
Michael Rowen is a bad man from the very beginning of the cycle. The Kentucky Cycle opens shortly after the Cherokee have massacred a white
settlement. Michael finds Earl Tod, the man who sold the guns to the Cherokee and plays the innocent survivor in order to get information out of Tod. Michael shows no remorse for the deaths of his wife and children nor for the other settlers. Instead, he sees this as an opportunity to stake his claim to the land. This is Michael’s first mistake. In the world that Schenkkan creates, land cannot be “owned.” It simply exists. Michael violates the land by the means he uses to obtain it. He kills Tod and then kills his young accomplice, Sam, without thought or remorse. Michael’s purchase comes with the shedding of blood. Even the Cherokee are not safe from Michael’s evil. Although he makes a deal with them for guns, lead, and gun powder in exchange for land, Michael cannot deal honestly with them. The blankets that he gives them are infected with smallpox. As the title of the first play suggests, Michael is a
“master of the trade” of death, evil, and the double cross.
Michael’s evil becomes more focused in the next two plays, The Courtship of Morning Star and The Homecoming. Both of these plays expose Michael’s hatred and fear of women and his own mortality. Michael is evil and Schenkkan goes to great lengths to portray that evil as a fundamental part of the American character. Michael realizes that all of his work will be for nothing if he does not have children to establish his legacy. However, he does not have the time, energy, or character to convince any woman to live with him. In a macho feat, he kidnaps a young Cherokee girl whose tribe has been practically destroyed by Michael’s “gift” of smallpox. She tries to escape, but Michael is determined. He does not ask her if she wants to be with him; he makes her his property through rape and torture. After her first escape attempt, he cuts the tendons in her leg to keep her from being able to run. Michael is such a disgusting creature that he knows that no woman would want to be around him, much less have children for him, without force.
Michael insists that a family and children are what he wants from Morning Star, but his violence and evil dominate even in this aspect of his life. He threatens Morning Star that if her first child is not a boy, he will kill the child. Here, Schenkkan is displaying Michael’s utter ignorance of biology; most people today know that the man determines the sex of the child, not the woman. Yet even when Patrick is born, Michael cannot bring himself to touch the child, much less love him. Michael is disgusted by the fact that Morning Star’s breasts bleed as she feeds the baby; milk and blood together are what makes him a Rowen. However, Michael is afraid of his son, afraid of what having a child and growing older means. Violence can only rule while the tyrant is strong and young enough to physically enforce his/her rule. This fear becomes manifest in The Homecoming.
The Homecoming is pivotal in the development of violence because it shows that the violence crosses both gender and generation lines. Patrick seems like a much better man than his father. There is a hint that he cares for Rebecca Talbert and that he will reject the evil ways of his father. However, Morning Star’s hatred for her husband and Michael’s own evil character force Patrick to behave exactly like him. Michael returns from town with an African slave. Again, Michael could not get a woman to be with him voluntarily; he has to capture or to buy them. Michael, reenforced by Morning Star’s earlier conversations with her son, pushes Patrick beyond his breaking point, by calling him a half-breed and hinting that he, Patrick, will never inherit Michael’s land. In an almost instant replay of how his father got his land and wife in the first place, Patrick stabs Michael, shoots Rebecca’s father, forces her into the house where he will rape and marry her, and banishes Morning Star. Michael can die because Patrick has become just as evil and violent as he was.
The violence in the Rowens continues to flow through the generations. Patrick’s evil matches that of his father when he sells Jessie Biggs, his own half-brother. The violence seems to skip a generation only because Zeke does not have the opportunity to wield it as his father and son do. However, Zeke’s violence is possibly more dangerous. He has tainted his son, Jed with a lust for vengeance and a taste for blood. Jed’s violence is less obvious that either of his ancestors. He is devious and pretends to be a trusted friend and companion. He seems to like Randall Talbert, the ten-year-old son of Richard Talbert. Randall worships Jed as only a young boy can worship his hero. Yet, Jed is part of an evil plot to destroy the Talbert family. The Rowens, drenched in blood and violence, see nothing wrong with murdering the Talbert men and raping the Talbert women. Again, violence has become a way of life, integral to the functioning of society.
The depths of Jed’s evil only become apparent after he has joined Richard Talbert’s regiment. While Richard is going to fight for honor and the Southern way of life (things unworthy of protecting anyway), Jed could care less. He is only waiting for an opportunity to kill Richard. Unlike Michael, Patrick, and even Zeke, who are open about their hatred, violence, and anger, Jed pretends to be Richard’s friend. He saves Richard in a battle only Page 95 | Top of Articleto push him off the boat as they cross the a river escaping from the enemy. Richard, fool that he was, never realized nor suspected that a product of such violence could be violent himself. Jed carries on this mission when he rides with the outlaws and returns home to oversee the destruction of the Talberts. Without remorse or even hesitation, he kills Randall, and rapes both of his sisters. The cycle of violence has come full circle. The Rowens once again are in possession of the land, which they got through blood, violence, and murder.
One of the most interesting aspects about The Kentucky Cycle is the intersection between violence and gender. The Rowens, in Part One, are all men. The only Rowen daughter, born to Morning Star, was killed by Michael, only a few days after her birth. Schenkkan seems to be chastising American society for the way it has raised boys. Boys and men, in this cycle of plays, are violent, bloodthirsty, murdering thugs who cannot get enough of whatever it is, be it money, land, or women.
The only Rowen woman born to the family and allowed to live is Mary Anne, Jed’s daughter. Schenkkan states in his “Author’s Note” that Mary Anne is based on and named after his own wife. She is also the only admirable, good character in the entire cycle. All the other characters, even the other women, are evil or, at least, manipulative. Mary Anne, on the other hand, seems pure of heart and genuine. She first appears in Tall Tales as both a heart-broken adult and a wide-eyed girl of fourteen. As a young girl, full of hope and love, Mary Anne dreams of a future and far-off places. She is the first character who seems to love the land for itself, not to own or for what it can produce, but just for itself. The loving description she gives of Spring in the opening of Tall Tales displays more than just a foreshadowing of what is lost to strip-mining. It gives the audience an insight into Mary Anne’s soul. Here is a character without the bloodlust and violence that has tainted her family. She does, however, have a touch of greed about her.
Mary Anne wants something different than what her community can offer. She wants to see London, Paris, New York, and New Orleans. She wants to experience life and love and joy so badly that she does not realize that she has all of that right at home. Even after JT Wells has tricked her father into selling his land for a tiny fraction of what it was worth, Mary Anne believes in the myth JT has spun at the dinner table. She, pure of heart and without the violence that taints her family and society, cannot conceive of people so mean and devious as the mining companies JT represents. In the end, that innocent trust costs her all that she held dear. Schenkkan seems to be saying that murder, bloodshed, and vengeful violence are not the answer to survival, but neither is wide-eyed, trusting innocence.
Mary Anne is shocked out of her innocence by the actions of the mining companies and the presence of one man, Abe Steinman. Mary Anne had been trapped in the life of a miner’s wife, watching her husband kill himself in the mine, watching her children die of typhoid, watching her mountains die from rape and exposure, and her community collapse under the weight of suffering. She feels helpless and defeated. Then Abe comes. Abe arrives to organize a union among the miners. Mary Anne latches onto the idea of community, working together rather than separately. This idea inspires Mary Anne, fuels her, and allows her to overthrow the legacy of blood and murder in her family. Although there is violence associated with the Union and its efforts, Schenkkan suggests that this kind of violence is necessary to prevent the soul-destroying violence of corporate greed. Mary Anne is successful in establishing a union that is supposed to fight for the community and provide what the people need in terms of education, health care, and social healing. Mary Anne, because she is female and because she has rejected the vengeful bloody violence inherent in the American identity comes closer than any other character to catching and holding her dreams.
Violence, whether for good or ill, is a part of America’s heritage and history. The Kentucky Cycle exploits this tendency in Americans, showing that violence can be useful, as in the character of Mary Anne. However, violence in the name of personal or corporate greed, murder, or domination is never anything but evil. All Americans, women and men, are susceptible to the taint of violence that seems inherent in our very national character.
Source: Michael Rex, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.
In the following review, Kauffman presents “The Kentucky Cycle” negatively through its lack of themes.
A decade after MTV confirmed that the American attention span has been reduced to approximately two and a half minutes, it’s more than a little ironic Page 96 | Top of Articlethat playwrights are offering endurance tests in lieu of dramas. Less than a year after the highly praised Part I of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America opened on Broadway, Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle has finally arrived on the Great White Way. Consuming six hours of playing time evenly divided two discrete seatings (as compared to the roughly seven hours of Angels in America), The Kentucky Cycle is more an event than a play. Its commercial success will depend on how many people are willing to invest $85 or $100 for seats to prove that their power of concentration is greater than that of their neighbors. But what, ultimately, is there to concentrate on?
Like so many other plays and performance pieces that have emerged in the aftermath of the Jesse Helms-N.E.A. imbroglio over the past few years, The Kentucky Cycle may be relentlessly politically correct but it’s also dramatically wrong, even vacant. Set in eastern Kentucky and spanning 200 years in American history beginning in 1775, Schenkkan’s cycle of nine one-act “plays” focuses primarily on one family line as it sets out to debunk the myth of the American frontier, among other things. For the scope of its ambitions, the media have been invoking everyone from Aeschylus and Wagner to Shakespare, in a misguided effort of accommodate Schenkkan’s achievement.
One might find more natural comparisons to Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson for their similar efforts to capture a sprawling history of this violent and materialistic continent through a marathon cycle of plays. Though O’Neill wrote only two of his intended nine-play cycle (A Touch of the Poet and the unfinished More Stately Mansions), and one might quibble about the relative merits of the different plays in Wilson’s ongoing oeuvre (having thus far engendered Ma Rainey ’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running), both of these playwrights point to the principal weakness in Schenkkan’s scheme. Not only does Schenkkan lack the poetry that they sometimes achieve, but the nature of his aspiration pales in comparison with their more epic undertakings.
Ironically, in spite of its imposing length, The Kentucky Cycle(at the Royale Theatre) proves too brief to develop any of its seventy-odd characters or to sustain any of its themes in anything other than bromidic ways. It’s a matter of ambition masquerading as art. But it’s precisely the kind of ambition that a television-saturated culture can latch on to and promote simply for its gargantuan body.
Rather than joining the ranks of great playwrights who have endeavored to portray the human dilemma over a vast period of generations, Schenkkan owes his real inspiration of TV miniseries, by now generic, with their bite-sized morals and vestpocket characters engulfed by byzantine plots of mammoth proportions. It’s not a six-hour attention span that Schenkkan is catering to (or banking on) but a thirty-minute one, which is more or les what each “play” in the cycle requires to be performed. The only things missing from the enterprise are commercial breaks.
On its own limited, soap-opera terms, The Kentucky Cycle does make for superb and efficient storytelling. It provides lurid melodrama, suspense and violence at practically every turn, to the point where it becomes ludicrously predictable as one generation of the Rowen family bleeds into the next. The first of Schenkkan’s long line of evil protagonists is Michael Rowen, an Irish indentured servant. In the opening “play” (in any other context, this twenty-minute scenario would be referred to as a prologue or a scene), called “Masters of the Trade,” Michael tracks down Earl Tod, a Scottish trapper who smuggles guns to the Cherokees. Both Michael and his young sidekick Sam have lost family members in a recent Indian massacre, and they’re seeking revenge. But moments after Sam kills Tod, it’s Michael himself who offers gunpowder to the Indians to save his own skin. To further appease the Cherokees who considered Tod their friend, Michael brutally stabs Sam. “What kind of animal are you?” ask the Cherokees. “A necessary animal,” responds Michael.
By offering to supply them with more rifles, Michael secures a promise from the Cherokees that he can live on the land, although in the first of many obviously portentous lines, they warn him that the land is “cursed” and “dark and bloody.” Just to indemnify himself against betrayal, Michael gives the Indians blankets contaminated with smallpox.
In such obvious fashion does Schenkkan load the villainous deck not only against Michael Rowen but against all his offspring. Presented as a paradigm of the American frontiersman—and, as we shall see, not only of his descendants but of all Americans except female Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans—Michael Rowen sets the stage for the greed and backstabbing vengeance that will follow over successive generations, taking Page 97 | Top of Articleus up to 1975. But what really emerges in the first of Schenkkan’ s nine-part cycle is a formula for reductive dramatic tactics and revisionist history, puerile devices that ultimately undercut consideration of any of his more meaningful themes.
To make his primary cardboard villain more villainous still, Schenkkan retains Michael Rowen as a character in the next two “plays.” In “The Courtship of Morning Star,” set in 1776, or a year after the opening, Michael goes about the messy business of taming his Cherokee wife, Morning Star: first by chaining her to him while they sleep at night, and finally by cutting a tendon in her leg to prevent her from ever running away. Michael tells Morning Star that he wants her to bear him children, but he admonishes that he will murder any female offspring, since they’re of no use in him—a heinous deed he eventually commits.
“The Homecoming,” set sixteen years later, focuses on Michael’s son Patrick, who is being wooed by Rebecca Talbert. Patrick intends to marry Rebecca for her father’s land, which he covets and which adjoins the Rowen property he expects to inherit. But after learning from his mother that his hateful father won’t bequeath the family land, Patrick—shades of Marrat!—brutally stabs him while he’s bathing. His mother encourages the murder so she can pursue her love affair with Joe Talbert, Rebecca’s father. But in one of many melodramatic eavesdropping developments, Joe and Rebecca were offstage, in the ostensible bushes, where they observed Patrick’s patricide. And when Joe threatens to turn Patrick over to the authorities, Patrick has no recourse but to kill him as well, in the process banishing his mother from the family homestead.
From Michael to Patrick, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, like father like son, and the child is father to the man. The superficial mortality and greetingcard mentality that mark the first third of The Kentucky Cycle become the basic roots of the remainig six “plays.” In “Ties That Bind,” set in 1819, the Talberts legally recover the land from the Rowens vow to get it back, and do so forty-two years later (in “God’s Great Supper”) by killing off much of the Talbert clan in the midst of the Civil War.
Between the Rowens and the Talberts, the cycle quickly becomes more than a little reminiscent of old Devil Anse and the Hatfield-McCoy feud, as the eras roll by and the plays pile on. Even more ludicrous is the token introduction of a black family line, which commences with a woman slave Michael Rowen brings back from Louisville but remains
in the subservient background throughout the entire cycle.
In 1890, the Rowens sell the mineral rights to their recovered property to “those Standard Oil people.” By 1920, they’re forming a union to combat poor working conditions in a coal mine run by, of all people, the Talberts. But even as the plays become longer and more detailed, somehow it all becomes murkier and harder to keep track of who’s a Talbert, who’s a Rowen, much less to care. By 1954, the coal workers’ union is contending with infighting and under-the-table deals. Joshua Rowen, president of the local chapter, loses his son Scott in a mining accident that could have been avoided had he not cooperated with management by overlooking certain safety violations.
Though this particular development is straight out of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, it’s not Joshua’s guilt as much as Schenkkan’s apparent reluctance to end pessimistically that permits this final Rowen character to break with the past. We’re given to understand that the pattern of greed, vengeance and bloodshed that ruled in these here parts for 200 years is suddenly, and inexplicably, erased. Joshua discovers the corpse of the infantt girl murdered by his great-great-great grandfather, Michael, and returns it to its proper burial site. There are other symbols, of course, such as a pocket-watch that gets passed down from generation to generation and connects these playlets more handily than the script does; or a giant oak tree on the Rowen homestead that is cut down by the mining concerns.
According to Schenkkan, it was only after his cycle of plays grew that he began to realize it transcended the history of eastern Kentucky to be Page 98 | Top of Article“about America. It had become an unintended exploration of the process of ’myth making’: that alchemy of wish fulfillment and political expediency by which history is collected and altered and revised, by which events become stories, and stories become folklore, and folklore becomes myth. Ultimately, I realized that the play was about American mythology.”
In an author’s note to the script of The Kentucky Cycle, Schenkkan proceeds to discuss the Myth of the Frontier, which he further subdivides into the Myth of Abundance and the Myth of Escape. The first he uses to point out “our ruin on a great scale,” our rape of natural resources. The second has led to an avoidance of our past and a loss of identity. “Without the past, what is there to connect us to the present?” asks Schenkkan rhetorically. “If actions don’t have consequences, how can there be a mortality? Individuals who display such a cavalier attitude toward their own lives are currently diagnosed as ’sociopaths’; but what do you call a society that functions that way?”
This is all to be applauded even as it suggests a simplistic glimpse of grave and complicated issues. Though many of the cycle’s plot twists resemble those in Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s revenge plays, what’s missing is subtlety and depth to flesh out the characters’ motives. To be at all effective, the cycle must rely on the resources of the staging and the energies of its overworked, twenty-one-member ensemble.
As conceived by the author in collaboration with the director Warner Shook, the spartan scenic elements are geared to emphasize the theatricality of the event. When they aren’t part of the action on stage, the actors can be seen sitting on the sidelines, bearing “witness” to what transpires like so many members of a Greek chorus. With exposed scaffolding, a rear brick wall and little more than costumes to indicate the specific period, it all becomes a throwback to Thornton Wilder. (The Kentucky Cycle is essentially an Our Town gone wrong, which is yet another manifestation of Schenkkan’s revisionist look at history.) The sweep and the movement of the ensemble are more directly borrowed from Nicholas Nickleby. But Shook never derives the ingenious moments of magic and felicity that Trevor Nunn obtained in his staging of that marathon Dickens classic a decade ago.
Stacy Keach, the one “name” in the cast who joined The Kentucky Cycle company last summer in time for its run at the Kennedy Center prior to Broadway, is imposing as various Rowen patriarchs. And Scott MacDonald is particularly effective as a number of Rowen sons. Lillian Garrett-Groag and Jeanne Paulsen stand out as a few of the Rowen wives and matriarchs, who are women and therefore noble victims in keeping with Schenkkan’s sophomoric scheme. But the players have all they can do to differentiate the many characters they portray, let alone rise above the cliches they embody.
Despite the ensemble’s efforts, there is more drama—and mystery, for that matter—in how this work managed to come to Broadway than there is in the cycle itself. Much has been made of the fact that it’s the most expensive nonmusical in theatrical history. But because it’s essentially two plays, its $250 million price tag should be halved for a more accurate assessment. There’s been even more brouhaha over its being the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama before playing in New York. This isn’t exactly true either, however, since Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer technically before it opened on Broadway a few years ago.
But even if The Kentucky Cycle set a precedent by winning the Pulitzer in 1992, or a good year and a half before it arrived on Broadway, it’s more telling that such an occurrence became a pattern when Angels in America won this past season, also before opening on Broadway (indeed, even before Kushner finished writing the second half of his marathon work). It’s all rather indicative of pressure on the Pulitzer committee to honor the regional theater movement, which has grown dramatically in the past decade. Without the kind of momentum and advance publicity the Pulitzer bestows, it’s doubtful that a play like The Kentucky Cycle would make it to Broadway at all. But to mention that Why Marry?, Beyond the Horizon, Icebound, and Hell-Bent Fer Heaven were four of the first six plays to win a Pulitzer is to throw into question the ultimate value of the prize in the first place.
The phenomenon that is The Kentucky Cycle is even more revealing in terms of cultural competition between the West and East Coasts, if not the different sensibilities they seem to represent. Perhaps predictably, what wowed them in Seattle and Los Angeles, where The Kentucky Cycle was nutured, is being less warmly welcomed in New York. But in this case, it isn’t just a matter of “Your play’s not good enough for us.” It’s rather that the theatricalization of what amounts to a TV miniseries was more apt to have an appeal and be mistaken for “art” in Los Angeles than it was in New York. And Page 99 | Top of Articlethe poor folk in the middle of the country, let’s say Kentucky, may be forgiven for not knowing who to believe anymore. Or what to watch.
Source: David Kaufman, “The Kentucky Cycle,” (review) in The Nation, Vol. 257, No. 20, December 13, 1993, p. 740.
In the following essay, Brustein explores the study of American materialism despite the play’s several limitations.
Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, now stopping at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington before it goes to Broadway, is in nine acts and two parts, consuming about six hours of playing time. Aside from any values it might have as a work of the imagination, The Kentucky Cycle is yet another sign that American dramatists are beginning to fashion their plays into protracted journeys at the very moment when audiences are apparently losing patience with sitting in the theater at all.
Marathon plays, of course, have been a commonplace of dramatic literature since The Oresteia. One thinks of Marlowe’s two-part Tamburlaine, Goethe’s two-part Faust, Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, Strindberg’s trilogy The Road to Damascus and Shaw’s “metabiological Pentateuch” Back to Methuselah, among others, all of which attempted to endow the drama with something approaching epic form. But until the last few years, there was little evidence that American dramatists had a similar appetite for theatrical giantism, apart from Eugene O’Neill, whose monumental works culminated in a projected nine-play cycle about American materialism.
O’Neill’s cycle was left unfinished (A Touch of the Poet and an early draft of More Stately Mansions are the only surviving remnants), but there have recently been a number of American efforts to achieve O’Neillian scope, among them Preston Jones’s The Texas Trilogy, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Robert Wilson’s early large-scale extravaganzas (one of which took seven days to perform). Now comes The Kentucky Cycle, designed to be precisely what O’Neill originally envisioned—an epic study of American materialism as seen through the prism of family life.
Whatever one thinks of Schenkkan’s achievement, one has to admire his nerve. The Kentucky
Cycle is a construct of domestic plays endowed with the dimensions of a national saga. In the program, Schenkkan provides a genealogical chart to help us follow the extended progress of three different families tied to each other by marriage and hatred. Beginning with the Indian wars of 1775, the play ranges through 200 years of American life, touching on the Civil War, the unionization of coal miners in the 1920s, the compromises of the umw in the 1950s and the aftermath of the Korean War in 1954, finally ending in 1975 with an epilogue devoted to tying up the strands of plot and theme. Although the references to recorded history are often muted, and the canvas is geographically narrow, it is clearly the author’s intention to provide a general historical overview of this continent through the device of familial events.
Schenkkan’s central theme is the despoilation of the American landscape by greed and rapine. There are virtually no heroes in this work, only
plunderers and their victims. The one pure element, aside from a few black characters, is the land itself, and that is gradually reduced to mud and rubble. To reinforce this point, most of the action takes place in Howsen County, in the Cumberland district of eastern Kentucky, marked by a thick forest and a magnificent oak tree that serves as the central symbol. Neither the forest nor the oak survives the ravages of rapacious men. The property belongs to the Rowen family after its patriarch Michael procures it from the Cherokees in exchange for guns (though the Indians believe that “no one owns this land, it cannot be given”). It is entirely consistent with Rowen family behavior throughout the next 200 years that Michael also trades the Indians contaminated blankets that will infect most of the tribe with small pox.
Although Schenkkan’s Indians are not exactly noble savages, they are contrasted with the white man in a manner clearly influenced by the racial assumptions of the movie Dances with Wolves. (There is even a howling wolf to begin and end the play.) “Here the savage was taught his lessons in perfidy by masters of the trade,” reads the epigraph by Harry Caudill, whose Night Comes to the Cumberlands was the inspiration for Schenkkan’s research. The Cherokees stick to their bargains; the settlers are invariably mean and treacherous. Treachery, in fact, is almost a leitmotif of the play, and its repeated reversal device is an offer of friendship followed by an abrupt and savage murder. Rowen even betrays his own wife, an Indian woman named Morning Star, first by cutting her tendon to prevent her departure, then by killing their infant daughter and finally by fathering a child on a slave girl he bought at an auction (thus initiating a related black family line). He is rewarded in kind when his half-breed son, Patrick, stabs him to death in a tub.
The only vaguely moral figure in this murderous family is Patrick’s grandson, Jed, but even he is involved in a series of grisly actions. After the Talbert family, a rival clan though also related by blood, has reduced the Rowens to sharecroppers on their own property, the Rowens take delayed revenge by slaughtering all but the Talbert womenfolk. Jed joins Quantrill’s raiders during the Civil War and participates in a scurvy ambush of Union soldiers.
After the war, Jed makes the mistake of selling mining rights to his recovered land for a dollar an acre, and Standard Oil, strip-mining for coal, creates a sulfurous scene of havoc and pillage that more than compensates for the sins of the family. The unionization of the coal miners is marked by similar acts of treachery. Mary Ann Rowen’s husband, Tommy, characteristically betrays a friendly union agitator who is gunned down by the owners. When their son, Joshua, eventually becomes the president of the district union, he betrays his own local by compromising on safety standards. In the inevitable catastrophe, his own son is killed. The play ends with Joshua recovering a 200-year-old infant corpse, wrapped in buckskin, which happens to be the murdered baby daughter of his ancestor Michael.
As my synopsis might suggest, this remorseless depiction of the white settler’s duplicity and meanness eventually grows tiring, even to a spectator with no particular illusions about the benevolence of human nature. Occasionally a character, usually a woman, will detach herself from the contemptible crowd to express a decent emotion. But for the most part, everyone acts like a survivalist, sacrificing friend and foe alike for the sake of personal gain. It’s as if only Snopeses inhabited Yoknapatawpha County. There is no sentiment in this play, but, curiously, Schenkkan’s endless parade of base-hearted men eventually becomes a reverse form of sentimentality. One leaves the theater persuaded of the human capacity for evil but also confirmed in one’s own virtue.
Where the author excels is in his storytelling. Despite its length, the play is never boring, and despite its growing predictability, it is often engrossing. Page 101 | Top of ArticleThe scene in the first part called “Ties That Bind,” in which Patrick Rowen is dispossessed of his land by a venal judge and a vengeful neighbor, is a subtle portrait of relentless retribution, as satisfying as a morality play. Even here, however, where a suspenseful plot carries the action forward, one wishes for language that would deepen it. Schenkkan’s dialogue is never less than serviceable, and his hillbilly dialect usually sounds authentic. What is missing is the poetry that could plumb emotions beyond vengeance and hatred.
In short, for all its ambitions, The Kentucky Cycle rarely escapes melodrama, and its panoramic sweep suggests that it would be most comfortable as an epic film or a television miniseries. I don’t say this patronizingly, only as a way of suggesting that its limitations might be better disguised by authentic locations and rural landscapes. Schenkkan’s laudable desire to universalize his theme is often trivialized by domestic twosomes involved in table arguments. And the importance he attaches to the land as a central symbol is not reinforced very well by a set composed of wood platforms and steel pipes.
Given these limitations, Michael Olich’s abstract scene design is very flexible, and Warner Shook’s direction is a model of fluidity and economy. The twelve-member cast, supported by an eight-member chorus that acts as townfolk, scene changers and silent witnesses, transforms into a variety of characters with considerable authority. Stacy Keach, playing a medley of black-hearted Rowen characters, gives his most ferocious performance since Macbird. Jeanne Paulsen displays towering strength in a number of matriarchal roles. And Gregory Itzin, Randy Oglesby, John Aylward, Jacob (Tuck) Milligan, and Ronald Hippe create a range of colorful Kentuckians, making Howsen County seem a lot more populated than it really is.
So, with all my cavils, and with no small doubts about how it will fare in the commercial theater, I wish this epic well on its journey to New York. Evolved by a system of resident theaters, it is a testimony to the creative health that sometimes manages to flourish there, against all odds.
Source: Robert Brustein “The Kentucky Cycle,” (review) in The New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 18, November 1, 1993, p. 28.
In this review, Horn portrays “The Kentucky Cycle” as a mythological study in the American past. Arriving in Kentucky’s Cumberland hills in 1775, the patriarch of the Rowen clan kidnaps for himself a Cherokee bride. When she proves unwilling and tries to escape, he lames her by slashing her tendons. Fifteen years later, this resourceful pioneer coos to his captive bride his sweet memories of their “courtin’ days.”
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Source: Miriam Horn, “The Kentucky Cycle,” (review) in U.S. News & World Report, Vol. 115, No. 11, September 20, 1993, p. 72.
Colakis, Marianthe, “Aeschlyean Elements in Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle,” in Text-and-Presentation, Vol. 16, 1995, pp. 19-23.
Colby, Douglas, review of The Kentucky Cycle, in The Spectator, Vol. 27, November, 1993, p. 60.
Lahr, John, review of The Kentucky Cycle, in The New Yorker, December 6, 1993, pp. 213–18.
Lynch, Charles Edward, “Breaking The Kentucky Cycle: A Native’s Struggle with Language and Identity,” in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4, 1994, pp. 141–48.
Regan, Margaret, “Arizona Repertory Theatre Stages Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle,” in The Tucson Weekly, Vol. 5, November, 1995.
Schenkkan, Robert, “Author’s Note,” in The Kentucky Cycle, Plume, 1993, pp. 329–334.
Simon, John, review of The Kentucky Cycle, in New York, November 29, 1993, p. 79.
Stoll, Jim, “Cycle Delivers on Kentucky Story,” Kernel Press, 1996.
Caudill, Harry, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a Biography of a Depressed Area, Little Brown, 1963.
This work is a sociological study of the Cumberland Plateau, full of rich characters, violence, and courage. The study reads in a theatrical style and deals with many of the same issues expressed in The Kentucky Cycle.
Evans, Greg, “’Cycle’ Rolls into Broadway’s Red Sea,” in Varitey, December 20, 1993, pp. 55–58.
Robert Schenkkan’s two-part The Kentucky Cycle is expected to join a growing group of straight plays with losses that once were the sole province of expensive musicals. The play grossed only $170,951 of a potential $349,299 on Broadway for the week ending December 5, 1993.
Mason, Bobbie Ann, “Recycling Kentucky,” in The New Yorker, November 1, 1993, pp. 52–60.
In “The Kentucky Cycle,” Robert Schenkkan set out to redress the exploitation of Eastern Kentucky, but some Kentuckians wish he hadn’t. One criticism of the play is that it portrays the victims as bringing about their own downfall.
McCarthy, Cormac, The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts, Ecco Press, 1994.
McCarthy’s play explores the effects of racism, sexism, and daily life on a family of African-Americans in Louisville, Kentucky in modern times.
Morris, Rebecca, The Kentucky Cycle, in The London Times, January, 1994, p. 64.
The set design for the New York City production of The Kentucky Cycle at the Royale Theater is discussed. Set designer Michael Olich thinks of his work as more of a scenic installation than a traditional set.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693500015