Robert Schenkkan Essay - Critical Essays


In his best plays, The Kentucky Cycle and Handler, Robert Schenkkan treats southern life and history in a way that suggests the violence and sensationalism of the novelist Cormac McCarthy and earlier practitioners of the so-called southern gothic style. The broad historical sweep of the Kentucky plays is Faulknerian in its depiction of contending families, and the fascination with snake handling in Handler would have pleased Flannery O’Connor. Heaven on Earth features a cast of southern stereotypes: an alcoholic West Texas redneck, his religious grandmother and her coworker at the local beauty salon, a pompous broadcaster for the Christian Associates Television Network, and a con man who buys and sells used appliances—all familiar figures in the literature of the modern South. Schenkkan’s dialogue often matches the coarse wit of such masters of the contemporary southern idiom as Barry Hannah and Harry Crews, although his one-act plays have none of these local color specifics. Final Passages, though not set in the South, has a solid historical incident to build on—the discovery in 1878 of the San Christobal floating off Nova Scotia with all crew and passengers dead. In general, these works have met with a favorable response, but some scholars have hotly disputed what they judge the hackneyed depiction of Kentucky as the benighted “Dogpatch” and brutal “Skunk Hollow” of Al Capp’s famous “Li’l Abner” comic strip.

Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth is set in June of a recent year in the small town of Waylon, Texas, where Bobby, Jr., lives with his grandmother, Martha, in a two-bedroom, two-story bungalow resting on cinder blocks disguised by wooden latticework. On the wrap-around porch are a swing, bug zapper, and a crude sign announcing “Used appliances/ bought and sold/ and REPAIRED.” Cluttering the porch and the yard are numerous old televisions, radios, clocks, washing machines, and refrigerators, the centerpiece of which is an ancient freezer. A gravel strip around the house, a brown lawn, a mailbox, and some struggling rose bushes complete the décor. “The whole picture suggests a fierce if unsuccessful struggle with age, dry heat, and dwindling financial resources.”

Bobby, Jr., staggers out to the porch and looks around. He is thirtyish and good-looking but dissipated and hung over. He takes a can of beer from the freezer and disappears into the house as Martha approaches with Jessie, her neighbor and coworker at the beauty parlor. Their small talk covers such banalities as praying to Ed McMahon to win the Publisher’s Sweepstakes and Jessie’s struggle to lose weight by filling her jellybean bowls with dietetic candies that taste like “sun-dried playdough.” They worriedly discuss Bobby’s frustrations, and when he emerges from the house he greets them with angry profanities and self-hating mockery of his prospects in life. This first scene ends with Jessie’s bitter statement of her lack of religious faith and the religious but despairing Martha’s query of “What’s faith without hope?”

In scene 2, Bobby and his friend Miguel are smoking dope and drinking beer at two o’clock in the morning. Their drunken raucous behavior produces some crude but funny dialogue. When Miguel leaves after a disagreement, Bobby turns in a rage to a standing lamp, which he swings in fury, singing “Plastic Jesus” and hitting the porch light in an explosion of sparks that shocks him onto his back. Martha appears on the darkened porch, engaging the cruelly insulting Bobby in a plea for religious faith and hopes for a miracle. Jessie comes over to join in the hubbub, and in the uncertain light, she perceives the face of Jesus on the freezer door. The excited women think their miracle has occurred (the image in truth is a stain from Bobby’s many gushers of hot beer opened at the freezer), and act 1 ends with Martha shouting, “BOBBY GET YOUR ASS OUT HERE, BOY, WE GOT US A MIRACLE!

Act 2 opens on the miraculous freezer surrounded by walkers, canes, crutches, slings, and all the other devices used by the disabled. A large banner proclaims “The home of the...

(The entire section is 1724 words.)