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.

The Kentucky Cycle Summary

The Kentucky Cycle Part One Summary

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 gives 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...

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The Kentucky Cycle Part Two Summary

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 wife 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...

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