The Kentucky Cycle

by Robert Schenkkan

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Critical Context

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When The Kentucky Cycle was first produced, it offended some people in southeastern Kentucky and throughout Appalachia who did not like how the play portrayed their region. They considered the play just another instance of stereotyping of “hillbillies,” another example of the media’s obligatory tour of Appalachian poverty. The award of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in drama to The Kentucky Cycle did not help matters, since it seemed to applaud such stereotyping and imply gross national ignorance about the region.

Yet many Appalachians would wholeheartedly subscribe to the play’s environmental message, and it is this message that Schenkkan has said he meant to send. The play is a warning: Yesterday Appalachia, tomorrow Los Angeles. Although the play portrays a grim regional history, it forecasts a grim national future.

The epic nature of the text and the original staging of the play also indicate that The Kentucky Cycle is far from a realistic portrayal. There is not room in the play for extensive character development and for examining all sides of the play’s complex questions. Rather, the mode of the play is like the drama of the German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who gave the world the term “epic drama” to describe the propagandistic works he wrote. Similar plays in the United States are the historical outdoor dramas and religious dramas, and reaching further back in time, one can see distant similarities of The Kentucky Cycle to the medieval mystery cycles.

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Critical Overview