The Kentucky Cycle

by Robert Schenkkan

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Critical Overview

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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 Ken tucky 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.

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