The Kentucky Cycle

by Robert Schenkkan

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The Intersection Between Gender and Violence

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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...

(This entire section contains 1965 words.)

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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 inThe 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 to 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. Rex has a Ph.D and specializes in literature, poetry, and drama.

A Lack of Themes

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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 that 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 us 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 re- mains 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 ‘‘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-onemember 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 the 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.

American Materialism

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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 Bradley University’s 1997 production of The Kentucky Cycle, featuring Shaun O’Keefe as Ezekiel Rowen, Isaiah E. Brooms as Jessie Biggs, and Stephen Clark as Zachariah Rowen. This scene from Ties that Bind depicts the recurring violence in Schenkkan’s play, as Jessie chokes a member of the Rowen family. 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 halfbreed 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 basehearted 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 enT grossing. The 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.

A Mythological Study in the American Past

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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.’’

Such distortions of memory—both personal and historical—are at the core of The Kentucky Cycle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 6 -hour drama that opened last week at Washington’s Kennedy Center before heading to Broadway this fall. Encompassing 200 years and nearly 100 characters, the play is not only a darkly revisionist view of American history but a meditation on the process by which history is constructed, varnished and mythologized. In playwright Robert Schenkkan’s vision, the proud frontier myth is itself the source of much of America’s social and environmental decay. His cycle of nine one-act plays—seen over the course of two evenings—demands of audiences a less romantic confrontation with their past. Depending on sensibilities, the controversial drama is either a thrillingly theatrical study in historiography or yet another politically correct slander against the American past.

The genesis of the play came more than a decade ago, during Schenkkan’s own chance encounter with America’s first frontier. On a trip with a friend to the ‘‘hollers’’ of Appalachia, in a oneroom shack with a dirt floor where an unemployed teenage couple were struggling to raise two small children, Schenkkan discovered the ‘‘smell of poverty— as though you had taken a corn-shuck mattress, soaked it in piss, covered it with garbage and coal and set it on fire.’’ Even more disturbing was his visit to the gleaming mansion nearby, where a coal mine owner scorned the playwright’s pity for the ‘‘lazy welfare queens.’’

The desire to understand the ‘‘unacknowledged relationship’’ between such extremes of wealth and poverty led Schenkkan to the searing accounts of Appalachian history by Kentucky legislator Harry Caudill and, eventually, to the creation of the two great rival clans whose enduring blood feud provides the spine of Schenkkan’s cycle. It is through the prism of these families—the rich land-owning Talberts and the poor laboring Rowens as well as the Biggs family, descended from Michael Rowen’s slaves—that Schenkkan traces America’s two centuries of history. To their few hundred acres of ‘‘dark and bloody land’’ come the Indian wars and the Civil War, coal mines, company towns, strikes, corrupt unions and, finally, shattered war veterans and abandoned, alcoholic wives.

Just as important as the history is the way that history is transformed over time. Neighbors murder one another’s children and poison one another’s land; their greed prevails over even the laws of kin. But as quickly as crimes are committed, they are also forgotten, masked with patriotic cant or the preaching of hellfire and the righteous vengeance of God. ‘‘There ain’t no truth,’’ says the sweet-talking con man who swindles the Rowens out of the mineral rights to their land. ‘‘All there is is stories.’’

Debunking myths. Stories, Schenkkan believes, can be a dangerous thing, the denial of the past as destructive for a nation as it is for a human being. In his own life, Schenkkan has struggled to accept the loss of his stillborn first child, despite the urgings of friends that he ‘‘be quiet and move on.’’ From that experience he learned the hazards of ‘‘misguided forgetting’’ and was propelled toward the extraordinarily ambitious task of exposing stories that obscure painful memories and whitewash heinous deeds. Three cherished myths are particular targets of his angry debunking. The myth of wholesome pioneer life and the white man’s civilizing influence on the savage falls in the blaze of cold knives and hot lead that rips through this saga. The violence in today’s urban streets is not some aberration, Schenkkan insists, but a manifestation of an enduring American tradition. The myth of abundance, of the inexhaustible bounty of the land, also crumples as the small piece of Kentucky these families covet and kill for is finally skinned and bled dry.

Above all, Schenkkan assails the myth of escape— the idea that what one did in the past doesn’t matter, that a man can endlessly reinvent himself and begin anew. The villains of this saga are those who forget too easily. Michael Rowen won his land by giving smallpox-infected blankets to the Cherokee, but just one generation later his descendants boast of the Treaty Oak where their grandfather purchased his land. ‘‘If there’s no connection between the past and the present, then actions don’t have consequences,’’ says Schenkkan. ‘‘And if actions don’t have consequences, morality is impossible.’’

The play’s austere production reflects its desire for a direct, unembellished encounter with the past. On a rough-hewn stage, where bare scaffolding and light racks serve as everything from mine tunnels to river barges, the tale unfolds in the simplest storytheater style. Those actors not in a scene sit visibly on the sidelines, like ancestors and descendants watching their families’ crimes unfold. At times a banjo or guitar chimes in, being plucked in a Cherokee lullaby or Baptist hymn. Yet for all its plainness, the epic sustains an emotional intensity sometimes difficult to endure. Reminiscent of a dime-store Western, full of outsize characters and adventure, it also has a high, almost classical tone, with incantatory language, allusions to the Bible and Greek tragedy, operatic leitmotifs and a heavily laden symbolism.

Signs of success. By most measures, The Kentucky Cycle is already an enormous success. At its run last year at the Mark Taper Forum it won five Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards and broke box office records. At $2.5 million, it will be the most expensive nonmusical ever to come to Broadway. And, in what seems an inevitable move, it is currently being made into a miniseries for Home Box Office.

But some critics have damned the drama as ‘‘politically correct,’’ with attitudes, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, ‘‘that seem more formulaic than deeply felt.’’

University of Kentucky English professor Gurney Norman calls it ‘‘L’il Abner with fancy literary pretensions.’’ With its ‘‘quaint, violent, brutish, generally lowdown and sorry’’ hillbillies, he says, it ‘‘serves everyone who feels that they are hip to Schenkkan’s little urban sophisticated ultraliberal agenda.’’

Schenkkan remains unmoved by such criticisms. His play is not remotely a documentary, he points out, but ‘‘a work of art, in an honorable American tradition of plays about families and their emotional and psychological legacies.’’ He has no more tolerance than his critics for the politically correct inclination ‘‘to impose contemporary concerns over historical events.’’ Nor is he interested, he insists, in assigning blame. Even Michael Rowen, the vile white European male settler who abuses women, Indians and slaves, is treated with generous compassion by the playwright. Still, Schenkkan rejects the ‘‘libel’’ that to be critical of history is to be unpatriotic.

He is also more hopeful than despairing, convinced that damage acknowledged is damage that can be undone. The Kentucky Cycle is less a eulogy for the nation than it is massive group therapy. As Harry Caudill once wrote: ‘‘The Cumberlands are a great many things, but most of all, a warning.’’

‘‘The problems of the Cumberland are not simply political or economic or social; they lie somewhere in the bewildering maelstrom of corrupting legacies that has trapped the people and the region in recurring cycles in a poverty that is as much spiritual as physical.’’—Robert Schenkkan

Source: Miriam Horn, ‘‘The Kentucky Cycle,’’ (review) in U.S. News & World Report, Vol. 115, No. 11, September 20, 1993, p. 72.

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