The Kentucky Cycle

by Robert Schenkkan

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The Play

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The Kentucky Cycle, as its title suggests, is actually a series of nine short plays dramatizing the interrelated history of three fictional southeastern Kentucky families over two hundred years. The plays are grouped in two parts that may be performed in all-day sessions (with lunch or dinner breaks) or on consecutive evenings. Part 1 consists of five short plays (with their times) titled “Masters of the Trade” (1775), “The Courtship of Morning Star” (1776), “The Homecoming” (1792), “Ties That Bind” (1819), and “God’s Great Supper” (1861). Part Two consists of the four short plays titled “Tall Tales” (1885), “Fire in the Hole” (1920), “Which Side Are You On?” (1954), and “The War on Poverty” (1975).

The Kentucky Cycle begins when Kentucky is “a dark and bloody ground,” a beautiful but uninhabited hunting ground and battleground for several American Indian tribes who do not believe the land can be owned. This American Indian belief looms like an ominous curse over the rest of the cycle, as whites claim, inhabit, and despoil the land. The belief literally fits the first three plays in which former Irish indentured servant Michael Rowen (who killed his Georgia master) viciously kills his way to ownership of some Kentucky land, subdues a surviving Cherokee maiden as his mate, and in turn is viciously killed by their son, Patrick. Patrick also kills the neighbor Joe Talbert, takes Talbert’s daughter Rebecca as his bride, and consolidates their land.

These events precipitate a family feud that lasts for generations. In the fourth play, “Ties That Bind,” Jeremiah Talbert, Joe’s son, uses land speculation to get revenge: He buys up Patrick Rowen’s bank loans, forecloses on Patrick’s land and property (including the slave family, the Biggses), and reduces Patrick and his sons to tenant farmers. Jeremiah builds a big house on the hill from which he can watch over and enjoy his domain, including his slaves and the Rowens.

However, in the next generation and the fifth play, “God’s Great Supper,” the Rowens get their revenge and take back the land. In the Civil War, Richard Talbert, Jeremiah’s son, leads a contingent of Confederates, including Jed Rowen (Patrick’s grandson), who in the confusion of battle pushes Richard into the Cumberland River, where he drowns. Jed then returns home and, with his father, the preacher Ezekiel Rowen, leads an attack of biblical ferocity on the Talberts: The Rowens massacre the Talberts and their slaves (except for two Talbert daughters and the Biggs family), burn the big house and barns, poison the well, and plow salt into the nearby fields.

Part 2 of The Kentucky Cycle takes the story into the coal-mining era, where the massive destruction of the land and its people makes poisoned wells and salted fields seem insignificant. In “Tall Tales” the Rowens sell the mineral rights to their land to a shyster posing as an Appalachian storyteller (the “broad-form” deeds in such transactions also allowed free access to the minerals, without regard for surface owners’ rights). In “Fire in the Hole,” coal mining is in full swing, with the land deforested, coal waste dumped everywhere, and the people working for the coal company, living in a squalid company camp, and being paid in company scrip. However, the deplorable conditions lead to union organizing and, after more bloodshed, the union’s triumph. In these struggles, the Rowens generally represent the union and the Talberts (now Winstons), the management.

“Which Side Are You On?” shows the brief period of union power waning, with large layoffs occurring as demand for coal drops and new mining methods (stripping the land with huge machines)...

(This entire section contains 683 words.)

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are employed. The climax takes place when owner James Talbert Winston’s economizing on safety measures causes an enormous dust explosion at the Blue Star Mine, with much loss of life, including that of Scotty Rowen, son of the union’s district president, Joshua Rowen. “The War on Poverty” shows the aftermath, with Joshua Rowen, James Talbert Winston, and Franklin Biggs (owner of the only prospering local business, a liquor store) standing on the devastated land and quarreling about whether to sell it for strip mining.

Dramatic Devices

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The Kentucky Cycle poses tremendous challenges for producing and performing. Besides its epic length, numerous characters, and changes of scene, it has speeches in Cherokee, violent acts difficult to act convincingly, battles, a drowning in a river, a train spewing machine-gun fire, and explosions. The original production solved some of these problems in the style of Shakespearean theater. The stage, a large, bare oval shape with an earthen pit in the center, suggested various settings with the help of a few props. Changes to the basic costumes were also minimal. Twelve actors and a chorus of seven acted all of the roles and remained seated in view of the audience when they were not onstage.

The original production solved other problems in a modern way. A screen was used on which to project various backgrounds, such as the sky, crows fighting, or a coal tipple. Spot lighting was also used to shift scenes and single out actors. Electronic equipment was used to provide sounds, such as the sounds of the crows fighting (at the beginning of “God’s Great Supper”).

As the crows illustrate, the play also makes use of symbolism. Perhaps the best example of symbolism is in the play’s last episode, “The War on Poverty,” where the possibility of the land’s regeneration appears in the broom sedge and pine sprouts growing out of the waste. The robbing of a grave containing American Indian artifacts (and Morning Star’s remarkably preserved daughter) connects the end of the play with its beginning, and the corpses rising out of their graves recall the whole cycle. At the very end, a wolf appears for the first time in more than fifty years, as though Nature is reclaiming her own.

Historical Context

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There is a greater difference than is often thought between the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s, on the one hand, and the later 1990s, on the other. The 1980s saw the creation of huge personal wealth for some; but this was contrasted with the widespread problems of unemployment, homelessness, and lack of universal healthcare, as well as the expansion of the national debt to grotesque proportions. To many, the Reagan-Bush era in American politics seemed meaner than those of the 1970s; the policies of ‘‘trickle-down economics’’ and bankrupting the Soviet-bloc countries seemed harsh and expensive. Cast against this political background, there was a growing ‘‘green’’ or environmental movement pushing for stricter enforcement of air pollution laws, automobile exhaust emissions standards, and awareness of the devastating effects of strip-mining and coal burning factories on the environment.

By the late 1980s, America was again involved in foreign wars that did not seem to serve any real American interests or obligations. The economy was in recession, federal money for social programs was being used to make interest payments on the national debt, and people were ready for a change and a new beginning. Issues like race relations, women’s rights, and the state of the environment became less urgent, not because they were solved, but because people got tired of talking and thinking about them. In this atmosphere, Robert Schenkkan wrote The Kentucky Cycle as a way to force people to reexamine these issues.

This cycle of plays specifically took on the issues that were dying in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Schenkkan wanted to force people to explore treatment of and attitudes towards women, African- Americans, and the poor in America. He wanted to exploit the righteous anger many people felt at seeing the destruction of the Appalachian mountains by strip-mining and turn it into action to reclaim the land for the people of the area. He wanted people to recognize the inherent violence in our history, in an America based on conquest and blood rather than community and cooperation.

Literary Style

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Classical Greek Structure Schenkkan uses a traditional plot structure, borrowed from classical Greek tragedy, which combines climactic structure on the level of the individual plays with episodic structure for the entire cycle of plays. Each play focuses on individual characters, involving them in a series of ever-greater complications and bringing them to a startling climax. Together these plays function as a series of episodes in the entwined family histories of the Rowens and the Talberts. Each family is bound up in the fate of the others, yet each generations follows the path of the previous ones. The Talberts are generally always in control while the Rowens are always fighting to reclaim something that they had stolen in the first place. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, the Biggses live on the fringes of the action, providing both labor and an audience for the feud between the Talberts and the Rowens. The use of classical Greek tragic elements includes the character flaws that run through all the major characters: violence and greed. The long hard fall of the Rowens from land owners to sharecroppers to day laborers is also a familiar trait of Classical Greek Tragedy.

Setting and Set Design Since this cycle of plays takes place over 200 years and involves over thirty characters, setting and set design are major elements in how the play is put together. Throughout the entire cycle, the physical setting does not change except for a few scenes where the action is not on the thirty-nine acres Michael Rowen originally bought from the Cherokee. The stage directions are purposefully spare since Schenkkan is not aiming for realism, but rather for mood. In the preface to the plays, he suggests a large box of dirt to represent the land with the actors adding tombstones as the plays progress. He suggests that excessive properties (props) and costuming will get in the way of the message, and should be minimized as much as possible. The sparsity of the stage and set design helps to focus attention on the words of each character.

Dramatic Irony and Cycling The characters in The Kentucky Cycle are caught in a never-ending circle of murder, betrayal, and revenge. Schenkkan uses the repetition of situation and events to build dramatic irony and tension. The struggle seems pointless since the next generation is just going to do the exact same thing that the previous generation did. However, this cycling builds the dramatic irony to its highest point in The War on Poverty. In this play, the audience knows, although Joshua does not, that he is standing on the land of his forefathers and that the found body is that of Patrick’s sister killed so long ago by her own father. Here is the irony. All Michael, Patrick, Zeke, Jed, and Mary Anne ever wanted was to carry on the family name, but they were completely cut off from their strength, the land. Yet, Joshua, whose only child is dead, and with whom the Rowen line will die out, realizes his connection to the land and his responsibility toward it. This last member of a dying family rejoices in the sight of a wolf in the wild. Wolves were supposed to be extinct in most of the United States in 1975, save for Wisconsin, MinneT sota, and North Dakota. The cycle of life, like The Kentucky Cycle itself comes full circle and the play ends were it began: a futureless individual in the wilderness.

Compare and Contrast

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1700s–1800s: Women do not have any rights under the law. Women can be raped by their husbands, have no rights to the property or money they may have earned, and their children belong to their husbands.

1920: The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives women the right to vote in local, county, state, and federal elections.

Today: While women today still earn less than their male counterparts for equal work, the gap is narrowing and laws against sexual harassment and gender discrimination are being enforced.

1700s: Slavery is common in the early years of the United States. Kentucky is a ‘‘slave state,’’ but it does not secede from the Union during the Civil War. Owners routinely father children by their female slaves and consider those offspring slaves as well. Families are often broken up and sold to different people, especially as punishment for misbehavior.

1960s: Lead by men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and women like Fannie Mae Johnson and Rosa Parks, African-Americans demand an equal share in the glory and goods that is America during the Civil Rights Movement. Although both King and Malcolm X are assassinated, their desire for unity and harmony among the races live on.

Today: Relations between the white and black peoples of the United States are better in some ways, but still do not approach the color-blind society that King envisioned. African-Americans are financially better off now than in the 1960s<, but they still earn less than whites, have less access to health care, and are more likely to smoke and abuse alcohol.

1700s–1800s: Land is seen as a possession and a never-ending resource. After the Revolution, settlers are encouraged to move west in order to stake America’s claim to the land, to drive out the native population, and turn the country into farmland.

1900s: The idea of an endless frontier becomes part of the American Myth. The Homestead Act of 1882 and the purchase of Alaska from Russia in the 1870s help fuel the western expansion and the illogical and wasteful use of land. When the Census Board closed the frontier in 1890, Americans had to find new ones. Hawaii is conquered in 1892; her last queen arrested, tried, and executed by an American court. Alaska becomes the ‘‘New Frontier’’ with the gold rushes of the 1900s and 1910s. American culture does not believe in conserving or protecting land or its ecosystems.

Today: The environment is an important political issue. April 22 is celebrated as Earth Day and most major cities have recycling programs to reduce waste going to landfills. Politicians in Washington are reexamining the ways land is used in the western states in an attempt to improve the health of the environment. Major spills and chemical leaks are also being cleaned up.

1700s–1800s: In a young America, particularly in its frontier, violence is just a part of life. Native peoples are often hostile (with good reason) as are other settlers when supplies ran low. Men and women both learn to shoot and defend themselves.

1800s–1900s: While violence has not changed, the type of violence has. It is no longer customary for civilized people to carry firearms. Violence becomes more socialized and more civilized.

Today: Violence ranks as the most pressing social problem in the United States. However, violent crimes have been on the decrease since 1992, with the murder rate by firearms falling fastest. Most major cities have restricted gun ownership, require trigger locks on new guns, and outlawed guns for children. While the number of real guns has fallen across the country, the level of real and pretend violence is just as much a part of our national identity as it was in 1775.

Media Adaptations

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In 1995, Robert Schenkkan sold the film rights to The Kentucky Cycle to Kevin Costner and his HBO production partners. While Schenkkan was hired to rework the plays as a film or mini-series script, Costner has postponed production indefi- nitely. He does claim that he wants to do a film version of The Kentucky Cycle, but not until he can devote the proper attention to it.

The Kentucky Cycle has been performed at various theaters all over the country between 1992– 1996, particularly at college drama departments and civic theater groups.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Colakis, Marianthe, ‘‘Aeschlyean Elements in Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle,’’ in Text-and-Presentation, Vol. 16, 1995, pp. 19–23.

Colby, Douglas, review of The Kentucky Cycle, in The Spectator, Vol. 27, November, 1993, p. 60.

Lahr, John, review of The Kentucky Cycle, in The New Yorker, December 6, 1993, pp. 213–18.

Lynch, Charles Edward, ‘‘Breaking The Kentucky Cycle: A Native’s Struggle with Language and Identity,’’ in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4, 1994, pp. 141–48.

Regan, Margaret, ‘‘Arizona Repertory Theatre Stages Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle,’’ in The Tucson Weekly, Vol. 5, November, 1995.

Schenkkan, Robert, ‘‘Author’s Note,’’ in The Kentucky Cycle, Plume, 1993, pp. 329–334.

Simon, John, review of The Kentucky Cycle, in New York, November 29, 1993, p. 79.

Stoll, Jim, ‘‘Cycle Delivers on Kentucky Story,’’ Kernel Press, 1996.

FURTHER READING Caudill, Harry, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a Biography of a Depressed Area, Little Brown, 1963. This work is a sociological study of the Cumberland Plateau, full of rich characters, violence, and courage. The study reads in a theatrical style and deals with many of the same issues expressed in The Kentucky Cycle.

Evans, Greg, ‘‘‘Cycle’ Rolls into Broadway’s Red Sea,’’ in Varitey, December 20, 1993, pp. 55–58. Robert Schenkkan’s two-part The Kentucky Cycle is expected to join a growing group of straight plays with losses that once were the sole province of expensive musicals. The play grossed only $170,951 of a potential $349,299 on Broadway for the week ending December 5, 1993.

Mason, Bobbie Ann, ‘‘Recycling Kentucky,’’ in The New Yorker, November 1, 1993, pp. 52–60. In ‘‘The Kentucky Cycle,’’ Robert Schenkkan set out to redress the exploitation of Eastern Kentucky, but some Kentuckians wish he hadn’t. One criticism of the play is that it portrays the victims as bringing about their own downfall.

McCarthy, Cormac, The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts, Ecco Press, 1994. McCarthy’s play explores the effects of racism, sexism, and daily life on a family of African-Americans in Louisville, Kentucky in modern times.

Morris, Rebecca, The Kentucky Cycle, in The London Times, January, 1994, p. 64. The set design for the New York City production of The Kentucky Cycle at the Royale Theater is discussed. Set designer Michael Olich thinks of his work as more of a scenic installation than a traditional set.


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Sources for Further Study

Billings, Dwight, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford, eds. Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Colakis, Marianthe. “Aeschlyean Elements in Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle.” Text and Presentation: The Journal of the Comparative Drama Conference 16 (1995): 19-23.

Kaufman, Warner. “Theater: The Kentucky Cycle.” Nation 257 (December 13, 1993): 740-743.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. “Recycling Kentucky.” The New Yorker 69 (November 1, 1993): 50.

May, Theresa J. “Frontiers: Environmental History, Ecocriticism, and The Kentucky Cycle.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 14 (Fall, 1999): 159-178.


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