The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Classical Greek Structure
Schenkkan uses a traditional plot structure, borrowed from classical Greek tragedy, which combines...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the European settlement of Kentucky during the late eighteenth century. Compare the historical accounts to the events in the first...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

In 1995, Robert Schenkkan sold the film rights to The Kentucky Cycle to Kevin Costner and his HBO production partners. While Schenkkan...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Aeschylus’s classic trilogy, The Oresteia, traces the events leading up to the Trojan War and Clytemnestra’s revenge on her...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Colakis, Marianthe, ‘‘Aeschlyean Elements in Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle,’’ in...

(The entire section is 355 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 82 words.)