The Kentucky Cycle

by Robert Schenkkan

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Themes and Meanings

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Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle depicts a Darwinian world in which natural selection prevails, the fittest survive, and human life is nasty, vicious, and short. In the battle of predators, the savage settlers wipe out the Native Americans, then settle scores among themselves in long-running blood feuds. The survivors then succumb to superior forces from outside, such as shysters, broad-form deeds, and coal companies. Finally they join outside forces in the shifting fight between union and management—until both union and management go down, victims of economic forces beyond their control.

However, Schenkkan does not seem to hold this grim naturalistic view of existence on general principle, or at least not with any conviction. He does not write so much about how things are as much as what they have become and why. In fact, in an “Author’s Note” appended to the printed version of The Kentucky Cycle (1995), Schenkkan states that the play is not about southeastern Kentucky, or even Appalachia, but about the United States. Rather, he saw southeastern Kentucky only as an awful example of how the American myth of the frontier, with its submyths of infinite abundance and escape, has played out. In choosing southeastern Kentucky for this honor, he was influenced by a 1981 visit to the region and by Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (1963).

It is certainly true that some awful acts have been committed on American soil and rationalized by myths, for example, of racial superiority or manifest destiny. Yet, in the end, Schenkkan’s “Author’s Note” seems vague, insufficient, and merely disingenious. It does not fully account for the numerous instances of human greed, viciousness, and depravity that the play contains, nor does it reflect the outright attack on capitalism that the play seems to make, as seen in the emphasis on owning the land, exploiting the people on it, and extracting its resources. The “cycle” seems to suggest only a capitalistic pattern.

However one explains it, the destruction of the land is certainly an important theme in the play. In the beginning, Cherokee warriors scoff at the idea that anyone can own the land, and, at least initially, the early settlers who kill the Cherokees and each other for the land love it. At the beginning of Part 2, Mary Anne Rowen voices how the beauty of the land supports the human spirit. This beauty is lost quickly when the coal mines arrive, until at the end there is the prospect that the already devastated land will be strip-mined into a barren moonscape.


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Violence looms large in the text of The Kentucky Cycle. Every play contains physical and emotional violence, or the threat of that violence. Schenkkan wants to explore the role of violence in the shaping of American history. Michael Rowen murdered, stole, and raped his way to a family legacy. That legacy was continued with Patrick’s violence, Jed’s murdering the Talbert men, and finally the way the Blue Star Mining Company raped the earth and the lives of its workers. Violence becomes an inescapable part of American life in these plays, although Schenkkan suggests that when violence is used to protect the land, as when Joshua threatens to shoot James and Franklin, or for benefit of others, as was the case with the unionizing miners, it can be productive. However, in most respects, violence simply breeds more violence and revenge in an almost never-ending cycle.

The American Dream
The idea of the American Dream, a land where anyone can come from nothing and become someone, is a...

(This entire section contains 642 words.)

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powerful theme in American literature. All of the characters in the first half of Schenkkan’s cycle want the American Dream, but they rarely find it. Michael Rowen is killed by his own son before he can realize his dream of ‘‘owning’’ all the mountains, while both Patrick and Jed see their portion of the dream legally stolen out from under them. Yet, through it all, the dream remains alive, as it does in real life when it is battered by reality. The characters in the second part of the cycle have all given up, except for Mary Anne and Scotty. Mary Anne is able to forge a better life for her son, but Scotty’s idealism dies at the hands of his father’s cynicism.

Rewriting American History
In one of his speaking tours after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Schenkkan suggested that this cycle of plays is the American history that remains unwritten, a cultural ‘‘dirty little secret.’’ In this sense, The Kentucky Cycle is a mirror for America and its blood-spattered past. No one likes to think about how the settlers moved the native peoples out of the way. It was done through murder and disease. No one wants to think about slavery or the treatment of women, or the way some Americans swindled other Americans out of their homes and farms. Yet everyone likes the stories of the wild frontier, brave mountain men living by their wits, gun in hand. Everyone likes to hear the rags to riches story of successful Americans like John Paul Getty and Andrew Carnegie, but no one talks about the workers who were underpaid, underfed, and overworked as the means for these men to attain the wealth they did. Schenkkan wants his audiences to realize exactly how much pain, heartache, sorrow, and bloodshed went into making the America of today.

Personal Integrity versus Greed
The characters in The Kentucky Cycle have problems with personal integrity. Except for Mary Anne and Scotty, virtually all of them place personal greed above morality. Michael does not care that he killed dozens of people as long as he has his land and family. Morning Star does not care about her child except to see him broken and begging, Patrick, Zeke, and Jed live only for revenge and murder, while Joshua thinks only about the art of the deal. The only character who succeeds is Mary Anne, because she puts the needs of her community above her personal needs. Scotty tries, but gets caught in his father’s lies and pays the ultimate price. Joshua is redeemed by his connection to the land and the ghost of his ancestor when he refuses to give into the greed consuming James and Franklin. Ultimately, Schenkkan seems to be saying that personal integrity is more successful and rewarding than greed can ever be.