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...
(The entire section is 432 words.)