Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Kentucky Cycle by Robert Schenkkan (1992)

Summary:  Nine short plays are set on the same acreage in Kentucky, spanning from 1775-1975.  The plays chronicle the lives of three families, which are intertwined through rivalry, slavery and marriage.
  • Masters of the Trade-1775-Michael Rowen, a former indentured servant from Ireland, makes deals with the Cherokee exchanging ammunition (the Cherokee have recently acquired firearms, but no ammunition) for pelts and land.  This land is the setting for all nine plays in the Cycle.
  • The Courtship of Morning Star-1776-Rowen has captured a Cherokee girl named Morning Star to be his wife.  He cuts her Achilles tendon so that she can never run away.  She has a baby, Michael is pleased to have a son. 
  • The Homecoming-1792-Michael Rowen returns from a trip to the city with a slave named Sallie, who he plans to breed (with himself).  Enraged at the idea that he might also have a second family in the city, his son Patrick Rowen (16) shoots and kills him.  Hearing the gunshot, neighbor Joe Talbert comes over, reveals that he has been having an affair with Star (Patrick's mother).  Patrick kills him, sends his mother away and states his plans to marry Joe's daughter. 
  • Ties That Bind-1819-A judge comes to Patrick's land and informs him that he is deeply indebted to a man named Patrick, who now owns his bank loans.  As they attempt to reconcile this debt, Patrick ends up selling everything that he has ever owned--including slave Sally and her son Jessie (who is actually Patrick's brother).  In the final moments of the play, it is revealed that Jeremiah is Jeremiah Talbert-son of murdered Joe and brother of Rebecca, Patrick's wife.  As part of the deal, Patrick's sons are "employed" to work for Talbert...a vengeful man who is actually their uncle. 
  • God's Great Supper-1861-Richard Talbert (39), son of Jeremiah visits the rundown Rowen house and informs Jed Rowen (28) that they will be riding into Bowling Green the next day to join the Confederate Army.  Jed is needed because he knows the land better than anyone.  Jed wisely makes a deal with Jeremiah that his family's land will be taken care of while he is away (by slaves) and he will be paid for his time and allowed to work off some of his family's debt.  Richard agrees.  Jed has actually agreed to go on this trip because he has planned to kill Richard (and his entire family supports this idea).  After Richard is dead, they will only have to kill the remaining women and children of the Talbert house and then they will have their land back and no debts.  Lots of killing happens.
  • Tall Tales-1885-Jed Rowen, now 52, is visited by a "storyteller" who eventually asks him if he'd be willing to sell the mineral rights to his land for $1 an acre.  After being told that someone will remove the rocks from his soil, Jed enthusiastically agrees.  His daughter (Mary Anne) narrates the story as old and young versions of herself and eventually talks about the destruction caused when the coal companies came in. 
  • Fire in the Hole-1920-Mary Anne now has a ten year old son (Joshua Rowen) who is sick, probably with typhoid fever.  They have lost their house and are now living in the awful conditions of a coal camp.  A boarder named Abe (a secret union organizer) comes to stay at their home; gradually telling her about unions and Mother Jones.  Abe eventually persuades Mary Anne and her husband Tommy to start a coal union.  Abe and Tommy are eventually killed (for being an organizer and a snitch, respectively) but Mary Anne has started the first coal union. 
  • Which Side Are You On-1954-Things are not good for the Union.  Joshua (44) is now the president of United Mine Workers District 16 and has been skirting safety regulations for months.  His son is recently back from Korea and takes a job as a "yes man" to his father.  As Joshua struggles with the idea of telling the Union members that there will be more cutbacks, there is an accident in the mine (because he has been ignoring safety issues to save some money).  His son Scotty and 12 others are killed because of his negligence.
  • The War on Poverty-1975-Three sixty-five year old men (a Rowen, a Talbert and a Biggs--descendant of slave Sally) are walking around the land, attempting to figure out how much it is now worth.  "Mountaintop Removal Mining" has come into existence and the three men speak about it in tones mixed with awe and fear.  In casual conversation, a reference is made to grave-robbing that is now apparently popular in the mountains of Kentucky, involving the search for Native American artifacts.  As the men amble around the land, they see a partially exhumed grave and lift a buckskin pouch out of it--a pouch that contains the well-preserved remains of a baby.  This is actually the second child of Morning Star.  When Michael Rowen saw that this child was not a boy, he took it out into the woods and buried it alive. 

Thoughts:  I checked this book out of the library during the first two weeks of the project and have complained about reading it since.  9 plays?!  332 pages?!  I saved it for a long plane ride and then for the day after Thanksgiving and when both of those days came and went without me opening the cover, I knew I needed to commit to reading it in one sitting...which is what I did between the hours of 11 PM and 4 AM this morning.

To my surprise, reading this play was not difficult.  Because there are nine short plays, a sustained attention span is not necessary.  Though the same characters appear in multiple plays, Schenkkan's character description page preceding each play specifically states how old these characters are in the play to follow.  Schenkkan's decision to bind the plays chronologically is also very helpful.  Though names repeat (a number of the boys are named after their fathers/ancestors), this was never confusing for me because Schenkkan is brief and direct about who these people are.

The Cycle is obviously very broad, and certain plays are more enjoyable to read than others--perhaps because some of the main characters are quite one-dimensional and therefore are easy to categorize as "good guys" and "bad guys."  Schenkkan's portrayal of the women in these plays is very interesting.  Though they are never the main characters of his stories, they are almost unequivocally good people--trying to make the right choices even when their husbands are doing evil things based on greed.

Importantly, in the first play, when Michael asks the Cherokee for land, the Cherokee attempts to dissuade him from taking land on the mountain.  He repeatedly issues warnings to the effect of, "You will find this a dark and bloody land" and "you live here, it is not the Cherokee you need fear" (23).  Though he explains that the land is cursed (and the manifestations of this curse are seen in the eight plays that follow), the curse is never mentioned again.

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