Robert Schenkkan by Stuart Spencer

BOMB 46 Winter 1994
046 Winter 1994
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Robert Schenkkan. All photos by Jay Thompson. Courtesy of Mark Taper Forum.

In the early ’80s, Robert Schenkkan acted in my first produced play in New York. At the time, he had written one or two short one-acts, and I knew that he was interested in pursuing a writing career along with his acting. What I could not have known was that 10 years later he would have won the Pulitzer prize for a nine-play, six-hour epic drama entitled The Kentucky Cycle. He spoke to me on the phone from his hotel room in Washington, D.C., where the play was running at the Kennedy Center before its Broadway opening.

Stuart Spencer So when did you have your second child?

Robert Schenkkan He was born in March; he’s 18 months old now, so he was … ’92? Yeah, ’92.

SS I kept reading all the different press releases since the play began developing five or six years ago and I thought, My God, how many children does he have? And then I realized it was the same one, mentioned several times.

RS I can see how you’d be confused.

SS Tell me how the play is going at the moment.

RS Oh, it’s in great shape. I’m very pleased.

SS The cast has changed somewhat since the production at the Mark Taper [Forum, in Los Angeles], hasn’t it?

RS Well, it had never been our intention to replace any of the principals after Los Angeles, but that’s just the way it fell out and we were very fortunate with the replacements. Stacy [Keach] is a terrific actor.

SS He’s wonderful. I saw it, you know, on Saturday. I did the one-day marathon.

RS And lived to tell the tale.

SS It’s extraordinary, exhilarating to see all in one day. I love that feeling of utter exhaustion, that you’ve wrung it out of yourself, or perhaps that it’s been wrung out of you.

RS Seeing it in one day is my personal preference, but I’m not religious about it.

SS What kind of re-writes did you do between L.A. and D.C.?

RS Post-Pulitzer, I did a complete rewrite of Which Side Are You On?, the next-to-last play, and improved—to my way of thinking, and really to most everyone’s who’s familiar with the piece—improved the entire second half of the Cycle enormously.

SS I’ve only read the published version, which must be post-rewrite.

RS Well, there’s even a rewrite on that. Even the published version is not what we’re currently playing, though it’s closer to that than it is to what we did in L.A. I’ve continued to refine it. That’s pretty much been everyone’s attitude: “Let’s not rest on our laurels. What can we do to make this better?”

SS You’ve said that the Cycle deals with American myths, and that those myths are killing us. What do you mean by that and what are you doing about it in the Cycle? And are you replacing traditional myths with your own?

RS Oh, no, I don’t think I’m replacing them. But I’m certainly conducting a post-mortem on them …

SS By retelling them.

RS Well, in the telling of every story there’s a specific point of view. I’m very interested in American mythology and in what I regard as the heart of that mythos, which is the myth of the frontier. I see it as having twin components. The first is very self-evident: the myth of abundance, which says that natural resources are infinite and if you use up something here you simply move on to something else. I’m sure that’s how the continent must have first appeared to people. But obviously that’s not the case; things are finite and you cannot replace underground aquifers, you cannot remake topsoil, you cannot restore extinct species. If you destroy them, the legacy of that is forever and does not change.

The second is a little more insidious—the myth of escape. It’s the idea of a disposable identity. If you don’t like who you are, then you can change it. What you did yesterday doesn’t matter. It’s only who you are today. Again, that’s part of the promise of a new country. It must have been very potent for people, the idea that they could recreate themselves, start anew. I’m sure that’s, in part, why we overran the continent as quickly as we did.

And there’s an enormous psychic liberation in that, but there’s also a terrible price. It’s not just Santayana’s trenchant warning that those who forget the past are doomed to relive it. It’s also that if you don’t have the history, if you don’t have a past, if what you did yesterday doesn’t matter, then actions don’t have consequences. And if actions don’t have consequences, you have no basis for morality. You are essentially cut loose from the universe.

SS It creates a terrible psychic void.

RS Terrible. A moral freefall.

SS Psychologically speaking, it’s virtually the definition of a psychopath.

RS Someone who doesn’t regard the consequences of his actions, does not give any value to them.

SS A murder is the same as buying a cup of coffee.

RS In an individual we refer to them, in the current parlance, as a sociopath. But how do you look at a society that functions that way? [Joseph] Campbell talked about an unhealthy mythology creating a kind of disassociation. I think that’s what we’re experiencing at the moment. The crisis that we are in—and it can very much be regarded as a crisis—is one of disassociation. People don’t feel connected to anything. They feel that they cannot really affect events—that they’re merely at the mercy of events. We stagger from one political or economic or social crisis to another. “Oh my God, the S and L’s are failing. Oh my God, there’s a war in the Persian Gulf. Oh my God, there’s a hole in the ozone.” There’s this sense of being hapless victims. Everything is happening to us. All of the various social movements of the last 20 years, many of which arose out of the need to address very genuine political concerns, have ultimately evolved simply into an attempt to try to empower the individual, because the individual feels so disassociated and so powerless.

SS But we need to do more than that.

RS We need to find something else and I don’t think it’s simply a question of changing our circle. We need to find some context that is larger. I see a reduction of spirit in American politics and American society—a circling of ever smaller groups of wagons. There’s a fracturing along racial, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic lines, creating smaller and smaller groups.

SS We don’t have an all-encompassing myth, or a group of myths, that help to explain what we’re doing here in the first place.

RS I would say that the mythology that we’re operating off is no longer functional—it’s no longer healthy. It may have been at one time, just as any individual’s defensive structure or operational mechanism is always developed in response to a particular situation. But that becomes neurotic when the situation changes and the mechanism remains the same. You become trapped in your own armor.

SS In the play, it seems as though you’re using the traditional or recognizable myth of the frontier as a kind of a framework, but you infuse it with your own sensibility and your own interpretation of what that myth really means or what really happened.

RS Well, certainly it’s a revisionist look, and of course it’s infused with my point of view. I’m the artist, that’s my job. But I don’t pretend to be presenting any kind of objective history here, as if there were such a thing. As J.T. says, “We all got our stories and people hear what they want to hear.”

SS And as you have said, all stories are dangerous.

RS Stories are good and they’re bad. Stories are poisonous and they’re also balm. They can kill and devastate down through the generations. Or they can heal. We have to be very careful with the stories that we tell. I’m very interested in that process of storytelling, and the process by which an “event” is altered in the retelling, whether consciously or unconsciously.

SS What do you mean when you say “event?”

RS An occurrence, an exchange between people. In the retelling of a story, the event may be altered, and the way in which it is altered in turn changes us. My wife tells a wonderful story about a friend of hers who used to make pot roast. This woman would cut the roast in a really idiosyncratic way, very odd. My wife asked why she did it that way, and the woman said, “I don’t know, that’s how my mother did it. I’ll ask her.” So she did, and her mother said, “I don’t know, that’s how my mother did it. I’ll ask her.” She asked the grandmother, and she said, “I don’t know, that’s how my mother did it.” The old, great-grandmother was still alive, although quite advanced in years obviously. And they went to her and asked her, “Why did you cut the pot roast like this?” And she said, “We only had one pan. It was the only way you could get it in.” Well, how many of us are still carving our psychological needs and wants to fit a situation that was true many generations ago, but no longer has any meaning today? That’s the power of a generational legacy at a psychological level, and I’m fascinated by it.

One of the wonderful things about working on a big canvas like this is that you can watch that legacy being created and transformed and passed on, and watch characters wrestle with forces that are real to them but which they can’t understand, much less articulate, but which we as the audience can—having witnessed their generation and their bestowal. I think it’s both tremendously provoking and very satisfying to begin to think about oneself, not just as flotsam and jetsam tossed by the historical tide, but as part of a continuum, as someone who has had certain things handed down to them, and will in turn hand down certain things. It’s one of the things that’s different about this play. Family drama is a staple of American dramaturgy—it’s one of the subjects that we do best. But we rarely do it on a big canvas. We rarely get to look at this kind of wide scope. I think there’s something appealing about that, something very satisfying.

SS I’ve always been vaguely amused by people who criticize American theatre for being obsessed by the family, because what were many of the Greek plays but family dramas?

When I first read the play, the myth that stood out to me was the myth of fatherhood: literal fatherhood and also paternalism as a larger concept.

RS I’m very interested in the patriarchal structure and what that means—the costs of that. Clearly I’m interested in the struggle between fathers and sons, although in the play there are also mothers and daughters.

SS One of the great moments in the play is when Mary Anne Rowan retakes her maiden name: “My name is Mary Anne Rowan, and this is my son, Joshua Rowan.” It’s an incredibly powerful, emotional moment with tremendous resonance.

RS She is re-baptizing herself. It is the first time in the cycle that we see a woman seize the power, seize center stage. And it’s no accident that it’s one of the moral watersheds in the play.

SS She’s really the closest thing to a traditional “hero” in the play, whom we can admire unabashedly.

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Foreground, Jeanne Paulson and Randy Oglesby in The Kentucky Cycle, by Robert Schenkkan, co-produced at the Mark Taper Forum by the Intiman Theatre Company of Seattle.

RS We can and we can’t. I find her very cruel in her own way. The psychological legacy that she imposes on her son, her refusal to allow him to grieve for Tommy, the father, who has betrayed them, and who is in turn betrayed. That’s the core of Joshua’s dilemma, and part of why he winds up eventually becoming like his father.

SS She withholds Tommy from him and says: “The labor union will be your daddy now.”

RS She completely obliterates Tommy from history and replaces him with an ideal which is impossible to live up to. And we see that in the history of labor unions in this country, as that profound and wonderful idealism becomes betrayed and distorted.

SS And it goes back to the idea of the myth of escape, too. Mary Anne believes that she and Joshua can escape Tommy by simply saying that the union will take his place, and yet it won’t.

RS We can’t escape our past. The dead won’t stay buried. People talk a lot about needing a healing, and it’s become a knee-jerk political reaction in the aftermath of any ugly episode in American politics today—to announce, “Now let the healing begin.” It’s really debased the idea of healing because no one has ever permitted any real, honest examination of the loss that was incurred. Until we examine the loss, and grieve for it in some meaningful way, we will continue to do the same thing over and over again. We will continue to repeat the cycles. It’s impossible to live without a past, impossible to act without a recognition that your actions have consequences. But as individuals, and as a nation, we’re extremely resistant to doing so.

SS And resistant to calling things by their real name and using the word that needs to be used.

RS Denial is the great American disease and we’re masters at not talking about what we’re talking about.

RS Everyone in the play, even Michael Rowan—who is arguably a monster but also a victim in his own right, the victim of oppressive colonial structure, which demeaned and brutalized him—even Michael Rowan is searching for something better. He describes it as an emptiness he’s trying to fill. And we see these characters through the course of two hundred years trying to find solutions in family, community, class, labor organizations. But nothing ultimately satisfies. It’s only at the end, in Joshua’s impulsive gesture about which he is truly unconscious, that we get a sense about how in fact these cycles might be stopped. It suggests a solution which is bigger than all these other alternatives—a kind of cosmology which is more all-embracing, less divisive, and which recognizes the commonality in all things and all people and uses that as its basis to begin. Again, I’m not offering solutions here. I’m simply interested in examining how this doesn’t work, why that doesn’t work, why this doesn’t work. I’m trying to suggest there may be a way out.

SS The fact of the matter is that the Rowans are “masters of the trade.” They are treacherous and deceitful, and yet they are continually losers in spite of their cunning and treachery. They keep ending up at the bottom of the totem pole in this play and I imagine that’s no coincidence.

RS Well, they are both victimizers and victims too. They create the situations out of which they cannot escape even as they try to rescue themselves or to hoist themselves up higher. I think it’s that roundness in their characters—they are not simply victims and they are not simply brutalizers—that makes them compelling and sympathetic even in their savagery. We understand their actions, even if we don’t approve, even if we can’t approve. In Jed, we have a character who clearly reaches a watershed, who clearly achieves a kind of insight into the absence of morality that has governed his family and his life, but he arrives at it too late. By the next time we see him, he too has tried to bury his past and recreate it. His daughter will take us a step closer, she’ll almost get there. But even she can only see the promised land, she can’t reach it. Her son Joshua fails just as his father failed, only to finally achieve a release—albeit unconsciously—that none of his ancestors ever had.

SS What he finally offers in those final moments of the play seems to me to be a libation. He is literally giving something back to the ground.

RS He just knows that something has to make a difference, that the attempt has to be made.

SS We understand it far more deeply than he does.

RS He is completely unaware of it. And I do believe not only is it true that our actions have consequences in this world, but they also have consequences in other worlds of which we are completely unaware. And the fact that we’re unaware of them doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, and that it doesn’t make a difference.

SS The dramatic irony in that scene seems to me to lie in the fact that it’s the first time we, in the audience, see that something is being given back to the land rather than taken from it. It creates another irresistible comparison between this play and the Greek plays: not just the concept of character being destiny or of one generation being responsible for the crimes of the previous one, but of propitiating the gods. Is that something you were aware of when you were writing?

RS It’s a very deliberate riff on the House of Atreus—that sense of a crime committed and bearing repercussions down through the generations, the shattering of the nuclear family in an act of primal violence.

SS It works so beautifully because it just creeps up on you and you’re not aware of it. All of a sudden there Michael is in that bathtub and you realize what kind of literary territory you’re in. That’s wonderfully exciting because there have been none of the obvious trappings of it. It’s just underlying the structure of the piece.

Perhaps unlike the Greek plays, the Cycle includes a non-human character, which is the land itself. How did the land take on such importance for you? Are you originally from Kentucky?

RS I’m North Carolinian by birth but I really grew up in Texas. I think of myself more as a Texan.

SS Then what was it?

RS It was very much an epiphany. I traveled through eastern Kentucky on a very brief visit—one weekend essentially—in the company of a doctor who had formerly practiced in the area. The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty was stunning: the wealthy class was so completely detached and so contemptuous of the circumstances of the poor. And the landscape itself embodied that social contradiction; that is to say the land was both this glorious, lush, Eden-like vista and also some of the most despoiled areas I’ve ever seen in my life. It had been strip-mined. Those two images, literally side-by-side in some cases, was so jarring, so difficult to reconcile, that it provoked this very long journey which ultimately culminated in the play.

SS You began with Tall Tales …

RS … which now sits in the middle of the piece. I realized early on how significant the land was. Dramaturgically, it was the characters’ relationship to the land that functioned to hold all nine plays together. And thematically, in their relationship to the land, you can trace the entire American experience on this continent. The importance of the land, the need for it, begins on very personal, intimate terms. Later the land is reduced to an economic commodity which can be bought or sold, or portioned out. Eventually the land loses any kind of personal significance at all. It’s the resource which is the source of one’s employment but there’s no personal connection.

SS And as the physical violence against other humans decreases, the physical violence against the land increases, as if that fury is being turned upon something that’s more defenseless.

RS I think what’s interesting about the violence in the piece is that it escalates, though it moves offstage. In the early part, you might have a scene in which two men are around a campfire, one of them with a knife, and at the end there’s a dead man. By the end of the play, you have three men in a room shaking hands, signing an agreement, and the result is 27 deaths offstage. The casualty count has mounted and yet we’ve lost personal contact …

SS As we have with the land itself. And so we came back to disassociation. But, you know—I find the play very hopeful.

RS It’s my belief that the situation is not irredeemable. I don’t think the play is sentimental, but just as everything about these people has been spare and tough and challenging, so is their hope at the end. But it’s hope nevertheless.

SS After all, everyone on stage is related to each other in one way or another. They have to be responsible for one another on some level.

RS They are all related and all unaware of it. Only we in the audience retain the memory of that.

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Left to right, Tuck Milligan, Charles Hallahan (standing), and Ronald Hippe in The Kentucky Cycle.

SS And all lost in the fog.

RS And all childless. All these men at the end of the play are a certain kind of failure. James is sterile, Josh has lost his son, Franklin’s son refuses to talk to him, perceiving him for the morally bankrupt individual that he is. Everything they have accumulated, everything they’ve built, there is no one to hand it on to, no one to accept their legacy. And yet out of that, Joshua finds a way.

SS And it seems to me that, because of that utter and absolute sense of loss, there is no choice but to find redemption somewhere, in some act.

RS If we don’t give in to that sense of loss. That’s the argument between Josh and Franklin at the end: despair and hope. “What difference does it make?”

SS And it does make a difference.

RS Joshua doesn’t really have a compelling logical argument, but he has an emotional response that one simply shouldn’t give up, that one is obligated not to give up, that it does make a difference, that it has to make a difference.

SS That’s the Rowans: that’s their tenacity, the stubborn belief in oneself.

RS There are heroic aspects to the frontier experience, to the American character, and that is one of them: that stubbornness, that tremendous willpower, that determination to overcome, to achieve. It’s one of the promises of the new country and it’s an important legacy.

Stuart Spencer is a playwright who lives and works in New York.

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Originally published in

BOMB 46, Winter 1994

Featuring interviews with Haruki Murakami, Ileana Douglas, Dan Graham, Mike Leigh, Campbell McGrath, Dona Nelson, Tran Anh Hung, Julius Hemphill, Stephen Wright, Robert Schenkkan, and Lawrence Gipe.

Read the issue
046 Winter 1994