The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
10 Baker, Davidson, Egerton, & Wright
to travel the region beyond their first homes. Since coming to Berea in 2006, I’ve been looking at the intersection between my primary research field in modern and contemporary American drama and Appalachian literature; and I’ve been surprised by the widely divergent critical conversations that make up a decidedly odd scholarly landscape. Plays that take up Appalachia as a serious topic thrive in many regional theatrical settings; however, when playwrights from outside the region take on Appalachian themes, the results are often sensational, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle , which won the 1992 Pulitzer for drama, produced an extraordinary amount of criticism inside Kentucky. This response stemmed in part because Schenkkan’s first view of eastern Kentucky came from a single weekend trip to Harlan County, and he drew on sections of Harry Caudill’s 1962 Night Comes to the Cumberlands as he wrote many parts of his theatrical epic. Schenkkan’s concern with theatre’s myth-making capability put him at odds with Kentucky audiences who saw only more derivative and demeaning stereotypes. Gurney Norman in his “Notes on The Kentucky Cycle ” saw Schenkkan’s “portrayal of Kentucky mountain people as passive victims of fate,” as “people so dumb, greedy, and shiftless that they have indeed caused their fate” (328). And as I’m interested in the rift between Appalachian drama produced within the region and plays produced in other American theatres, using Appalachian settings and characters, controversy surrounding The Kentucky Cycle , I thought, might just provide the model for a new debate. This debate was initially triggered by another play I’m very interested in called The Burnt Part Boys , which is a new musical set in a West Virginia coal town that opened in New York in May of 2010 after a multi-year development process at several theatres and workshops in the Northeast. And I’ll get back and talk about that play at some length. But within the region, Appalachian drama has a rich tradition of engaging communities where they live, as we’ve been hearing this morning. The other theatre I want to add, building on with the reference to Billy Edd Wheeler, is the Kentucky Repertory Theatre at Horse Cave. And one of the great things, great contributions to those folks who study this material is a recent anthology published by Motes Books of plays that premiered at Horse Cave, which includes Billy Edd Wheeler, as well as some other things. It’s a big, fat collection of scripts, and I think it’s going to be a great resource for those of us who want to both teach and produce this material. So that’s
something I would encourage you to look at. When The Kentucky Cycle won the Pulitzer in 1992, few mainstream commentators failed to mention that this was the first Pulitzer for a play yet to be staged in New York. But these same voices did not recognize the importance of the play’s West Coast origins. So “out of New York” is actually a larger, more diverse area than people in New York like to think. Once The Kentucky Cycle finally made it to Broadway in 1993, it lasted less than four weeks, which pleased many of its Appalachian critics (although, to be fair, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America made for some very stiff competition at the box office). Broadway only has so much room for plays that are very long, and the audience of people who are willing to go to multi-part, many multi-hour endeavors is limited. And Kushner just flattened The Kentucky Cycle at the box office. The ongoing controversy excited by The Kentucky Cycle carried over to its 2002 production at Breaks Interstate Park. Breaks Interstate State Park launched the Artist Collaborative Theatre and provided a fascinating model for how many voices clamored to define what James Manning in his 2001 article “Appalachians in the Spotlight: Focus for the Future” calls the “dramatized Appalachian” (301). Manning looks back to the 1920s when plays with Appalachian settings and characters were all the rage in New York. Patrick Hue’s Hellbent for Heaven , for example, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924. Comparing these plays, whose content can be pretty well assessed by titles, like The Shame Women and The Dunce Boy , both by Lula Vollmer, to The Kentucky Cycle, Manning concludes Broadway has been no friend to Appalachia. In 2009, Appalachia returned to the New York stage, this time in the guise of a musical. Peter Mills and Cara Reichel in Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge adapted J. M. Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World by setting the story in Depression Era Appalachia. Reviewing the show for the New York Times , Anita Gates opines “Why not move The Playboy of the Western World from the Aran Islands to hillbilly land, from the turn of the 20th century to the Great Depression? Well, dang, if that don’t turn out to be a mighty fine idea!” In the New York Times , I found that interesting. And the title of that 2009 review was called “Old Time Moral Confusion with Music and Moonshine.” What Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge lacked, as Synge himself would have been the first to point out, was a fine ear immersed in the language of place on the stage. Synge himself wrote in the preface to Playboy of the Western World , one must have reality and one must have joy; [. .
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