Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle, first produced at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in June 1991, is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama on April 7, 1992.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/30/2006
  • Essay 7836
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On April 7, 1992, Robert Schenkkan's (b. 1953) epic drama, The Kentucky Cycle, is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Seattle's Intiman Theatre mounted the play's world premiere production, directed by Warner Shook, in June 1991. The Kentucky Cycle is the first play in the 76-year history of the Pulitzer Prize to win without first staging a New York production.

Great Drama in Seattle

The Pulitzer Prize carries a $3,000 cash award and a priceless amount of international prestige. That The Kentucky Cycle captured the award without benefit of a New York production was an enormous endorsement not only for Robert Schenkkan and Intiman but also for American regional theater as a whole, underscoring the fact that great drama could be and was being produced across the nation. 

Time called the award "a triumph for all regional theaters" (January 4, 1993). The Los Angeles Times stated, "This year, at long last, the Pulitzer board has caught up with the polycentric reality of the American theater," and called the choice "a coming-of-age moment in the life of the Pulitzer Prize" (April 9, 1992).

An American Story

The Kentucky Cycle tells the epic story of the lives of three Kentucky families during 200 years of American history, from 1775 to 1975. It consists of nine one-act plays and is presented in two parts by 19 actors portraying 70 characters. The play's cumulative message is that what people do to each other and to the land they live on has tragic consequences, creating what Seattle Post-Intelligencer theater critic Joe Adcock called "a cautionary parable about American character" (April 8, 1992).

Robert Schenkkan visited the Cumberlands in southeastern Kentucky in 1981. He was living in Louisville where two of his earlier plays, Intermission and Lunch Break, were in production at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville. A physician friend who served the families of Kentucky's Appalachia invited Schenkkan to accompany him to the rural coalmining town of Hazard, Kentucky. 

In an article about Schenkkan, Christian Science Monitor reporter Elizabeth Levitan Spaid described the region as a section "where streams have carved narrow, steep-sided valleys into the mountains. There Mr. Schenkkan witnessed extreme poverty just steps away from palatial retreats; breathtaking scenery next to strip-mined lands that resembled the surface of the moon. The contradictions inspired him to write 'The Kentucky Cycle' " (September 23, 1993).  Schenkkan began researching the area, using as his guide the works of Harry Monroe Caudill (1922-1990), a Kentucky scholar, oral historian, legislator, and environmentalist.

In the author note included in the published version of The Kentucky Cycle, Schenkkan wrote:

"As I played out the history of these families over this broad expanse of time, the play seemed to become less and less about the history of eastern Kentucky or even the history of Appalachia. It was about America. It had become an unintended exploration of the process of 'myth making': that alchemy of wish fulfillment and political expediency by which history is collected and altered and revised, by which events become stories, and stories become folklore, and folklore becomes myth. Ultimately, I realized that the play was about American mythology" (p. 336).

A Huge Undertaking

Schenkkan's first attempt to shape the material resulted in a one-act play completed in 1984.  This eventually became one of the nine acts in the full production. Several early acts were well-received in workshop productions in Los Angeles, but the play's major breakthrough occurred when Intiman Artistic Director Elizabeth Huddle decided to mount the world-premiere production of the entire epic in Seattle. The play's director, Warner Shook, told the Christian Science Monitor, "It's a huge undertaking. Many artistic directors we went to didn't have the vision or the courage to see the potential" ("'Kentucky Cycle' Gains Momentum'").

The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays awarded the Intiman $125,000, the largest grant in its history to date, to facilitate producing The Kentucky Cycle.

Something Extraordinary

In an article on the award, Seattle Post-Intelligencer theater critic Joe Adcock recalled the opening night audience's response to the work:

"All who gathered at Intiman Theatre June 1, 1991, knew something extraordinary was going on. It was strange to go into the theater on a bright spring afternoon, sit for three hours, come out, have dinner, and go back again for nearly three more hours, and then come out again feeling somehow changed -- shaken, deeply moved, and alerted to an important truth" ("Premiere at Intiman Gave Hint of 'Kentucky' Greatness").

Following its production at the Intiman, The Kentucky Cycle opened to rave reviews at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1992. After winning the Pulitzer, it played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1993 and on Broadway in 1994.

In 1993, The Kentucky Cycle's director, Warner Shook, became Intiman's artistic director, a position he held until 2000.

In 1993, Millenium Approaches, Part One of Tony Kushner's epic Angels In America was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, also without having played on Broadway. This play's Broadway opening was well underway, however: The Pulitzers were announced on April 13, 1993, and Millenium Approaches was scheduled to open at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York on April 29, 1993 (and did open, after a delay, on May 4). Intiman Theatre was the first regional theater in the nation to secure the rights to produce Millenium Approaches following its New York run.


"Tony Awards," "American Cycle," and "History," Intiman Theatre website accessed June 15, 2006 (; Joe Adcock, "Premiere at Intiman Gave Hint of 'Kentucky' Greatness," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 8, 1992; "Intiman Theatre Will Stage Angels," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 21, 1993, p. C-4; Elizabeth Levitan Spaid, " 'Kentucky Cycle' Gains Momentum," Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1993; "Production History," Actors Theatre of Louisville website accessed June 24, 2006 (; Frank Scheck, "Appalachia Stint Fuels Pulitzer-Winning Play," Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 1993; "The Best Theater of 1992," Time, January 4, 1993, p. 67; "Surprise Ending For A Great Play, Pulitzer For 'The Kentucky Cycle' Reflects The Geographical Breadth Of American Theater," Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1992, p. 6; Robert Schenkkan, The Kentucky Cycle (New York: Plume, 1993).

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