Search This Blog


King John

by William Shakespeare

Okay, I have to take a break from The Kentucky Cycle to write about another play I've read recently, and actually saw live tonight -- Shakespeare's rarely done King John. I'm inspired to blog about this play because a wonderful young company that I worked with last year the New York Shakespeare Exchange is doing a fantastic production of the play RIGHT NOW and you should all rush over to see it!

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "Lauren, maybe there's a reason that King John isn't done often. I'm gonna need you to convince me a little more." To which I say, Fair enough, dear reader, I will attempt to do just that.

King John may not have a fancy impediment like Richard or a habit of murdering exes like Henry, but he ain't no saint. Most of the conflict of the play revolves around the question of succession -- John is King, but Arthur, son of the late King Geoffrey has a rightful claim to the throne and his mother Constance is PISsed about the turn of events.

The first dispute of the play comes between two brothers over land (what else?) -- here we meet the Bastard, who is to become a loyal servant of King John. The Bastard, curious to know the identity of his real father asks his mother (staged refreshingly by NYSX as a phone conversation, thus eliminating the tiny role of Lady Falc.) The Bastard learns that Richard the Lionhearted was his true father, and he couldn't be happier. He consoles his mother, assuring her that her infidelity was understandable:

He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman's.

The politics of King John may take place in the 13th century but, it seems, some things never change. John, in a beautiful yet disturbing image, warns a group of citizens:

And now instead of bullets wrapp'd in fire
They shoot but calm words folded up in smoke.

Words are sometimes the deadlier (and stealthier) weapon.

The Bastard provides much of the comic relief throughout the play (although, in general, I laughed a lot in seeing it live -- much more than I expected to) In a moment of direct address he reveals to us a logic that, today, seems to echo the unfortunate issue of polarity among the classes:

Well, whiles I am a beggar I will rail,
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.

So, by this time, King John's not doing so well. He's got issues with the French (momentarily patched up by a hasty marriage) and then he rails on the Pope, causing his legate to lay down the law thus:

Thou shalt stand cursed and excommunicate,
And blessed shall he be that doth revolt
From his allegiance to an heretic,
And meritorious shall that hand be called,
Canonised and worshipped as a saint,
That takes away by any secret course
Thy hateful life.

Wow, thanks a lot Cardinal. You sound real holy declaring that whoever kills a King, no matter how shady the deed, will be dubbed a Saint. Guess they're just giving those things away -- 'hey you! murderer! wanna be a saint? have I got a gig for you...'

Speaking of shady deeds, King John gets a little antsy having Arthur around, since he's a threat to the crown. So, in one of the best examples of a shared line ever, John enlists the help of Arthur's keeper to get rid of him:

King John     Death.
Hubert                     My lord.
King John                             A grave.
Hubert                                                He shall not live.
King John                                                                     Enough.  

Of course, not many things go right for John, and Hubert is won over by Arthur's innocence. He lies to the King, saying he got rid of the boy. Later, John regrets giving the order and realizes:

There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by others' death.

This line could probably be dropped into any of Shakespeare's plays. If all of his tragic heroes realized this, there would have been a lot more comedies in the canon.

John, accuses Hubert, saying:

                            Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.

Ah, royalty, so fickle.

I won't ruin the ending for you.... even though the title of the play pretty much does that on its own. But, I will highly recommend you check out the production, playing at the Access Theatre through October 2nd! For more info, go here:

Tomorrow's Play: The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - Ties That Bind by Robert Schenkkan


The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - The Homecoming

by Robert Schenkkan

So, a few nights ago on the subway I finished the entire Kentucky Cycle. In the back there is this amazing Author's Note where Schenkkan talks about the process of writing the play. He says he didn't intend for the play to be quite so extensive but as he was doing research he just felt that so much of the story relied on past history and so he kept going back a little farther. What he created was an epic piece that spans multiple generations of three families and how they help and hurt each other. He says:
Without the past, what is there to connect us to the present?
He also quotes Einstein:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
A good argument for a vegetarian lifestyle as well, I think. :)

As I embark on the process of writing a play (shh, it's a secret), I am in awe of the talent and dedication Schenkkan brought to The Kentucky Cycle. SO, let's get back to it! Now, to focus on the third in the cycle -- The Homecoming:
NOT to be confused with Pinter's play of the same name.. although it is equally as dark.

It is sixteen years later, and husband-of-the-year Michael Rowen got that son he wanted so badly. His name is Patrick and he is sixteen years old. Receiving the best qualities of both his parents, he is one with the land and a natural hunter. He's also in love with the pretty thing next door, who, upon the opening of the play has snuck up behind him on the hill where he is looking out. We get a sense of Patrick's connection to the earth when he tells his lady love:
When I hunt, I don't "pretend" I'm a deer or nothin'. I just am. I'm out here in the woods and things just get real ... still ... or somethin' ... It ain't magic or nothin'. It's just ... When I reach that place, when I just am, there, with the forest, then it's like I can call the deer or something'. I call'em and they come. Like I was still waters and green pastures, 'stead of hunger and lead.
I was instantly drawn in by Patrick - here is a character that is kind, defensive of his mother, loving, strong.. someone you can root for! But, ah, how much can change in the course of a few pages. By the end of The Homecoming, Patrick basically becomes his father.

Michael returns from a business trip with a slave whom he intends to breed himself to produce sons who will work the land. Star and Patrick are horrified by this but play along because they know it is the safer option. Patrick wants to get married and asks his father for his blessing and a piece of the land. He so strongly believes that the land is his, and when denied by his father (he says he'd rather give his land to his slaves that to his son) Patrick ends up killing him. Oops. This murder is accidentally witnessed by Patrick's girlfriend and her father Joe.. BIG oops. Turns out Joe is secretly in love with Star (Michael's wife) and they were planning to run away together.. ooh the drama is getting juicy. Joe offers to help Star get a good lawyer for Patrick. She refuses, saying that the town will hang her son for sure because he's part Cherokee. Joe tries to tell her:
The law be full-time and you cain't be pickin' and choosin' with it.
For all his noble words, he ends up dead too. Patrick kills him and then shoves his sobbing girlfriend inside the house, claiming that they would get married tonight. Gee, like father, like son? Kill some men, get land, force a woman into marriage. The American dream?

Tomorrow's Play: The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - Ties That Bind by Robert Schenkkan


The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - The Courtship of Morning Star

by Robert Schenkkan

The second play in this series of nine one-acts recycles only one character from the first - Michael Rowen, the ruthless Irishman. The play opens on a violent struggle between him and a young Cherokee girl called Knox Sanale, meaning 'Morning Star.' The girl he has chosen to become his wife.

Quite literally chosen, as he has physically dragged her from her home and tied her wrist to his with a piece of rawhide. Needless to say, she didn't have much of a say in this decision. Nothing will stop Rowen from getting what he wants. When she tries to escape, he chases her down and cuts the tendon in her ankle, assuring that she'll never be able to run away again.. because she'll never be able to run.
I cut the tendon cleanly. You'll always limp, but you'll walk soon enough just fine. no pain. But you'll never be able to run. Not fast enough. not far enough. (Beat. He raises his glass.) Here's to our firstborn. A son! (Beat.) Gimme a daughter, and I'll leave it on the mountain for the crows. 
I recently read this eye-opening article about the practice of sex-specific abortion in countries like India and China. It spoke about the pressures of having a son and how women will abort girl after girl until they get their precious son, causing there to be an imbalance in the ratio of men to women in society, leading to higher levels of aggression in the population. This practice of aborting only female babies was so sad to me and I was reminded of it in reading this play. I understand the importance of having a son to carry on the name, and to work the land, etc, but to so easily throw away human life simply because it is female - as if there is no possible benefit from having a daughter, seems so barbaric. It seems like something from another time, and yet, it still happens. Back in Michael's day they had to wait til the child was born to know if it was male or female but now modern technology has made it so easy to do away with life -  quicker and easier. As much as the human race learns and grows, it's not always for the better.

It's hard to feel anything for a man as merciless as Michael Rowen - who will steal and take whatever he needs to survive. And yet in a world where only the strong survive, he's doing what he has to do. In recalling the first man he ever killed, he says:
But there was no sport innit. See, I learned early, blood's just the coin of the realm, and it's important to keep strict accounts and pay your debts. That's all.
 I wouldn't want to be on his bad side..
Cherokee alphabet
Tomorrow's Play: The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - The Homecoming by Robert Schenkkan


The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - Masters of the Trade

by Robert Schenkkan

Welcome back readers! Here we begin a new school-year (well, not everyone, not even me, but I always liked school so let's pretend shall we?) Fall is in the air and Irene is behind us.. time to get back to reading plays! Though, I am currently devouring the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy - I will finish tonight! I digress...

Workshop location: The Old Stone House in Park Slope
In mid-August I participated in a workshop with the Artful Conspirators of a new play called The Journeyman of Breuckelen by playwright David A. Miller. The story, set in Dutch Breuckelen (Brooklyn) during the 1600's, follows a storyteller who comes to town and the influence he has on the village. During the workshop we got to talking about The Kentucky Cycle.. I think because of the tension between the settlers and the natives.. I can't remember exactly why, but our conversation piqued my interest. This epic play had been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, staring me down with its intimidating length, but I will read you yet Kentucky Cycle! You will not best me!

I should get more sleep.

SO. The cycle is broken into two parts with a total of nine plays. What a marathon for the cast and crew. And audience!

Part One

Masters of the Trade

Schenkkan opens the play by placing us right in the center of the conflict - a stand-off between two white men. Strangers. Tension is high because Indians recently slaughtered an entire village of men, women, and children, using guns that were provided for them. The two men we meet are an Irishman and a Scot - the earlier bent on revenging his village, the latter mysteriously waiting in the woods for someone to meet him. This sounds like it could be a scene from the Hunger Games. I digress.. After initial grandstanding, the two men begin to converse civilly.

We get the sense that maybe they haven't been settled here for long. Michael, the Irishman describes Kentucky:
It's a grand land of opportunity, it is, with plenty of scratch to be made for those with an itch! All that, and enough room for a man to stretch out and lose himself entirely. Become somethin' new. Somethin' different. A new man. That's what we're makin' here in Kentucky, Mr. Tod. New men.
Early map of Kentucky

Tod, the Scot, is revealed to be the man providing the Cherokee with their guns. A young man, Sam, who has accompanied Michael and was hidden in the trees shoots Tod dead upon learning he's the one responsible for the loss of their village.

Guess Schenkkan isn't shy about killing off characters. It's only page 8.

The gun shot attracts the Cherokee, who aren't happy about the fact that their friend and supplier is dead. Quick thinking by Michael allows him to set himself up as their new supplier. The Cherokee demand "an eye for an eye," essentially, for Tod's death. Without hesitation, Michael stabs Sam in the gut, killing him to settle the debt. Page 14. Body count: 2. Also sounds like the Hunger Games...

Michael sets up a meeting with the Cherokee and demands a piece of land for his trouble. He gives them some powder and blankets as a good will gesture, and they go on their way. Michael laughs, sharing:
Them blankets, Sam - they're poxed. Salvaged them from that Cutter family in Zion - them whose baby girl died of the pox three weeks ago. (Beat.) Indians has thin blood. Pox'll cut through them like a hot knife through butter. (Beat.) So you see, Sam, you can rest easy now. Zion's been revenged after all. (Beat.) Sam? (Beat.) Sun's comin' up, lad. (Beat.) New day for a new land. (Beat.)
I'll admit that I know next to nothing about the history of Kentucky. But if this first play is any indication, we're in for a wild ride..

Tomorrow's Play: The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - The Courtship of Morning Star by Robert Schenkkan


' (1) absurdist (1) american (68) British (17) chekhov (1) classical (33) comedic (49) contemporary (108) dramatic (44) fairy-tale (1) farce (8) helen keller (1) impediment (2) Irish (1) musical (2) no role (3) nudity (1) one-act (9) pulitzer (4) role (117) serio-comedic (43) shakespeare (4) Shaw (2) thriller (1) tragedy (4) translation (3) war (2)