I remember the day well when I first heard the words – play cycle
A week before, my B.A. acting professor had given my small troupe a play to analyze –
Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water. It was my first real touch on something contemporary – very exotic and exciting to me. The play examined the marriage and infidelity of four characters through sex, fighting, hope, love and pain. After our showcase scenes from the play, my professor mentioned that this play was a part of a cycle – a quartet. Wright had written three other pieces that took place in the same fictional town of Pine City, Minnesota. I was flabbergasted that he would write four plays about the same place. I thought isn’t that like killing a dead horse? I had a million questions – They can do that? Why would you write more than one play about a certain place? Are all the same characters in the other pieces? This piece felt so complete, am I missing something else by not reading the others? and most importantly: What is a play cycle?
I was intrigued and I wanted to know what was so special about Pine City that made the writer return again and again. I bought the rest of the Minnesota plays and have since been drawn to the notion of a cycle. Feeling so connected to the lives in Pine City I began hunting down other playwrights who wrote in cycles but was always unsure of what pulled them into writing this way, and why the audience would come back time again to see another story from the same place. So like any millennial would do, I went straight to Google.
If you Google – play cycles, the only thing you can achieve is reading up on Euro- Medieval York/Mystery Plays – staged retellings of bible stories, liturgical drama series that were extremely popular beginning in the fifth century. While this is a great starting point I desired to know why and how in the contemporary now do we write cycle plays.
It is difficult to find any modern definition of a play cycle. Similar to the modern concept of the cycle; the definition seems to be as loose as a phrase – Hey, this is a cycle! – by the mouth of a critic, director or professor. The only set rule is that the grouping of plays needs to be written by the same playwright.
On the broadest of terms the modern play cycle can be a grouping of plays that are seen to be unified in theme by the writer or director. The modern version of a play cycle never has to be performed in sync or as a unit (all performed in the same day, week, year) or performed at all. The cycle merely can be declared by the writer, as a grouping of performances. For example, Sam Shepard’s Family Trilogy Cycle includes True West, Curse of the Starving Class, and Buried Child. But through the eyes of critics and other writers (not by Shepard himself) The Family Trilogy is also believe to a quintet including his later work of Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind. It is a very loose and confusing concept that another theatre professional has the ability to combine another’s work into a so-said cycle.
Julie Sparks gives us this tighter definition in her article Playwrights’ Progress of what a play cycle is intended to be:
More narrowly defined, a play cycle comprises two or more plays that are meant to be performed as a unit, either in an unusually long single performance or over a few days. These plays are usually connected in theme, style, and plot, usually with at least some of the characters appearing in two or more of the plays or being represented in later plays by their descendants. These cycles often focus on the history of an extended family, as do the Oresteia and the Theban plays, or they represent more broadly the history of a culture or of the human race, as do the medieval mystery plays.
It could take only one play to show the history of a culture but it takes many to understand the history of a culture. One of the strongest modern examples of the term cycle play, is Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle. This play cycle is a series of nine one-acts that explore the development of an Appalachian family and their decedents from 1775 to 1975. Hypothetically, each piece of the nine one-acts can be performed as a stand alone story or in smaller groupings of the nine. To understand the overarching plot, message and examination of Appalachian life; The Kentucky Cycle can only be fully experienced when all nine pieces are performed or read in sync.
While we have a loose modern definition of what a play cycle should be; we have exploded the definition of what it could be and quite possibly ruined the connotation behind the meaning of a play cycle.