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The Kentucky Cycle: Fire In The Hole By Robert Schenkkan

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1 The Kentucky Cycle: Fire In The Hole By Robert Schenkkan
Study Guide and Synopsis

2 About the play Fire In The Hole is part of a larger work known as The Kentucky Cycle. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in The series of one-act plays tell the story of the Rowen family beginning in 1775 and ending in 1975. Fire In the Hole is set in a coal mining camp town in the year 1920. The story revolves around the Jackson family: Mary Anne Rowen-Jackson, her husband, Tommy and their only surviving son, Joshua.

3 The events and characters of Fire In The Hole are based on historical events and real people, like Mary Jones. Known as “Mother” Jones, she was a tireless worker for labor rights.

4 In 1921 , thousands of pro-union miners faced down armed security agents sent to break the strike at Blair Mountain in West Virginia. The largest armed uprising since the Civil War, the battle lasted for ten days and resulted in hundreds of casualties. The “machine gun attack” depicted in the play is based on a real event from the Battle of Blair Mountain.

5 Historical Context In the early 20th Century, mining companies controlled every aspect of the miners’ lives. These living quarters had no running water, no indoor plumbing of any kind. The families used public outhouses, and used untreated water for cooking and bathing.

6 Companies printed their own pay vouchers, called scrip
Companies printed their own pay vouchers, called scrip. Miners could only purchase food, clothes, medicine and other necessities from the company-owned store using this scrip. If miners needed US currency, they had to sell the scrip for less than the face value. In other words, they might only receive 35 cents for a $1.00 voucher.

7 Typically, the men worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week
Typically, the men worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Their pay was based on the amount of coal in tons that they loaded per day, not on the number of hours worked. Companies showed little or no regard for the miner’s safety. Even the basic hard hat was not introduced until the 1940’s.

8 The legal minimum age to work was 14 years, but many families obtained false birth records for younger children, to try to earn enough money to get out of debt.

9 In the early 20th century, workers in many industries began to organize strikes to force companies to provide better pay and more humane working conditions.

10 Synopsis

11 Like many coal mining families of the time, the Jacksons are struggling to make ends meet. They are deeply in debt to the Blue Star Mining Company for food, medicine and the funerals of their four oldest sons. Abe Steinman, a stranger, comes to the Jackson’s home asking to board with them while he looks for work as a miner. In fact, Abe is a union organizer determined to form a miner’s union at Blue Star.

12 When a cave-in at the mine kills over 20 men, Tommy reluctantly agrees to help Abe organize a strike. He arranges a meeting with bootlegger and gun-runner Cassius Biggs to buy weapons. As the strike gains momentum, Blue Star Mining launches an attack on the miners and their families. An armored freight train fitted with machine guns opens fire on the camp where the miners have gathered.

13 Driven by fear and jealousy, Tommy betrays Abe and Cassius to the mine boss, Andrew Winston. He tells Winston the time and place they have arranged to meet the weapons dealer. Hired thugs ambush the miners. Although Cassius and some others escape, Abe is captured and executed. Tommy’s son, Joshua, witnesses the killing and later tells the striking miners the truth about the ambush.

14 Mary Anne denounces Tommy for his cowardice, saying, “This man is a stranger to me.” The miners drag him away, presumably to lynch him for betraying them. Taking up the union cause, Mary Anne leads the striking miners into a stand-off with Blue Star, ultimately gaining a union contract and improved working conditions.

15 Sources American Federation of Labor (2014). Mother Jones. Retrieved from People-in-Labor-History/Mother-Jones Kentucky Coal Mining History (2011). Labor Problems. Retrieved from History.html National Public Radio (2011) The Battle to Preserve Blair Mountain. Retrieved from preserve-blair-mountain West Virginia Division of Culture and History (2012) On This Day In History. Retrieved from /0904.html

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