Not even the powerful figures enshrined on Mt. Rushmore could quite match Lyndon Johnson’s unsurpassed ability to impose his will on people and events. The 36th President’s vision and ambition equaled his political shrewdness. The Machiavellian knowledge accumulated over decades as master of Texas’s famously cutthroat politics and the Senate’s byzantine ways equipped him, he imagined, to literally change the world. Inasmuch as the character trait that made him powerful — his hubristic belief that he could through cunning and power politics bend anything to his will — is also the tragic flaw that leads him to overreach, Johnson boasts all the qualities of a tragic hero, and is the most Shakespearean of American leaders.
Like Shakespeare, Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan strives to turn history into drama in his two-play LBJ cycle, All the Way and The Great Society, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and 2014 and are running through January 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre (though the run is sold out). That’s the brief assigned by OSF’s noble American Revolutions project, one of the great achievements of 21st century Oregon arts, which “asks that each play be based in history and explore a moment [my italics] of change. Beyond that, the playwrights choose the content, form, and style of their work.” So LBJ offers an ideal dramatic opportunity for classic tragedy: a seemingly irresistible leader who confronts truly immovable historical forces — and loses.
Surrounded by supporting dramatis personae who would be protagonists in any other drama, ranging from Martin Luther King to the ghost of John F. Kennedy (embodied by his equally tragic brother) to the incarnations of evil Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Johnson’s tragedy would have had the Bard himself licking his quill to thrust it onstage.
But instead of exploring a moment, Schenkkan chose to explain an era. The battle over delegates at the 1964 Democratic convention during the Freedom Summer turmoil, Johnson’s desperate dance with the equally torn King, his confrontation with racist / opportunist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, his duel with the Kennedys, the passage of the landmark 1964 civil Right Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act (two of the greatest legislative triumphs in American history) and above all, his wrestling with the Vietnam War (and the larger geopolitical struggles it exemplified) … each of those and many others would make for more coherent dramas.
But trying to cram them all into the confines of a single, relatively conventional dramatic structure predictably produces a similar outcome to President Johnson’s attempt to handle them all at once in real life. As a result, Schenkkan’s cycle succeeds better as history than as theater.