Seattle Repertory Theatre review: Falling Victim to History

In Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and The Great Society, drama gets diluted in historical explanation.

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.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

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.

Running Battles

Schenkkan recounts this epic as a series of political negotiations between LBJ and his antagonists/allies. And there are many, since by the beginning of the second play, The Great Society, he’s juggling three wars, fighting each by playing factions against each other. The first, the battle for real African American political equality pits LBJ, MLK, and his other liberal allies against the old-line Dixiecrats who’ve staved off, often violently, the inevitable confrontation with America’s original sin.

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(l to r) Jack Willis and Richard Elmore in All the Way, courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham.

That the conservative Southern Democrat (whom we’d now call Republicans) cabal was led by one of Johnson’s own primary political mentors, George Sen. Richard Russell (whom he and Lady Bird affectionately call “Uncle Dick” at the regular dinners they maintain even after they become adversaries instead of allies), lends an Oedipal cast to their struggle. But here as elsewhere in this overstuffed epic, there’s no time for such psychological depth or real character development, because as conceived by Schenkkan, All the Way has so much more ‘splainin to do. Over three hours, it also takes on the heavy task of explicating daunting array of players and stakes involving LBJ’s other frenemies:

  • The splintering civil rights movement (involving characters representing the conservative National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led by Roy Wilkins, the progressive — for the time, anyway — Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led by Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses, and the centrist Southern Christian Leadership Council, whose leader King, like LBJ, must keep those wings from flying off if the plane is to reach its destination of the promised land.
  • Democratic Party liberals initially represented by Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, whom Johnson controls by dangling the prospect of the vice presidency in the upcoming 1964 election. In The Great Society, that role passes to Johnson’s Attorney General and nemesis Robert Kennedy after his move to the Senate.
  • The military industrial complex represented by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and uniformed generals
  • The Cold War mentality — and really his own dark, paranoid side — represented by Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover, who’s willing to use any dirty means to discredit the civil rights leaders like King, whom Hoover considers a Communist subversive.That’s a Texas-sized territory to cover, as those of us who lived through it remember. But Schenkkan is writing for history, including audiences who don’t remember or haven’t read about or otherwise learned the details of these simultaneous titanic struggles. To convey the various interests represented, what they want, what’s at stake, where they conflict, he resorts to arguments among the various factions, either with each other or with Johnson. That’s what politics is — fighting over who gets what and why — and Schenkkan presents the swirling conflicts with admirable clarity and accuracy, in crisply written scenes that accurately convey the major historical currents of this turbulent period.

    But the price of imparting all that information so efficiently is that it turns most of these characters (and minor ones including  LBJ’s wife Lady Bird and Muriel Humphrey and Coretta King — high level politics was a male dominion then — Johnson’s closeted gay aide Walter Jenkins, Chicago Mayor/panjandrum Richard Daley, Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen  and more) into mere mouthpieces for their interests and beliefs. When he sometimes using approximations of their own public statements in private conversations, All the Way and The Great Society too often sound like a dry but informative PBS documentary. (In fact, the first play and one act in the second end in exactly the same way as a couple of PBS documentary episodes, from Eyes on the Prize and American Experience respectively.) Especially in contrast to LBJ’s own more naturalistic speech (well rendered by Schenkkan, who, like me, grew up in LBJ country), the stilted expositional dialogue grows wearisome, at least for anyone who already knows this material pretty well. Judging by ATW’s Tony Award for Best Play and the sold-out houses at both Ashland and Seattle, even boomers seeking deeper understanding of the period they lived through will likely appreciate the history lesson, but it’s more an intellectual than an emotional appreciation. (Kudos to the program writers, who supply a nice summary of much of the needed context.)

    The same problem sank another well-intended play recently performed in Portland, Ghosts of Tonkin, which sought historical accuracy by confining much of the dialogue to actual public statements and the language of bureaucratic reports. That might work in a non-naturalistic production, but along with some contrived fictional characters whose job is basically stitching it all together, it made the show feel contrived, robotic and leaden.

    The Dream Disintegrates

    As slowed as it is by all the explaining and set up, at least All the Way possesses some dramatic unity: it’s confined to the year-long period between Johnson’s ascension to power with President Kennedy’s assassination and his landslide 1964 election victory made possible (as the play well documents) by his canny, superhuman ability to contain the explosive elements of his unstable coalition just long enough.

    Covering the ensuing three years, and more major players and events (RFK, Vietnam, etc.) The Great Society faces a greater challenge to dramatic unity. It chronicles how Johnson’s overriding goal shifts: from his lifelong goal of eradicating the poverty that stifled the hopes of his family in Depression era, hardscrabble Texas Hill Country, to desperately trying to hold party and country together. In so doing, it must explain how a leader elected in one of American history’s biggest political victories, someone with so much power and knowledge of how the political system (including the Senate he once led), lost it all within three years.

    The cast of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s The Great Society (2014). Photo: Chris Bennion.

    The cast of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s The Great Society (2014).
    Photo: Chris Bennion.

    Despite those immense challenges, the second play’s taut first act utterly bristles with the tension missing from much of its predecessor, opening with a series of quick, hard hitting rounds that comprise the series’s most riveting stretch. We see LBJ outmaneuver both the entrenched monied interests of the American Medical Association and racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, culminating in the second confrontation between civil rights marchers and violent state troopers at the notorious Edmund Pettus bridge. Schenkkan skillfully sets up (and has his characters breathlessly explain) the political twists and turns that made the marchers’ withdrawal a victory over Wallace.

    Then the ensuing two acts return to potted history lessons, essentially dramatized explanations of why the civil rights movement foundered in the north, and how Vietnam is slipping away from America’s allies. In the end, Johnson’s allies desert him (as he so often abandoned them when politically expedient), except for Hoover and Lady Bird, who warns her husband about the former: “He’s no friend of yours.” But with exposition replacing action, we wind up with a pageant of history rather than real drama, and in this case, not everyone loves a parade.

    Robert Schenkkan.

    Robert Schenkkan.

    Because of the lack of a real dramatic impetus, what should be the climax of the story — Johnson’s ultimate decision to withdraw from the 1968 Presidential race — comes off as anticlimactic. On stage, the principal emotional effect is a sense of disappointment and relief, with Johnson realizing that power isn’t as important to him as being back at the ranch with Bird.

    In fact (though not shown here), rather than wallowing in despair and exhaustion after his withdrawal, LBJ was reportedly beaming — because it flummoxed one last time all his political opponents, including his primary challenger Eugene McCarthy, his would-be Republican general election opponents, the peace movement panting to defeat him at the polls, and just about everyone else who’d opposed him. It paralleled his brilliant maneuver outfoxing Wallace by having civil rights marchers turn around and not walk into his trap (dozens of baton-wielding thugs with badges) at the Pettus bridge. His reality distortion field allowed LBJ to convince himself that he’d again won by losing.

    That hubristic belief that had fueled his career — that by sheer force of will, he could control people and events —  is the tragic flaw these plays fail to clearly dramatize. In another crucial line that doesn’t appear in the play, Johnson said, approximately, that if he could just get Ho Chi Minh and his adversaries in the same room, they could cut a deal, like those he’d been striking his entire political career. The fact that he couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t do that explains why he failed.

    Johnson’s withdrawal should represent his implicit (even if he couldn’t admit it to himself) recognition (or at least ours) that he could not tame the vast impersonal forces of history (anti-colonialism vs. imperialism, equality vs. racism, national political realignment, et al) converging upon him and the country he loved and led. The 1968 Tet offensive (which exposed the administration’s assurances that a Vietnam victory was around the corner as a charade), the death of so many of his beloved “American boys,” the vituperation from the peace movement and much of the civil rights movement, and the collapse of his unlikely political coalition under the battering of insuperable historical currents… even LBJ himself couldn’t bend history to his will. No one could; half a century later, we’re grappling with many of the same issues — the  demise of southern Democrats in Congress, outrageously unjustified police violence against African Americans, a President desperately striving to hold the political center against the increasing polarization of America’s political parties, conservative suppression of minority voting rights, extended futile attempts to control the destiny of foreign countries.

     

    Jack Willis and Bakesta King in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s The Great Society (2014).  Photo: Chris Bennion.

    Jack Willis and Bakesta King in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s The Great Society (2014).
    Photo: Chris Bennion.

    When Johnson realized he couldn’t pull all that off — and that regardless of whether he could have pulled out the next election, his War on Poverty was doomed by his war in Vietnam — there was no point in fighting any more. In the theater, we need to feel that crushing realization just as we feel Lear’s and Othello’s, not just see it and understand it. But because the play throws so much undifferentiated explanation — rather than action — at us, the impact is muddled. When the cycle ends with Johnson telling Lady Bird, “Let’s go home,” back to their Central Texas ranch, it feels like we’ve just spent six hours to learn that there’s no place like home.

    A Noble Failure

    But if Schenkkan’s quest — like LBJ’s — ultimately proved inherently unattainable (by this production or any other that’s not a mini-series), director Bill Rauch and his team cope masterfully with the challenge of presenting action that spans  years, miles and time zones. Christopher Acebo’s smart, spare scenic design variously suggests a Congressional chamber, the Oval Office (illustrated via wonderfully evocative photographic projections by Shawn Sagady), Southern locales like the Pettus Bridge and the hotels where impromptu civil rights leadership summits were held, and other venues. During King’s famous speech that broke with the administration’s Vietnam policy, a projection of New York’s Riverside Church appears behind him — at the same moment as some sound design magic (courtesy of Paul James Pendergast) surrounds his voice with an echo so that it sounds like he’s speaking ex cathedra. During scenes set in political conventions, actors parade through the aisles, hoisting candidate signs and shouting slogans. In The Great Society, as riots and war casualties pile up, so does the burned and broken debris on stage, simultaneously evoking the country’s increasing chaos and Johnson’s increasing bunker mentality. These and other subtle touches make the production just as supportive as needed, without upstaging its star.

    The other reason to see the LBJ plays is the star, Jack Willis. I was initially skeptical about his interpretation, because he looks and sounds (to a Central/South Texan, at least) little like the LBJ I saw and heard. (For one thing, he talks too fast, which he noted in the program was a conscious and understandable choice to keep things moving.) Shakespeare never faced the problem of his audiences actually knowing how Julius Caesar or Cleopatra really appeared. But Willis wins the audience the way LBJ won over Dick Russell. We understand his relentless energy (never more evident than in the rapid-fire fusillades unleashed over the telephone, LBJ’s weapon of choice) and commitment to New Deal anti poverty ideals — the one true lodestar that guided his otherwise snaky political career. Willis’s fine comic timing combined with Schenkkan’s occasional humorous touches and well-written dialogue (replete with Johnson’s countrified parables) help humanize a pol who famously came across far more wooden on TV than in whiskey-stocked capitol backrooms. However different from Johnson’s domineering style, Willis’s own charisma proves equally persuasive and truer to the actor’s own personality. It’s a magnificent performance, particularly given that he’s in character sometimes six hours a day.

    Unfortunately, Schenkkan’s admiration for his protagonist leaves too little room for Willis to properly portray the ferocious bullying that LBJ notoriously inflicted on opponents (especially liberals); he comes across here as more like a fast talking, can-do type like Franklin or Theodore Roosevelt, two other master politicians with outsized egos and skills and generally admirable agendae. It’s a major flaw that makes the character, and his fate, less believable.

    Kenajuan Bentley and Ensemble in The Great Society.  Photo by Jenny Graham, courtesy OSF.

    Kenajuan Bentley and Ensemble in The Great Society.
    Photo by Jenny Graham, courtesy OSF.

    Similarly, Kenajuan Bentley wisely doesn’t try to replicate King’s magisterial style but rather shows a more intimate side of a leader we know mostly from his public face. The other actors, most playing multiple roles, do the best they can with their limited, exposition heavy tasks. Jonathan Haugen’s Nixon is downright spooky (and the same actor’s George Wallace a hoot), Richard Elmore’s scary Hoover a caricature of paranoia (which come to think of it might not be too far from reality) who also plays the, er, straight man in one of show’s funniest lines, revolving around later disclosures of his closeted secret. Kevin Kenerly brings his usual eruptive energy to Bob Moses and other characters. Most of the rest of the cast excels as well. But the plays’ Google Earth view seldom zooms in enough to give us a clear view of anyone but LBJ and, at times, King.

    Drama vs. History

    Ultimately, the colossal personalities and forces in play here seem to demand either the non-literal approach of Greek drama or Shakespeare or even the image theater of Robert Wilson, or a cycle of more and shorter plays, each with its own more traditional complication/insight/resolution, with the necessary contextual material brought in via flashbacks.

    Still, it’s easy to understand why Schenkkan tried to tell Lyndon Agonistes in a single, two-part drama viewed from above. The President’s tragic failure stemmed from an accumulation and convergence of crises, so it’s hard to portray it accurately without at least touching on all of them — Vietnam, civil rights, the Cold War, Southern white resistance to progress, the counterculture, and the rest, each needing its own set up and explanation.

    Yet that’s the job of drama: to find and portray the telling moment or sequence of moments that tells a bigger story, bringing in only enough background material as needed to help us feel what’s at stake. The new movie Selma, for example, focuses on a single dramatic moment to tell the bigger story of the American civil rights movement.

    Sometimes my feature writing students will bring in an assignment that presents abundant information, but with no real story to hold readers’ interest. When I ask them why they chose to write it that way, the answer is often, I needed to get in that quote/fact/scene. Since much of it was hard won through interviews and reporting, of course they want to get all their work in the draft.

    They’ve got it backward, I tell them. In storytelling, first you decide what story you’re telling. Only then do you decide what information you need to present to fairly and accurately tell that story.

    For all their sometimes fascinating historical insight and compelling acting and production, in All the Way and The Great Society, drama serves history instead of vice versa. They feel like vehicles fashioned to convey information, rather than compelling evocations of human drama that made history. In striving for historical accuracy, fairness, and comprehensiveness, Schenkkan chose too big a canvas, diluting the human drama in excessive exposition and ultimately obscuring the emotional subject at its heart. The playwright paralleled the President he chronicled: like Johnson himself,  his story eventually buckles under the weight of history.<

    All the Way and The Great Society continue at Seattle Rep through January 4, but the run is sold out. <>Want to read more about born-in-Oregon theater? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

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