Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law more landmark legislation than any 20th-century president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He championed such transformational “Great Society” programs as food stamps, Medicare and Headstart, and such watershed anti-discrimination laws as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.
“He’s one of our great presidents,” says writer-historian Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, and author of the recent book, “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.” “The sheer magnitude of what he got done continues to resound, and will 50 years from today.”
Yet after one elected term, this lion of the U.S. Senate and forcefully activist president left office as one of the most reviled men in the country.
Since his 1968 White House departure, in the midst of a divisive, costly war in Vietnam he had greatly expanded, LBJ’s brilliant, at times ruthless political stratagems, genuine concern for the poor, good ol’ boy crudeness and plunging fall from grace have fascinated historians.
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But his hard-won social programs are often taken for granted now, or challenged. And in recent decades the tall Texan leader all but quietly slipped off the public radar — while his predecessor John F. Kennedy and successor Richard Nixon were frequently documented and dramatized.
Robert Schenkkan aims to change that. The noted Seattle playwright (“The Kentucky Cycle”) and screenwriter (“The Quiet American”) is bringing LBJ out of the shadows, via a two-part epic drama that officially opens at Seattle Repertory Theatre on Wednesday, and runs until Jan. 4.
Part one, “All the Way,” covers Johnson’s whirlwind, accomplished first year as president, as he held the nation together after JFK’s horrifying 1963 assassination. Commissioned and premiered (in 2012) by Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., it went on to Boston, then Broadway, where it won two 2014 Tony Awards — for the script, and lead actor, “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston.
“The Great Society,” the sequel, covers LBJ’s first (and only) elected term as president, a period of achievement and disaster. Commissioned and co-produced by Seattle Rep, it premiered at OSF this summer, and its second airing here features Jack Willis (encoring his Ashland turns) as LBJ.
Schenkkan embarked on the massive research and writing project several years ago, when OSF artistic head Bill Rauch invited him to contribute to the American Revolutions new play series.
The subject Schenkkan chose, unhesitatingly, was Johnson — a fellow Texan who had some dealings with the playwright’s father, and was an imposing character who he felt represented some of the best aspects of U.S. politics.
Schenkkan says today his goal was to create “a very muscular, visceral experience of power and politics, raising all the complicated questions of what it takes to get things done, and where to draw the line.”
He views Johnson “as a tragic hero,“ whose rise and self-inflicted downfall is the stuff of dramatic catharsis, akin to the monarchical dramas of the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare.
Given OSF’s classical mandate, that excited Rauch, who has directed the LBJ opus since its genesis. “I see this as a Shakespearean study in power and morality,” he reflects. “The battle scenes, the ghosts, the messengers, the powerful but flawed leader. There are so many parallels.”
“You hear the cliché about Johnson being bigger than life,” says biographer Updegrove. “As I examined him closer, I couldn’t believe what a colossus he was in every way — politically, personally. Every aspect of his nature was so outsized.”
Admired LBJ biographer Robert Caro has covered the man’s sprawling saga in four hefty volumes, with a fifth on the way. Schenkkan is compressing his presidency, arguably the most consequential five years of his life, into a two-part, six-and-a-half hour narrative set mainly in the Oval Office.
Scenic projections of telling historical photos and videos help illustrate Schenkkan’s fast-moving chronicle. Nineteen actors tackle some 30 roles, including Martin Luther King Jr., FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, attorney general (and LBJ nemesis) Robert F. Kennedy and an array of U.S. politicians Johnson cajoled, threatened and (in some cases) essentially bribed to get some Great Society programs passed.
The struggle for civil rights in the segregated South is a major theme in both plays. And in “The Great Society,” the incremental, surreptitious escalation of the Vietnam War unfolds, inciting mounting protest.
Though hawkish advisers egged LBJ on, Schenkkan does not frame him “as a patsy or a dupe. He lied about the war to Congress and the American people, and the lying got worse and worse. But it’s easy to forget the context of geopolitics at the time, when communism was considered a viable global threat.”
Transferring the productions from Ashland to Seattle (a project dear to the heart of the Rep’s late artistic head, Jerry Manning) has been challenging. As OSF presented the first draft of “The Great Society” at OSF, the actors were also rehearsing Schenkkan’s revisions of it. And at the Rep, new cast members (including Seattle’s Michael Winters and Reginald A. Jackson) have had to quickly mesh with the OSF performers.
Schenkkan hopes the LBJ opus will resonate with viewers across the generations.
“The people who lived through this time and have strong feelings about it, have been very stunned, moved and shaken by what we portray,” he says, noting that congressman and ’60s civil rights leader John Lewis, Bill and Hillary Clinton and many other notables have attended “All the Way,” which also received the first Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, and a Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.
“For many younger people, the plays have been revelatory. They’ve realized how far we’ve come historically — I mean, 50 years ago President Barack Obama’s parents would have in many states been guilty of a felony because of their interracial marriage.”
But Schenkkan also wrote the plays to shed light on our current political climate. He fears that the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a key part of the Voting Rights Act, cuts in social services to the poor and other measures are undermining the social safety net the Great Society programs strengthened.
“I want this to be part of the national conversation,” he says. And so far it has been — with the hit Broadway run of “All the Way” attracting fresh TV, magazine and other coverage on Johnson and his legacy.
Some reviewers have considered the plays simply well-researched history lessons, not inspired theater. Certainly, LBJ scholars and intimates have praised Schenkkan’s historical acumen. “Robert’s great strength is that he understands the period so well,” says Updegrove. “That’s not always the case with people who are first and foremost dramatists.”
But Schenkkan bristles at the idea he’s created cut-and-paste docudramas. “You don’t feel like you’re in a lecture hall when you see them. And most of the dialogue I invented, or adapted.”
In Rauch’s view, the history lesson is a plus. “Today audiences hunger for artistic experiences that have authenticity,” he observes. “They connect with the fact that what Robert is dramatizing really did happen.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org