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Making History, Part One

Playwright Robert Schenkkan on bringing LBJ to the stage in 'All the Way'

By Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 17, 2012

In his new play All the Way, Robert Schenkkan draws on his time growing up in the Hill Country and his family connection to LBJ to bring the 36th President of the U.S. to life onstage. Here, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Kentucky Cycle discusses the play's genesis as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions cycle of history plays, what makes Lyndon Johnson a Shakespearean figure to his eyes, his changing views of LBJ over time, and what makes the play resonant in the current presidential election year. All the Way runs through Nov. 4 at OSF. For more information, visit www.osfashland.org.

Austin Chronicle: Back me up to when Bill [Rauch, OSF artistic director] approached you about doing a play for American Revolutions.

Robert Schenkkan: I was one of the very first people Bill spoke to as soon as he got the grant, and we actually had breakfast together in New York. He said, "We've got this great new thing, and you're actually the first person I'm talking to about this. We're going to commission maybe 26 writers" in what eventually came to be called the American Revolutions cycle. And it's a very loosely worded commission: a play which takes some event or thought or action related to American history. It's really very broadly drawn. I immediately responded that yes, I wanted to do this; I wanted to be a part of it. Then, in terms of the subject, I was always interested in LBJ, and this seemed a perfect way to do that. And they were excited about that.

Then, the question was, well, what part of that story do you tell? It's such a big story. And I went back and forth for a while, maybe this is two plays. But rather than go back to OSF and try to wrangle a second spot, which seemed a little greedy, I eventually came to the conclusion that it's one play, it's going to be November '63 to November '64, so the first term, a year which I think is actually a hinge-point in American politics and American history. Everything shifts after this. It's the landmark civil rights bill. It's the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The Democratic Party has a lock on the South, and it has had it for a hundred years, and this is where that cracks. The modern Republican Party emerges. The Democratic Party loses the South. African-Americans shift their allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. The civil rights movement begins to split over the issue of nonviolence – all in that 12 months. I mean, it's an amazing period. Very dramatic.

And in the back of my head was the notion that, well, if somebody wants Part Two, they can pay me for it. And in fact, that's happened. Seattle Repertory Theatre has commissioned me to write Part Two, which I've already outlined and researched and will start this fall writing.

AC: I think that's so beautiful given the relationship that OSF has to Shakespeare and this idea of connecting his history plays and our history, to have a King LBJ, Part 1 and King LBJ, Part 2.

RS: I agree, and I'm so pleased that you jumped on the Shakespearean parallel, because it really does have that feeling. The king is dead. A new king assumes the throne. This is someone who has fought and clawed his way into power, and now he has all that power. What will he do with it? Ultimately, in the course of his reign, if you will, he does some incredibly good things, some incredibly positive things that alter the course of his country forever. Simultaneously, out of the same set of tools, as it were, he commits some very egregious crimes that also set his nation on a very different course. The latter undermines the former, and at the end of the day, he has to renounce the throne and step away. It's the full arc.

AC: I'm about a third of the way through the new volume by Robert Caro [in his LBJ biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson], and everything I read feels so Shakespearean. And I've tried to think if there was one history play that this feels like more than any other. And I came to the conclusion that there is no perfect analog. There are bits of all of those kings woven through LBJ.

RS: Well, Shakespeare's history plays are very often a meditation on power, and that's what this play is, very definitely, about: power – the acquisition of, the uses of, the costs of, ends vs. means. Power and morality: What is the nexus? It is a subject that never loses its potency. And here in an election year, with an electorate that's probably never been this divided since the Civil War, with Congress in such a partisan gridlock that it's very difficult to get anything done, it's extremely interesting to go back and look at this year in which so much got done. I mean, you look at the bitter battle over Obama's landmark health care bill, regardless of how you feel about that, the achievement of that, LBJ passed something like six of those bills – six sizable bills that dramatically altered the relationship between government and the people, and did all of that in less than year. The legislative achievement is staggering – and unprecedented. You have to go back to FDR to find anything remotely close. And there's been nothing like LBJ since LBJ.

AC: And in line with that, those changes were in the service of this larger vision of what America could be – this Great Society. And there's really not been a President since then who has created that cohesive a vision of where he wanted to take the country during his administration and made it fly.

RS: Everything else has been in reaction to what LBJ did. It's been nibbling around the edges – changing this or changing that. But you're quite right. There's not been anything so comprehensive, nothing so visionary since LBJ.

AC: So do you feel like this is a subject you've tackled before in any of your plays?

RS: Well, I certainly think those themes emerge in The Kentucky Cycle and in a play I wrote about Iraq called Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, so I think it does share a certain common linkage. I don't spend a lot of time looking at my work in the context of my work. I don't find that helpful, so I'm not going to be able to speak with much articulation to that, 'cause I try not to think about it, honestly. But yes, I think very definitely in Kentucky Cycle, this issue of power emerges, and very specifically in Lewis and Clark, American politics and foreign policy and power definitely emerges. This isn't as strong in All the Way, because – and it's fascinating to read the various accounts of people in LBJ's administration, especially the first administration – in talking about Vietnam, I think it was [Joseph] Califano that said, "You know, it was an afterthought. It was no bigger than a fist on the horizon. None of us thought it was important." Of course, now, looking back with hindsight, you can see how the seeds of Vietnam – the lies, the deception, the very deliberate attempt to mislead the American public and to mislead Congress – were there right from the beginning. Right from the beginning.

AC: Does this become part of LBJ's tragic flaw, this idea that it's okay to mislead somebody as long as the means to the end justifies it? I think about his time in the Senate and him pulling the Southerners onto his side by convincing them that he really wasn't interested in civil rights and in fact would fight the civil rights movement. But all along what he really wanted to do was advance civil rights.

RS: I think you're right. The same set of tools that served him so well as a legislator and that, in fact, are necessary to wield power in the legislative process are not necessarily the same set of tools that a President needs. And he applied them indiscriminately, 'cause that's all he knew. It worked. LBJ, I think it's fair to say – at least from my reading and most biographers – simply didn't have the interest in foreign policy that he had in domestic policy, and he didn't have the familiarity in foreign policy that he did in domestic policy, so it just wasn't his first concern. It wasn't his primary concern. I think he approached it as a political problem to be dealt with, inasmuch as it affected domestic politics, as opposed to its own set of international problems. And that was a critical failure, of course.

AC: With so much going on this first year, what's the story you felt compelled to tell?

RS: Even limiting it to these 12 months, there's an enormous amount going on, and there's no way I could do everything – or even every important thing – so I have to be selective. And I'm a dramatist here. I'm not a historian. This is a work of dramatic fiction. I'm interested in LBJ's relationship with the American civil rights movement – where they intersected, where they parted ways, their mutual wariness and suspicion of each other, and ultimately how they were able to achieve magnificent success, and then how quickly that begins to unravel.

I mean, from day one, LBJ is thinking ahead to his election, to his re-election, because, as he frequently described himself, he feels he's an accidental president. he's not the one the people have chosen, and it's so critical to him psychologically and emotionally to be the chosen one. So the arc of the play is, of course, always geared ultimately toward that election. But on the way to that election, passage of the civil rights bill is critical if he is to demonstrate his bona fides to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, whose support he absolutely needs, and to the African-American community, whose support he also absolutely needs. So that's my focus in this play: the drive toward re-election and the simultaneous dance between LBJ and Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement.

AC: How is it getting inside LBJ's psyche?

RS: Fascinating. Such a rich and complex individual – Shakespearean. The size, the ambition, the appetite, the hunger, the physical size – there's something almost Falstaffian about him in a certain kind of way. It's really unfortunate that for most people, the image they have of LBJ is of the very stiff and formal, awkward presidential speeches, which is actually an attitude he affected, because he thought it was more presidential. Apparently, in actuality, behind the scenes, he was incredibly charismatic, gregarious, a fabulous raconteur, jokester – the guy really lit up a room and was the center of attention. And also a bully and cruel and extremely manipulative and childish and petty and generous and loving. He was a very, very complicated individual. So for a dramatist, it's the most delicious kind of challenge, to try to get inside his head, to try to come to some understanding in real human terms.

AC: Because he spends so much time working the room, even with close friends, not to mention politicians – and I think of Shakespeare's Richard III, who's so good at manipulating even people who hate him into doing what he wants – are you able to give us an LBJ on stage that has a core of truth to him?

RS: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I want to be very careful about these Richard III analogies. I don't see LBJ as Richard III. Richard announces that he's a villain right at the start. LBJ did not see himself as a villain. Nor do I see him as a villain. I see him as a tragic hero. That's a very different kind of thing. So, yes, absolutely! I'm only interested in that emotional core, ultimately. That's really all that interests me. And that's why you go to the theatre: to be moved. And unless you're willing to dig down that deep, that doesn't happen. So absolutely that's been my objective here.

AC: Did he wrestle with you at all? Was there a spirit of LBJ that came into the process and told you, "I want to be presented this way"?

RS: No, I can't say I had any midnight conversations. One, I did an enormous amount of reading – and some interviews, but mostly it's other people's work – and when I sat down to write him, the dialogue flowed very easily. This is partly, I think, because I grew up in Austin. I grew up in this arena, and that Hill Country vernacular and the colorful storytelling mode is very second nature to me. That's very much a part of who LBJ was. So that part flowed very, very easily. And I was very determined from the beginning to try to get at some real truth here. No interest in a hatchet job, no interest in just exploiting this material. I'm really interested in this man and his complexities.

My own relationship with LBJ has been a very interesting one. My parents knew him. My father had to go to LBJ and get his permission in order to set up Central Texas' first educational television and radio station, because it would have been in direct competition with LBJ's own television station, part of his somewhat controversial fortune. And I'm pleased to say that not only did then-Sen. LBJ give his blessing, but he would go on in his lifetime to sign the Public Broadcasting Act, which made public television in this country. So he was a true believer. There's this family thing in which he's a hero, and I remember the '64 election, running against Goldwater, and my parents' excitement and the thrill at his victory. So that's one relationship. Then I'm 16, 17, 18, and it's the Vietnam War, and I have a very different feeling about LBJ. It's LBJ the warmonger and "how many kids did you kill today?" Then 20 years later, I'm an adult and living an adult life and becoming increasingly conscious of the great domestic programs which exist now as a direct result of what LBJ did and how they've affected my life and my children's life and my parents' life. And now I'm here in this curious and somewhat terrible political situation that exists, and my admiration for LBJ the legislator, LBJ the politician, LBJ the individual who was able to Get Things Done, is enormous. How I wish we had somebody like that now. What an interesting personal journey with this man. And all of those responses were valid because he was just that complicated.

AC: Do you feel some of that story has been lost to Americans?

RS: Yes. No question about it. It's a tragic thing that for most people, the legacy of LBJ is Vietnam, and the domestic achievements are forgotten. That's unfair. It's tragic. Partially what I'm doing here is redressing that in a certain kind of way, because dammit, if you're going to damn him for what he did – and you should – you should also praise him for what he did.

AC: Which it seems like we have an easier time doing with, say, FDR than LBJ.

RS: Well, we won that war.

AC: Good point. You seem to have taken full advantage of the freedom to present this historical moment as a grand tapestry, using lots of characters and a large cast. Would you have taken that route had this commission come from a theatre without the resources of OSF?

RS: That's a good question. It's so tough these days in the American theatre to write of size. It was hard 20 years ago, and it's gotten tougher. One of the real blessings about working at OSF – and this is now my third show at OSF, my second world premiere, it's a relationship that is now almost a decade old, and I think of this as my artistic home – I'm so fortunate that not only is that not a problem, they really like that, because they've got a big company. It's great. We've forgotten, you know, 'cause we're so used to two-handers and monologues, [that] to have 17 bodies onstage in conflict is just so invigorating. It's just so damn exciting, and this show is the full ride. I mean, you get your money's worth here. It's a magnificent company of actors. I have an extraordinary cast, and Jack Willis, who is portraying LBJ, is breathtaking. I haven't been this excited in a rehearsal room for a new play since I saw Charlie Hallahan create the role of Josh Rowen in Kentucky Cycle. It has that kind of feeling to it.

AC: Has your work as a screenwriter influenced the way you work as a playwright?

RS: I'm sure it has. I would be hard pressed to say precisely how, but off the top of my head, probably the flexibility of screenwriting – the ability to jump around – has maybe bled over and left me much more willing to overturn convention or break rules or just be a little more unconventional in terms of my crafting of plays. Possibly. It's just as possible there's been a reverse. I have to say, I don't think about it a lot.

AC: That's why people like me come around and ask questions like this. [Laughter] One thing that occurred to me was that in theatre we're much more accustomed to being able to spend 10 or 12 minutes in a single scene where the heart of what that scene is comes out at a different tempo, a different rhythm. It seems to me a screenwriter doesn't often have that luxury.

RS: It's a bit rare, yes.

AC: And I wondered if, in approaching a story of this historical nature, you felt like I'm going to be able to get more in if I use that kind of screenwriting rhythm of shorter, tighter scenes.

RS: Well, for me the material dictates the size, not the other way around, although, of course, even in the theatre, time is a very real constraint. And that's true here as well. I have the Shakespeare full measure of three hours to tell this story, with a 15-minute intermission. So them's the boundaries I can't transgress. And that means you have to make real choices of what you think is important, how much of that you can really explore and to what degree you can explore it. Sometimes that forces very difficult and painful choices on you. I've actually, in the process of rehearsal here, done a fair amount of cutting. I've lost entire scenes that I really quite like. There's nothing wrong with the writing, but we ran up against time and pace and rhythm issues that really had to be resolved.

AC: Do you and Bill [Rauch] make that decision jointly?

RS: I'm the one who decides what goes, but Bill, as both director and producer, is in a position to say, "I'm sorry, we're over here." But mostly that conversation is about: "It feels long here. It feels like the pace is dropping out." Or another way of looking at it is: Are we staying focused on the principal issue, or have we gotten sidetracked? It's an interesting sidetrack, but should we for dramatic purposes keep our focus on the main event or the main thrust of the plot? So there's been a fair amount of that. I'm working here with Tom Bryant, who's my longtime dramaturg – over 20 years now, who worked with me on Kentucky Cycle; that's the first thing we did. I brought Tom on from the very beginning, so it's Bill and Tom and I, but ultimately the choice to cut or what to cut is up to me.

AC: You mentioned the excitement of seeing Jack Willis create LBJ. Were there any other things about the rehearsal room for this play that stand out for you?

RS: It's such a skillful ensemble, the OSF company. These are people who are used to doing rep, and the ability to transform – and this play is heavily dependent on that – even with a cast of 17, there are a lot of characters, which means that actors are playing multiple roles. So to watch that ability to effortlessly transform from one character to the next in front of the audience, which is how I have deliberately designed it, to watch that happen in the room is immensely satisfying.

Also, the civil rights section of this, the individuals who are portrayed – Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Roy Wilkins, Bob Moses, and Stokely Carmichael – and to have these five magnificent African-American actors out of the company here play those scenes, where they really tear it up, has been very exciting. And I think very meaningful for them.

It's been a very joyful rehearsal process. People came in prepared to work, and they stayed late afterward to talk about it. That's always the sign. You know, when the actors linger, when they don't rush out, when they linger to talk about the scene and what they found and ask questions or whatever.

AC: When you finished the script, did you feel it accomplished what you wanted?

RS: I feel very good about this. It's a big, ambitious project. I've certainly given it my all, as has everybody around me, and I think that we have achieved something that people are going to respond to very strongly.

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