In Robert Schenkkan's new play, LBJ roars back to life to make civil rights history
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 17, 2012
"Everybody wants power. Everybody. If they say they don't, they're lying."
The man speaking should know. He's spent his life chasing power, battling his way up through the ranks of elected governmental bodies state and federal, and at the moment he makes the observation above, he has just been thrust into the greatest seat of power in the land and, arguably, the world – a move precipitated by the sudden strike of an assassin's bullet. His name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The 36th President is currently making this observation from an unusual venue: the theatre – specifically, the Angus Bowmer Theatre, where All the Way, a new play about LBJ's first year in the White House, is receiving its premiere as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2012 season. What makes it curious is that drama hasn't been terribly generous to LBJ. Scant serious attention has been given to his life and career on stage or screen, especially compared to his predecessor and successor as commander-in-chief. Too often, he's been relegated to the cartoonish cameo (The Right Stuff being one egregious example) or shaded with sinister colors. Remember Oliver Stone's JFK, which had LBJ complicit in John Kennedy's assassination? Or MacBird!, the notorious stage satire that recast Johnson as Shakespeare's ambitious and murderous lord? With rare exceptions – the 1987 TV movie LBJ: The Early Years, with Randy Quaid's Golden Globe-winning performance, and Laurence Luckinbill's one-man show Lyndon Johnson, which he brought to Austin in 1989 – drama displayed an icy indifference toward Johnson.
A thaw has begun in recent years, with the HBO film The Path to War, focusing on Johnson and Vietnam, and theatrical works such as Michael Murphy's The Conscientious Objector, about LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr.; Jeffrey Hatcher's All the Way With LBJ, about Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and the '68 Democratic convention; and the Lewis Flinn/Joe Sutton musical The Winner, based on LBJ's contentious 1948 Senate campaign. But with Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, the ice shatters. Here's a drama with a palpable passion for its subject – the man in the White House and the cause of civil rights he fights for in his first months there – which it takes on with the resolve, force, and urgency of LBJ wading into a Congressional floor fight.
The push to pass landmark legislation that would end racial segregation and discrimination against minorities is depicted as something that matters to Johnson, not merely as a means to victory in the '64 presidential race but as a personal mission to empower the powerless. That charges the narrative with immediacy, especially since Johnson's time to get the law passed is limited, and, as he says in the play, "The ugliest sound in the world is the tick-tick-tick of a clock." He must marshal all his power – as President, as the greatest legislative tactician in Senate history, as a salesman, as a bully – to break the choke hold that the Dixiecrats have held on civil rights bills since Reconstruction. Schenkkan swiftly and deftly shifts scenes among the contending forces – Johnson and Humphrey, the resistant Southern politicians (including the virulently segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace), a small band of civil rights leaders headed by Dr. King, and F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover, bitterly determined to take King down – so that All the Way plays much like a Shakespearean history, with a complex, commanding monarch and competing factions embroiled in wars and rebellions. Only here, their battlefields are the Oval Office and Congressional chambers, their swords motions and filibusters.
That's fitting, though, since All the Way was commissioned by the festival as part of its American Revolutions series, an effort to create a new body of plays that dramatize, OSF says, "moments of change in United States history" in much the way Shakespeare did for English history. Schenkkan, who had two other plays premiere at OSF, was the first writer that Artistic Director Bill Rauch approached about writing for the series. When Schenkkan told Rauch that he wanted to write about Johnson, Rauch was doubly pleased. His original idea was that American Revolutions' plays be specifically about U.S. presidents, as Shakespeare's histories had been about English kings, so he was not only getting a favorite writer to contribute, but, he says, "it got back to the founding impulse of the whole series."
Fitting, too, in that Schenkkan regards LBJ as a Shakespearean figure. "The size, the ambition, the appetite, the hunger, the physical size – there's something almost Falstaffian about him," he says. "He was incredibly charismatic, gregarious, a fabulous raconteur – the guy really lit up a room and was the center of attention. And also a bully and cruel and manipulative and childish and petty and generous and loving. He was a very, very complicated individual." Moreover, his life is the stuff of Shakespeare's histories: "This is someone who has fought and clawed his way into power, and now he has all that power, and what will he do with it? Ultimately, in the course of his reign, if you will, he does some incredibly positive things that alter the course of his country forever. Simultaneously, out of the same set of tools, 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."
To relate even part of that drama – and Schenkkan limits himself to one year, from the day JFK was murdered in Dallas to the day of the presidential election that next November – still requires a massive canvas. Capitalizing on OSF's large repertory company, the playwright employs 17 actors to portray more than 50 characters. That adds to the scale and sweep of the story, giving the audience a keener sense of all the forces at play in Johnson's battle to get the civil rights act through Congress – forces pressing on Johnson and forces with which he has to contend. And since his LBJ almost never leaves the stage throughout the production's three hours, the play demands a massive commitment from his leading actor. Schenkkan's script and OSF's staging are well-served by Jack Willis, who may not look much like the man he's portraying but charges the role with such a dynamic, fervent energy that you believe he's possessed by the spirit of the dead president. He's in almost constant motion – pacing about the office, barking into the phone, charging his opponents and literally getting in their faces, bellowing at foe and friend alike. His Texas twang is as big and broad as Johnson himself, but a tailored suit couldn't fit more snugly. It fills out this figure who was larger than life – who needed to be larger than life to accomplish what he did.
Schenkkan doesn't gloss over LBJ's faults. Far from it. He shows him wheedling and whining, berating those closest to him (most often Lady Bird, played at OSF by Terri McMahon with the steadfastness and patience of a saint). But the playwright sees Johnson as more than the self-serving opportunist that some take him for. In that thunderbolt transition to the presidency, Johnson glimpsed an opportunity for history to be served, humanity to be served, and he seized at it, even though the effort could have very well gone south (in the literal and metaphorical sense), even though it could have cost him a full term as president, even though it meant betraying a man who'd been his father in the Senate. He had to persuade the African-American civil rights activists of his sincerity in fighting for their cause when he'd spent years burnishing his image as one more segregationist good ol' boy. He had to cut political deals that would cost him – and his party – support for generations. But despite the challenge and the cost – and in the play, Schenkkan has him say, "These things always come with a cost" – LBJ forged ahead and got the civil rights bill passed.
Schenkkan calls it "a hinge-point in American politics and American history. Everything changes after that. It's the landmark civil rights bill, 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." And his play makes evident these eruptions in the country's political landscape and the changes that we see in it even a half-century on.
Johnson biographer Robert Caro characterizes the "crusade for social justice" that LBJ launched on his ascent to the presidency as "a pivotal moment in the history of the United States." All the Way arrives just as Caro's fourth volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson has, and The Passage of Power covers the same period as Schenkkan's play. With this year also seeing the centenary of Lady Bird Johnson and the opening of the Johnson Ranch to the public, the time is ripe for reconsiderations of LBJ's legacy. The shadow cast by the president's handling of the Vietnam War has caused many to lose sight of his historic achievements on the domestic front. With Caro, Robert Schenkkan has brought the civil rights victory of Lyndon Johnson back into the light.