by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
It is a great pleasure to experience Robert Schenkkan's epic political drama, All the Way, with Arena Stage's audiences. The Shakespearean size and scope of the play is equal to the men and women involved in the events surrounding the Civil Rights Act and the Presidential election of 1964. But it all centers around Lyndon Baines Johnson. Formerly the Majority Leader of the Senate, and a powerful political figure, as Vice President, Johnson languished and all but disappeared. With the tragic events of November 22, 1963, LBJ was catapulted into the presidency and accomplished some of the 20th century's greatest legislation; beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Shortly before rehearsals began, I had the great pleasure of having breakfast with playwright Robert Schenkkan, and asked him about the inspiration and process of All the Way. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
How did you get into theater and, specifically, playwriting?
Both of my parents were theater lovers. My father got his MFA in playwriting and my mother was a professional actress before she got married. Going to the theater was a very natural part of growing up. I thought I was going to be Orson Wells — I was going to act, write, and direct. And I did act for a decade and had a pretty good career as far as that goes. I supported myself and my family. But eventually the writing just became so much more pleasurable and satisfying. That would have been about the time of The Kentucky Cycle. And, at the end of that experience I thought, ‘this is what I’m meant to do.’ And I’ve never looked back.
What attracted you to Lyndon Baines Johnson and how did the idea for All the Way and The Great Society originate and develop?
I grew up in Austin, Texas, the Hill Country, only forty or sixty miles from LBJ’s birthplace, and what would become his ranch, the western White House. My father was brought to Texas by the University to create the first public television and radio station in Texas; the first in the Southwest. Job number one was to get then-Senator Johnson’s approval because said television/radio station would have been a direct competitor to his own media conglomerate, or I should say Lady Bird’s media conglomerate. He denied he had anything to do with it. Not only did he give his permission but, of course, he would go on to sign into law the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which gave us non-commercial broadcasting. So, at least initially, he was one of the good guys.
There are family stories of a visit to the ranch. There’s one story where our station wagon got bogged down in the mud and Senator Johnson came out in his own truck and helped put his shoulder to the fender. I don’t remember any of this, but it’s a great story. I asked my oldest brother if he remembered meeting Johnson and he said he didn't really remember him so much as how respectful our father became around this strange man, which is maybe an even more illuminating anecdote. Anyway, the ’64 election, the Johnson/Goldwater election, which is covered in the play, is the first election I participated in. I was 11 years old and I wore my button and my stickers on my school books, and my mother and I went down to the headquarters on Congress Avenue and stuffed envelopes, and I got to stay up late and watch the returns. I have a very vivid memory of that, of the success. And then 14, 15 months later, troop levels in Vietnam had ratcheted up from 28,000 to 170,000, and my oldest brother was approaching draft age, and I had a different feeling about LBJ. Then 15 years later, 20 years later, I was an artist with a family, trying to make a go of it, becoming increasingly aware of the social programs that made my family’s life easier and that these programs were the product of The Great Society. So that gave me yet another feeling about him.
He’s always been in my head. There’s always been this idea that I would write about him at some point. When Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned me for their American Revolutions project, the question became which part of LBJ’s story to dramatize. I quickly settled on “the accidental President”, his first term. It lays out so beautifully; the coming in at this moment of crisis and tragedy after being in the wilderness politically.
And the amount that he accomplishes. As if he felt he only had so much time in the office and wanted to accomplish everything possible before it was over.
He had quite an amazing career before the Presidency: youngest Senate Majority Leader, and a very effective one, runs for President, loses to Kennedy, gets picked in a very controversial move to be Vice President, and then essentially disappears from the political scene. He used to tell this joke about a man who had two sons: one joined the Navy, one became Vice President, and neither was ever heard from again. He languished and there was a very real possibility that he wasn’t going to be invited back on the next ticket. And then Jack was killed, and LBJ stepped in.
This year —November 1963 through November 1964 — is pivotal for the United States. It is the beginning of a national political cycle that we may only just now be emerging from. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the first major civil rights bill since Reconstruction. And as a consequence, the Democrats begin to lose the South. The South went completely Republican in seven years. It is the beginning of the ramping up of Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin, the lying.
The change in public attitude about America’s involvement in overseas wars?
Eventually, yes. At the time – few people remember this – but at the time – 80-90% of the American public supported our Vietnam policy. We were still very much in the Cold War era. Bay of Pigs was only three years past. But that will change very, very quickly. Then his own reelection landslide and the seeming crushing defeat of the Conservative movement, which had taken over the Republican Party. It’s an amazing time.
As I say, the critical decision was what part of the story to tell and how. I’m interested in the intersection, the conflict, between the acquisition and exercise of political power and morality: the often terrible choices that one is forced to make as a politician in order to do inarguably good things. I find this a really fascinating and important thematic concern. We’re very contemptuous of politicians but we never do much to change the system. Politics matters. It’s really important. The wonderful thing about a history play is that it allows you to consider very contemporary issues but at a certain distance. It allows an audience to open themselves up in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily if the plot and the situation were ripped from today’s headlines.
We had a series of readings and workshops at OSF and then we had the world premiere there and it was tremendously successful. We received a lot of interest immediately from LORT theaters and from Jeffrey Richards, who some might argue is perhaps the most successful producer at the moment of contemporary American plays and American revivals; particularly dramas. We agreed there was more work to be done on the play and Jeffrey has a long-standing history with ART, so we took it to Boston where I continued to work on the play. We opened in Boston and sold out the entire run, and then the question became, as it always is, finding a theater in New York. It is increasingly hard for a play. We had a long preview period in NY which enabled me to continue to tinker with the script, which I did right up until the moment I had to stop.
Was there a moment in time when you realized that something special, something uncommon was happening?
When we opened in Ashland and heard the response of the audience, we thought, “Well this works, this is very good.” Jack Willis originated the part of LBJ. D.C. audiences are extremely fortunate to be able to see his performance. He’s fantastic. It was a very, very powerful experience.
But I’ve had that experience before and sometimes the play still doesn’t go anywhere. That’s one of the frustrations about this industry. This clearly was going to have life but if you had put a gun to my head and asked, “Which of your plays is going to be a big Broadway hit?” I would not have said “well, the 17-actor, political play about Lyndon Johnson. That’s really going to be a hot commercial ticket.” I would have never guessed that. I’m very grateful.
I do think – because of the debacle of Iraq, which made people think a lot about Vietnam, and the election of Barack Obama, the first African American President — the play highlights the question of how much progress have we really made, in this country, especially in terms of race relations. It became a real attractor for politicians from both sides of the aisle. It was gratifying because I think people felt like this is an accurate depiction of the challenges of trying to pass legislation.
It’s tough, messy work, what Bismarck called “the sausage making of politics.” It’s not pretty but it’s too important to leave to other people. Everybody has to be involved.
We have to participate in it, or we get the politicians we deserve. Having traveled nationally, now, with this play, are you seeing a desire in audiences for plays about ideas and politics and seeing “how the sausage is made?”
American audiences have always voted with their feet when it comes to plays of substance, and particularly plays that deal with pressing political issues. There’s a real hunger to be engaged intellectually as well as emotionally. All the Way certainly does that.
We live in the world created by LBJ. And if you think about the programs that resulted from the Great Society — Medicare, Medicaid, the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1968 Housing Bill, environmental legislation, consumer protection legislation, immigration reform, gun control, and Vietnam — all of the things we still fight over today had their origins in this period. Even the way in which the debate about the role of government is framed, and the way in which the two parties position each other and themselves, comes out of this period. The whole shift of the political demographic began here — the South which, ever since the Civil War had been solidly Democratic, now goes Republican.
Unfortunately, but not without cause, people tend to think of LBJ just in terms of Vietnam. I don’t cut him any slack there. But he also did a tremendous amount of good and he changed this country forever, in profound ways. Some of those ways were inarguably just and righteous and made us a better country. But you can’t have one without the other. That’s what’s so interesting about the man. Bill Moyers said, “The 11 most interesting people I ever met was Lyndon Johnson.” The other thing he said about him, that I think was even more poignant, was “I didn’t like him, but I loved him.” I think this was true for a lot of people. Everyone you talked to, everyone who worked with him, even if they despised him or had moments where they felt profoundly abused by him, it remains the highlight of their political experience if not their life. We have not seen anybody like him since.
In All the Way, you’re dealing with epic, entrenched American issues, but you’ve also layered in the intimate, personal stories and relationships, which, to me, seems to be a recurring aspect of your writing style.
It’s how I approach storytelling. There is a group of us – Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner and others — who are intrinsically very political animals. We think a lot about the politics of this country and its reflection in the culture. At the same time, we believe that you can’t lecture people about this stuff. There’s nothing more boring than that. The trick here is to get at the messy, emotional heart of it: how this feels. We try to pull the curtain back and allow people to experience what this means, what this feels like; these kinds of decisions. We’re all very concerned with fundamental issues of morality. How should we treat one another? What is our responsibility to each other in a just society? In a democracy? It finds expression in the kinds of stories we tell and the way in which we tell those stories.
LBJ is obviously the focus of the story, but the Martin Luther King through line is crucial to the series of questions that I pose to the audience in terms of choice. We get two very different leadership styles here, and we see both of these individuals struggle with really terrible choices. By the end, everybody in the play is compromised in a very serious way. They have given up things that, at the beginning, you would have never thought they would have even considered surrendering. They have won tremendous victories at the end of the play, but it has come at a cost. One of the things that I’m very proud of, is the representation of Doctor King. Typically, if white audiences think about King at all, they think of the martyr or the orator. Rarely, if ever, do they think of King as a politician. And he was a superb politician. A testament to the extraordinary skill of Doctor King was that he kept the Civil Rights Movement, which was a group of small communities lead, more often than not, by a charismatic individual who had very strong opinions about what they ought to be doing, and oftentimes working completely independently of everybody else. King somehow managed to wrangle all of these different parties and keep them moving more or less in the same direction. It is a staggering achievement, that he was able to do that for as long as he did, especially with this idea of nonviolence at the forefront, until of course finally, that no longer holds. To see King and LBJ and Humphrey, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, to experience these people in this life and death struggle — and it was life and death. Everybody knew that this was it, this was Armageddon, this was the show down. And nobody held back. To really get into that, and to feel that at a deeply human level, that was always the goal.
(Photos: Playwright Robert Schenkkan. The company of All the Way at the first rehearsal at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater April 1 – May 8, 2016.)