“Shakespearean” is the term of praise most often used by reviewers like myself to hail Robert Shenkkan’s Tony Award-winning drama ‘All the Way‘ in 2016. He managed to capture – without caging – President Lyndon Johnson in 1964: his raging insecurity, urgent idealism and down-and-dirty effectiveness as he ran for president while also pushing his civil rights agenda through Congress.
Shenkkan’s achievement was considerable when one realizes how often LBJ had been treated as a clownish figure in such films as ‘The Right Stuff” or ‘Selma.’ No artist – with the exceptions of such biographers as Robert Caro and Robert Dallek – had taken the measure of the man, both great and profane, until Shenkkan.
But with ‘The Great Society,’ the sequel to ‘All the Way’ currently at the Dallas Theater Center, it’s clear one reason Shenkkan achieved this was the simple fact his first drama tracked LBJ for less than a year, from Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Johnson’s campaign victory in 1964. A pivotal year, to be sure, but in comparison, ‘The Great Society’ covers four times that scope and, by the end, it feels almost exhausted and panicked.
To give an idea of the difference: Much of ‘All the Way’ was taken up by the tug of war between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching for equality while Johnson finagled his Civil Rights Bill through Congress, a Congress still controlled by Southern segregationists. But with ‘Society,’ we get much the same battle for a viable compromise on racial issues – and then come the riots of frustration that tear through Watts, Detroit, Newark, Chicago and Houston, plus the overwhelming white backlash that led to the cynical opportunism of George Wallace and Richard Nixon. We get not just the growing, unstoppable debacle of the Vietnam War but the huge draft protests that convulsed the country. J. Edgar Hoover is still wiretapping King – and almost anyone in Washington with a phone, it seems – but now he has LBJ’s permission to unleash COINTELPRO, the unconstitutional use of break-ins, fake letters and other provocations to “neutralize” the left across the country, notably black leaders and anti-war organizers.
So it’s the ’60s. Explosive changes just keep piling on. This means at intermission, one exits ‘The Great Society’ feeling hyped. Shenkkan’s new installment feels as fast-paced, as entertaining as ‘All the Way’ did – particularly in the suspenseful manner he handles the violent face-off during King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march across the Pettus Bridge.
But by the end of ‘Society,’ this forty-car pile-up of historical events also leaves you asking, ‘Wait. Did the assassinations of both King and Robert Kennedy just get treated as footnotes?’
That’s because the second act becomes mostly a montage of the ’60s with the familiar TV news clips (Walter Cronkite turning against the war, fire blossoms of napalm projected on the set) and the familiar soundtrack (renditions of ‘Oh Freedom!’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ – at least we don’t get ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’). In the first LBJ drama, the months and years were flashed onstage like a ticking countdown in a political thriller. Here, they don’t orient us so much as make a person wonder, ‘Was that the March on the Pentagon? Have the Weathermen happened yet?’ For those theatergoers who didn’t live through the era, I’m not sure the dates and figures help that much. How many servicemen got killed in what month? How much longer does the war go on?
‘The Great Society’ is close to two-and-a-half hours long, with intermission, and reportedly, some 20 minutes were cut since its debut at the Alley Theatre (the Houston company is a co-producer – just as it was with ‘All the Way’). The script needs to be trimmed more because it needs more focus, some purpose beyond simply tagging along with Johnson to the bitter end. ‘All the Way’ – for all its political and racial uproar – had a built-in, dramatic shape. We follow two (interrelated) battles at once – for civil rights and for the presidency, the one justifying the other. Johnson wanted to remain president not just for the gratification or prestige but to do some good.
But in ‘Society,’ by 1968, the wheels have completely come off the bus. In 1964, there were 24,000 US troops in Vietnam. When Johnson leaves office, it’s half-a-million – as the play tells us. But we need fewer items checked off from the ‘Top Hits of the ’60s’ and more time inside Johnson’s troubled heart and head.
Depicting the growing chaos within both a leader and his country – and giving that chaos some theatrical coherence and force – is difficult but not impossible. Shakespeare keeps pulling off variations in his histories and tragedies. But for the most part, his main characters end up tragic, utterly broken or dead. And that’s not how Shenkkan wants to leave Johnson. Think ‘King John,’ ‘Richard II,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Coriolanus’ – by the end of those plays, all hell has broken loose, partly because the main character’s own impulses have gone hellbound as well. It’s not like Shenkkan is unaware of the Shakespearean echoes. ‘Society’ even has a ‘ghost scene’ like ‘Macbeth’ – albeit a half-hearted imitation.
But Shenkkan wants to avoid Johnson sinking into a full-on tragic figure because it would undo much of the sympathetic re-consideration of LBJ as an effective, ‘muscular’ liberal president that was forged in ‘All the Way.’ The major weakness in that first drama was its obvious bad guys vs. good guys conflict. Johnson, after all, was fighting racists in both the Republican and Democratic parties. He was bound to look good, no matter how many wiretaps on King he authorized. Here, Shenkkan wants us to see Johnson as great even because of his warts: He has ‘The Great Society’ open with LBJ cheekily admitting he lies. His basic defense: You have to lie to get anything serious done in Washingto
He has a point. But Shenkkan portrays LBJ as a man more sinned against than sinning, particularly when it comes to Vietnam – where apparently he’s just mouthing the period’s anti-Communism without really believing it. He also appears to be a good ol’ boy mesmerized by the brainiac, corporate mumbo-jumbo of his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Chris Hutchinson). Mac is a one-man case against our American tendency to believe captains of industry make for terrific political leaders (McNamara ran Ford successfully – before becoming a chief advocate of aggressive escalation to force Hanoi into negotiations. You know, ‘bombing them into talking peace’ ).
But whatever doubts or distaste Johnson felt over the distractions and human costs of the war, when confronted by rebellious staffers asking why we didn’t cut our losses with a South Vietnamese government so corrupt its own people preferred the Communists, LBJ famously pulled out his genitals and declared, ‘This is why.”
That does not sound like a man who was halfway committed to the war – even though in private conversations he wasn’t even halfway-committed. Ultimately, Shenkkan’s Johnson starts coming apart – snarling and vindictive and paranoid – before he really achieves greatness, before we really understand why he’s coming apart. But we’re willing to forgive his failings because, well, there were all those riots, all those touching letters to dead servicemen’s parents he wrote, all that pressure and all the unsympathetic liberals and snotty journalists (who called Johnson ‘Uncle Cornpone’).
I’m not arguing with Shenkkan over historical accuracy. It’s about the nature of Shenkkan’s LBJ as a dramatic character, who he is and why he quits. Caro is, on balance, a sensitive biographer. And even Caro depicts Johnson as a bully and a sadist, a man who never forgot or forgave a slight. In ‘Society,’ Shenkkan has LBJ throwing fits over the resentful, rich-boy Bobby Kennedy, who never fully accepted Johnson as president. But ‘Society’ never shows just how truly petty, even evil LBJ got towards Kennedy. (He tried to prevent RFK from being buried in Arlington near his assassinated brother.)
While Shenkkan doesn’t really give us Johnson the sadist, he makes sure we get Johnson the backwoods Texan. He repeats one of Caro’s most famous anecdotes about LBJ bringing electricity to the impoverished Hill Country, saving women like his mother a crippling lifetime of hauling water by hand. And this helps explain Johnson’s neediness, his insecurities, his heartfelt drive to improve working-class Americans’ lives.
What we never fully understand here is Johnson’s relationship with power beyond that. Even back when he was sweating with road crews in Texas, strapped to two mules pushing rocks, Johnson promised co-workers he’d be president some day. Imagine the person who would say that – and make it happen. How he learned to abuse that power, how he instinctively took advantage of events to acquire more, why he held on to it and, most importantly with ‘Society,’ why he gave it up: This is the whole enchilada of LBJ, Part II. Johnson’s tremendous ambitions for our country self-destruct even as they’re being realized. They start to come apart because the president loses his grip on power, his grip on his own inner demons.
LBJ was so shrewd, so calculating in the ways of Washington, that he agreed to take the second place on Kennedy’s ticket in 1960 because he researched the odds of a sickly president surviving and a vice president taking over. He was willing to take those odds because it was the only chance he had. How did such a cutthroat gambler end up so trapped and ineffectual, so self-pitying and angry as he does by the end here? Shenkkan doesn’t really provide an answer beyond that acid trip of historic events we mean when we say ‘The ’60s.’ It was all too much, it seems, and too far out of anyone’s control.
What was Johnson without power? Several of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures – Macbeth, Coriolanus, Othello – ultimately find a value in themselves, after they’ve lost authority, something that lets them stand back up, even for a moment, and face their own failings and their enemies in a last moment of, well, if not tragic greatness, then at least self-possession, an awareness of what matters to them. Historians and journalists have made the case for LBJ doing exactly that: Because of Vietnam, he fell on his sword (in choosing not to run for re-election) in order to save his domestic programs from further damage. But Shenkkan never portrays that choice dramatically. Mostly, we get self-pity here – and a last, uncontrolled outburst at Nixon.
It doesn’t help that Brandon Potter, who returns in the lead role, was never strong conveying LBJ’s imploring neediness. Potter exudes a growling forcefulness, a sly comic folksiness and a few, passing regrets, but that’s about all – it’s a two-and-a-half note performance. He was more effective during Johnson’s calculated rise in ‘All the Way.’ Here, during his calamitous fall, Potter never manages to give the man much interior life.
It’s always been clear that director Kevin Moriarty has never asked for historic impersonations from his actors. Which is smart. In playing LBJ, if Potter imitated the man’s actual drawl, the play would be 40 minutes longer. But just what Moriarty has asked from his actors isn’t clear. In some cases – notably Dean Nolen as Hubert Humphrey – an actor’s real achievement comes in making us forget the original. Johnson treated Humphrey cruelly (he was the whipping boy for all the liberals LBJ hated), but Nolen’s vice president occasionally comes across as the only adult onstage. There’s a fine-grained texture to Nolen’s decent but frustrated, ineffective Humphrey.
The fact is many theatergoers are too young to have seen or heard many of these figures while they lived, so the power of impersonating them is doubtful. OK. But why then did Moriarty cast Jay Sullivan, who looks and sounds like a dead ringer for Bobby Kennedy? Compared to everyone else, he seems to have entered from a TV news documentary. Moriarty isn’t doing the other actors a favor with such a lookalike; you can’t take your eyes off him. And Moriarty is definitely not helping the creations of historic figures by supplying actors with the same bad wigs we saw in ‘All the Way’ (no one is expressly credited with creating them). This sounds beauty-parlor, hair-salon petty, I know, but wigs can complicate an actor’s projection of character. The hair pieces are so bad here that poor Chris Hury plays both George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and when he first enters as Nixon, it takes theatergoers a whole speech to even realize he’s no longer Wallace. It’s hard to believe a hair stylist couldn’t manage the differences between the real Wallace’s coxcomb pompadour and Nixon’s thinning widow’s peak, anything to distinguish the two men visually.
Other performers who shone in the first play – Ace Anderson as Stokely Carmichael, Shawn Hamilton as King – are no longer as incandescent, partly because their characters are already fully shaped here – and don’t much change. That’s the material they have. Anderson’s Carmichael, for example, burned in ‘All the Way’ as the major black dissident who stepped forward to challenge the testy, working relationship between King and LBJ. He delivered a fiery plea – one that seemed to shout down through the generations of African-American protestors hoping to vote and getting denied and clubbed and shot instead. But having done that, Carmichael’s got nowhere to go other than exit the movement in despair and defiance. It was a historic split from the main body of civil rights progress but it adds nothing emotionally to him as a stage character. He was angry and uncompromising and he uncompromises himself out the door.
At least Moriarty has learned one thing from the first go-round. Beowulf Boritt’s set – with its two giant rows of columns as backdrop – looks impressively federal but clutters half the performance space. In ‘All the Way,’ Moriarty set important scenes back there, obscuring the action from many theatergoers, who’d crane their necks to see which character was talking to whom. This time, thankfully, he reserves those rows mostly for protest marches.
As it stands, this second half of ‘The Wars of Lyndon Johnson’ is not ‘Broadway-ready’ (whatever that may mean) because by the end, Shenkkan himself doesn’t seem completely certain what he’s trying to say about Johnson or how to achieve it. Was the president ultimately a self-made martyr to a resurgence of blind American racism and anti-Communism? Or a victim of his own impulses and political ploys, creating too many enemies, promising too much, not delivering enough? The fuzziness is understandable. Caro himself in ‘The Passage of Power’ arguably got sidetracked by a tremendous story, a riveting account of one of our most rancorous political feuds (between Johnson and Robert Kennedy). As a result, the fourth volume of his epic biography crawls through only five years in Johnson’s career. In comparison, he makes Shenkkan look like a master of vivid and accelerated compression.
So ‘The Great Society’ isn’t so great. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great story buried here – lost in the Big Muddy.