Saturday, December 13, 2014

Reflections on “All the Way” and “The Great Society”

Jack Willis in All the Way and The Great Society Photo: Chris Bennion

The duet of plays at Seattle Repertory Theatre, All the Way and The Great Society (both still playing in repertory through January 4, 2015) are powerful and dense and meticulous works by Robert Schenkkan featuring Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. Their scope is an arduous undertaking and the revelation to a modern audience (now 50 years removed from that history) works to reacquaint us with the mercurial, passionate, gruff, power-hungry, sometimes vicious visionary that was LBJ.

As a vehicle to bring a historical figure to life, it’s masterful. Clearly, any actor who inhabits the role will henceforth consider it a career-making move, and Jack Willis roars and whispers and rails about with the greatest finesse, showing his tremendous abilities on stage. It’s a pleasure to watch him work. Like Bryan Cranston, awards for his work should be forthcoming.

The plays delve deeply into Johnson’s personality and his canny grasp of political gamesmanship. However, in some ways, both plays undercut the drama, which is puzzling for stage work. All the Way was particularly underwhelming in the sound department, where underscoring of sound or music could have helped color the emotions of situations more effectively.

The Great Society, while more dramatic in some areas, had a greater challenge in packing a tumultuous four year period into one play, even when stretching stage time beyond three hours. However, there is some surprise in what Schenkkan chose to leave out.

Particularly puzzling is the actual wrangling over the passage of huge historic bills regarding aid to children, education and Medicare. Of course we see Johnson pushing to pass the bills, but then we skip right past the actual political process of passage to the aftermath where politicians are now trying to dismantle the programs through funding cuts.

All the Way showed much more specific political wrangling over only one civil rights bill. So the lack of both the wrangling and the clear success in The Great Society feels disappointing.

Another area that has huge potential for dramatic development is the revving up of the Vietnam War. In some ways, this is a perfect vehicle for Johnson the devil versus Johnson the angel: Johnson, the architect of the Vietnam War, the maintainer of a draft which he knew was devastating the lower income population of young men, particularly black men who couldn’t get into college, versus the creator of some of the most important social policies we still have, eradicating many barriers to health and well-being for the entire country’s poor! Rewriting the dramatic options, there could have been two Johnsons on stage arguing with each other! But there is so little argument with Robert McNamara about sending more troops – a bit of wrangling over budget issues. Budget issues?

Where was Johnson’s strong commitment to the Domino Theory? That is the only reason he could have had to go along with the military’s appetite for involvement in Vietnam. Starting after advent of the Cold War, with Eisenhower, the fear of communist proliferation was the dominant political foreign policy driver. The theory that Asian countries might fall like dominoes once one small country chose to become communist or had leadership overthrown by communist powers was embedded into American political thought and actualized to the exclusion of other kinds of threats by J. Edgar Hoover.

Still, it seems incumbent on the script to help establish Johnson’s belief in it or at least his acceptance of that thinking. In The Great Society, he seems portrayed primarily as someone who is so focused on his domestic policies that he doesn’t even realize what the generals are asking him to do. Perhaps that might have been true when the first few incidents caused the military to build an air base and begin doing air strikes.

Once there were “boots on the ground,” and more troops were required, and more dead soldiers needed letters of condolence written (the play does a great job of showing Johnson’s demand to personally write letters to families with lost soldiers), there was no further struggle to reexamine his feelings, the military need, to ask more questions, to struggle with whether Vietnam was really that important to the Communist Agenda. Yet, the ramping up of that war was the reason for the mass vilification of his presidency.

Was he really that passive about what he was doing militarily? The character the plays build doesn’t jive with that.

The last act of three (spoiler alert to skip this if you haven’t seen the play and want some kind of surprise, though since this is history it’s not very “surprising”) of The Great Society skips forward in 1968 with a projected “Nine months later” flashed on the projection screen. This is the most jarring diminution of time. It particularly includes both the death of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. While the play circles back to acknowledge them, it does so with the shortest of shrift.

Historically, each of those moments must have unleashed a number of thorny political issues for Johnson, none of which we get to know about.

There are aspects of history that are included that I particularly appreciate:
The development of King’s focus on racism in Chicago is very well done and helps contextualize the systemic nature of racism where separate neighborhoods and housing policies create inequality and hardship more ingrained than even “whites only” drinking fountains.

The perhaps fictional conversation Johnson has with Nixon where Johnson says he knows of Nixon’s treasonous conversations with the North Vietnamese, delaying the end of the war, supposedly until Nixon was elected and then of course we know that the war continued with even more devastation for years after.

Yet, even as the play picks these moments to include, it excludes something as nationally earthshattering as the Kent State shootings. Some of the choices, even when you must pick and choose, are odd to me.

There is massive pleasure in hearing Schenkkan’s dialogue, the staccato, yet politically insistent back and forth he has given Johnson’s voice, and the dispatch with which Jack Willis brings it to life. Somewhat less clearly, Schenkkan’s portrayals of Martin Luther King are the backroom, private conversations King might have had with his wife and attendants. We get almost none of King’s charismatic public persona.

There were many black ministers who were on the front lines of civil rights at that time. Somehow, King became the one that was known, quoted and attended to. His charisma and undeniable ability to use powerful language have to be part of why he began to stand out from the crowd. So far, the scripts of these plays don’t allow that piece of King’s character to be well-included.

These are some of the things I have been thinking about in the days since seeing The Great Society and reflecting on both plays. I welcome your thoughts and comments on these two powerful works.

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