Oregon Shakespeare Festival's The Great Society

Nov 1, 2014

Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way brings to the stage Lyndon Johnson’s first year as President. Though the office is thrust upon him by Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ channels his political genius and immense energy into passing Kennedy’s languishing Civil Rights Act, then wins reelection by a landslide. High on these successes, the Johnson we meet at the start of The Great Society is reminiscing about his boyhood fascination with rodeo bull-riding. The extreme risks involved always made him wonder, Why would anybody do that? And then he’d glimpsed the joy and triumph, albeit temporary, on the rider’s face.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) and President Johnson (Jack Willis) confer about the Voting Rights Act in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Great Society. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore, Wayne T. Carr, Jonathan Haugen)
Credit Jenny Graham

But the ground-rules for this dramatic sequel have shifted. Johnson faces a four-year term he actively sought; his ego is deeply invested in a set of messianic goals designed to enhance the American Dream for the greatest number. And History has lined up some formidable resistance to his famous wheeling and dealing. The ride is about to take a downward. Christopher Acebo’s paneled set, which conjured a congressional chamber in All the Way, will soon bring to mind an ancient amphitheatre; the circular stage that serves as the Oval Office, a sacrificial killing floor. As the tiered seating begins to fall apart, LBJ is no longer the cowboy hanging onto a bucking bull but the exhausted steer of his final soliloquy, being taken down by a pack of wolves, “chewing away to his heart.”

The pace of this devolution is mind-bending. One after another, external forces obstruct the implementation of Johnson’s mission. Doctors fight Medicare, Republicans balk at domestic spending, McNamara and the Generals lobby for escalating involvement in Vietnam, utterly deaf to their own outrageous doubletalk. But amid the clamor and chaos, Schenkkan foregrounds one voice and one vector as the complement to Johnson’s: Martin Luther King has his own mission, to extend civil rights to all Americans. His choice of non-violent means establishes him as LBJ’s antithesis if not his antagonist.

Both men are self-appointed saviors. Johnson is the pragmatist, adept at wielding political power, while King is the idealist, modeling moral authority. King must be willing to die marching for his rights. For Johnson, only his reputation is on the line, and to protect that, he’s willing to sacrifice the lives of others: he answers yes to Vietnam when his judgment says no because he’s afraid to be “the President who lost Asia.” King, in contrast, retreats from a confrontation with George Wallace’s police, choosing “to protect people over preserving ideological purity.”

Schenkkan builds the first two acts of The Great Society on the electric tension between these two leaders. They could be brothers—both of humble origins, both self-made, well-meaning, and visionary—yet one is the manipulating insider, the other, stolidly outside. Their philosophical tug-of-war is grounded in blood and sweat. In Act One they wrangle over federal protection during King’s deadly southern marches; King moves on to Chicago in Act Two, taking on Mayor Daley over fair housing and dragging Johnson into the fray. Then J. Edgar Hoover reveals to Johnson that King has become publicly critical of the Vietnam War.

As Schenkkan structures the action, this is the breaking point for Johnson. Cut off from King in Act Three, he’s drawn into Hoover’s megalomaniacal orbit by promises of omniscience and absolute loyalty. Dramatic energy dissipates in paranoia. The Great Society falls victim to war. All LBJ can do now is stand like a “jackass in a hailstorm” and take the hatred of the swelling ranks of protesters.

At the thematic heart of The Great Society lies the struggle between LBJ and Martin Luther King, and the performances of Jack Willis and Kenjuan Bentley raise these worthy adversaries to mythic heights. Willis discovers the complexity of a King Lear in Johnson, raging against the boundaries to his power. He grabs people and talks over them, turning in an instant from commander, to human being, to needy child. Even in his lowest moments, we see the self-dramatic ego at work. Bentley gives uncanny depth to our media memories of King. His body language spells self-containment, just as his speech suggests an ego determined to submit to a larger cause.

Given the central importance in the play of their relationship, LBJ’s exclusively dismissive references to King in Act Three seem odd. Something feels unfinished. Perhaps History never brought the two face-to-face after 1966; indeed, it allowed the man who waded ever deeper into violence to die in his bed while his non-violent brother fell to an assassin’s gun. But it also might have provided this clo

  sure: it was in response to King’s murder that Johnson pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which mandated equal housing opportunity—the issue that King had taken on in Chicago without success, the issue that originally drove him and Johnson apart.

Johnson had his own tough act to follow in his first full term as President. Similarly Schenkkan and his director, Bill Rauch, themselves faced the challenge of a sequel: could they do it again—forge compelling, prize-winning drama from the welter of historical events, this time covering not just one year but four? The riveting production about to close its sell-out run in the Bowmer attests to their repeat success and underlines the value of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project, with its commitment to exploring the history and spirit of our country through the medium of new plays. The entire production is about to migrate to the Seattle Rep, where it will join the original All the Way from November 14–January 4. To see how the two parts will alternate, check www.seattle
rep.org /Plays/1415/AW/Calendar. The box office number is 877.900.9285.


Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)