‘The Great Society’ Chronicles LBJ’s Tumultuous White House Years

The sequel to Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” makes it’s debut in Texas this month.

By Joy DiazFebruary 1, 2017 1:05 pm

Pulitzer prize-winning Texas playwright Robert Schenkkan could still be basking in the glory of his 2014 Tony award-winning play “All the Way” – later turned into a movie – which chronicled Lyndon B. Johnson’s first term in office. But the playwright quickly moved on to its sequel.

The first play ends on a high note after Johnson has won an election and seen the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but Schenkkan’s new play, “The Great Society”, takes a turn for the worst as the conflict in Vietnam escalates. The play made its Texas debut this month in Austin.

Schenkkan’s conflated personal history with Johnson was the source for much of the play’s thematic material. He grew up thinking of Johnson as the good man who helped his father open Austin’s first public broadcasting station, but as he went into his teenage years, he grew frustrated with the president’s policies on Vietnam. Later in life, as an artist working to support his family, Schenkkan became aware of the critical changes that Johnson’s civil rights policies made in the United States.

“All of these things came together in [my] attempt to try to understand this man and his effect on American politics,” Schenkkan says. “In doing so [I] got at a theme that continues to interest me and which I think is critically important – and no more so than today – and that is the issue of power and morality. How far can one press the political process in order to achieve what you believe to be noble?”

Although the backlash Johnson received from the war in Vietnam makes him a tragic figure, Schenkkan says he believes that Johnson moral qualms during his second term in office make for a colorful character on stage.

“He’s absolutely Shakespearean in his size, his depth, his complexities,” Schenkkan says.

Schenkkan says Johnson deserves to bear responsibility for the amount of unnecessary death in the Vietnam war, but says he hopes people will also remember the strides he helped the country make during the Civil Rights Movement.

“For the longest time, Lyndon Johnson was the love whose name you dare not speak,” Schenkkan says. “I’d like to think that this play, in part, has begun to bring about a re-evaluation of man and his legacy.”

Written by Morgan O’Hanlon.