“I feel strongly that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
President Lyndon Johnson made this announcement in 1968, and the words are said once again by Brian Cox portraying LBJ near the end of The Great Society, a play by Robert Schenkkan that offers a largely sympathetic portrait of the 36th president of the United States as it chronicles the final four years of his tenure. Since the play is opening on Broadway exactly a week after the launch of the impeachment inquiry against the 45th president, it’s hard to avoid wondering whether The Great Society is intentionally designed to offer a contrast between the two men. After all, it’s impossible to imagine Trump voluntarily saying a single word from that announcement.
Schenkkan’s new play is a sequel to All The Way, the Tony-winning play that was on Broadway five years ago (and is currently being shown on Netflix.) It starred Brian Cranston and chronicled the first year of LBJ’s presidency, starting in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and ending with LBJ’s election. The new play offers some of the same pleasures. It too employs a big cast — 19 actors portraying some 50 characters — for a sweeping lesson in history and politics. It is smoothly directed, competently acted, and often fascinating, But it is ultimately less satisfying than All The Way.
Brian Cox, best-known now as the patriarch and CEO Logan Roy in the HBO series Succession, doesn’t escape the shadow of his predecessor in the role. Physically, he is far shorter than LBJ, who used his height to intimidate people. But even Cranston didn’t get at some of the many shades of this complicated character – most notably the sanctimonious humble servant mien LBJ put on for many of his speeches. The problem is not the acting.
The principal characters in The Great Society — Martin Luther King, Jr., FBI director J Edgar Hoover, Alabama Governor George Wallace, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – are mostly the same as in All The Way, although the actors portraying them are different. These characters and others serve as adversaries, advisers or allies but mainly as obstacles to LBJ’s primary goal – to enact an ambitious domestic agenda that includes ending poverty, providing a quality education for every child, creating the Medicare program for the elderly, improving the inner cities, and enforcing the right to vote. At the very start of his new term, we see him introducing 104 bills to Congress.
“You’re running for Santa Claus,” exclaims Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirkson (portrayed by Frank Wood, in one of his four roles.)
It is the tragedy of the Johnson presidency that he was unable to achieve or sustain much of his domestic agenda – which the play (and many historians) posit was due to the escalation in the Vietnam War. There is a running tally, projected onto David Korins’ set, that at the beginning of the play says: “JANUARY 4, 1965. STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS. VIETNAM: 435 AMERICAN DEAD. 1,278 WOUNDED” and ends: “DECEMBER, 1968. VIETNAM: 38,620 AMERICAN DEAD. 192,616 WOUNDED.”
While LBJ offers a few folksy anecdotes, we learn relatively little of depth about Johnson (or anybody else) as a character in The Great Society; it’s as if both the character and the play are too busy with more serious matters. Intentionally or not, the absence of character development sends the implicit message that the failures in the Johnson agenda were not due to any personality flaws but because of forces beyond his control. (This is more or less the opposite thesis of that presented by LBJ biographer Robert Caro.) We see McNamara (Matthew Rauch, one of his two roles) and General Westmoreland (Brian Dykstra, one of his five) more or less insist that each escalation of the Vietnam War was the only reasonable option. Although LBJ’s vice president Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas), always objects (weakly), LBJ acquiesces, even as he says: “Vietnam will eat up everything I’m trying to do domestically.”
Director Bill Rauch, who made his Broadway debut directing All The Way in 2014, also directs The Great Society – the only member of the creative team besides Schenkkan to have been involved in both productions. Rauch recently left his long, acclaimed tenure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to move to New York and take over as artistic director of the forthcoming Ronald O. Perelman Performance Arts Center at the World Trade Center. Rauch makes the most of those rare moments in Schenkkan’s script that dramatize individual stories as a way of driving home the larger currents of the era – such as the story of Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Alabaman who was killed while trying to register to vote, and the subsequent confrontations between Civil Rights marchers and Alabama troops on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But much of the play focuses on LBJ in his office as he talks in person or over the phone to a parade of visitors. Some of the politicking and political strategy in these encounters are certainly instructive. We see LBJ trick the president of the American Medical Association into publicly supporting the creation of Medicare. We see King (Grantham Coleman) pushing a voting rights bill that LBJ is worried would turn the Southerners in Congress against the rest of his domestic agenda: “We don’t disagree on tactics, Dr. King,” LBJ tells him, “just on timing.”
But after nearly three hours of politicking, I felt in some ways as disappointed in The Great Society as supporters of the Great Society agenda surely felt in LBJ. What did it accomplish; what are we left with? It’s striking to see one of the most intimate interactions occur between LBJ and Nixon (David Garrison, one of his four roles), when the president is showing the president-elect around the White House, and they compare stories of their humiliations as vice president.
The Great Society is on stage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 W. 65th St., in Lincoln Center, New York, NY 10023) through November 30, 2019.