Lyndon B. Johnson is a Shakespearean figure in the sense that he was outsized — he was big in his ambitions, his triumphs, his failures, — said Robert Schenkkan in a talk about his play “All the Way.”
Schenkkan is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “The Kentucky Cycle.” His play “All the Way” won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014. He discussed his play with Julian Zelizer, public affairs professor at the University.
“He’s always been in my head,” Schenkkan said when asked why he decided to write a play about Lyndon B. Johnson. Schenkkan grew up in Austin, Texas, the same place where Johnson was born, raised, and rose to power.
The play’s first act follows Johnson’s first year as president, right after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Schenkkan talked about his choice to write the play about this time period given Johnson’s long political career.
In a play, Schenkkan said that it is critical to make “the stakes as high and as real as possible.” These conditions, he said, were true for that point in Johnson’s career; the United States was recovering from the death of its former president while starting to confront its legacy of racism and slavery.
“The combination of high stakes and compelling characters is something that you always look for,” he said. From there, it’s about arranging all of the pieces in a manner that makes sense to the audience and keeps them interested throughout the production.
One such figure whose portrayal Schenkkan was especially proud of was Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He is always seen as an orator or martyr, but never as a politician,” Schenkkan said.
He argued that despite this general view of King, he was, in actuality, a skilled politician. His ability to keep the Civil Rights Movement active and to give it direction was a testament to his abilities as a politician.
In summary, Schenkkan said, the play is about “the nitty gritty of politics; the human part.” He noted that he could’ve written about Johnson’s start in politics, as he was just learning to navigate his first wins, but the “arc of it [Johnson’s coming into office] was so inherently dramatic or beautiful; the assassination, the thrusting of him into the office, achieving what he’s wanted for years in the way no one would’ve wanted it.”
The “human part” of it, Schenkkan said, was where he thought audiences could most resonate with the play.
The talk took place in Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall at 4:30 p.m. The event was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School.