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The Great Society



The Great Society


                    by Deirdre Donovan



Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, Part II of his LBJ Plays, arrived at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, with a star-studded cast and a ton of testosterone.  Starring Brian Cox as Lyndon Baines Johnson, and directed by Bill Rauch, it’s the companion piece to All the Way.  And whether you’ve seen Part I or not, this meaty sequel stands alone and is something to chew on.


Before parsing The Great Society, let’s take a glance back at Schenkkan’s All the Way.  It premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, and two years later winged into New York.  The drama focuses on the first eleven months of LBJ’s (the media often used Johnson’s initials rather than his surname and it indelibly stuck in the public’s psyche) presidency,  bursting with energy, and soon became the darling of the critics.  It won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play and garnered Bryan Cranston a well-deserved Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.  And why was it so mesmerizing?  It captured Johnson in his ascendancy before Viet Nam clouded his presidency.


To return to the current production, The Great Society has wonderful synchronicity with All the Way.  The Great Society also got its stage legs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, debuting there on July 27, 2014.  But in contrast to All the Way, it deals with Johnson’s “legitimate” presidential term, in the years from 1965 to 1968.  It follows his landslide victory in the 1964 election and continues with his tumultuous ride through his full-term presidency.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a darker play and paints Johnson as a tragic figure.  Yes, you get a close look at his domestic programs and controversial legislation linked to Civil Rights, Education, and Health Care.  And you also get a horrific look at the Vietnam War spinning out of control and eclipsing his good acts. 


Get out your Who’s Who in American History.  This play rounds-up the most prominent figures from the '60s and lets you get up-close and personal with them.  It takes you through the corridors of power, into the Oval Office, and beyond the White House too.  In fact, this theatrical event (Schenkkan and Rauch both insist that it’s not intended to be a docudrama or a living newspaper) presents a cast inhabiting more than fifty characters in two-dozen locations.


But more than acquainting you with the movers-and-shakers of the 60s political world, The Great Society is an exploration of Johnson’s presidency.  What you discover by watching this piece is that Johnson in private was an engaging raconteur and that he only adopted his flat tone for his presidential addresses, which he felt brought more gravitas to his speeches.  Schenkkan also employs LBJ’s “Texan twist” in his dialogue.  Johnson, who measured “six feet, four,” used his size to advantage and would literally buttonhole a politician who he wanted to win over to his legislation and not let go until he had finished what he had to say.  Just watch Johnson and Senator Robert Kennedy go toe-to-toe in The Great Society—and you get a taste of his “Texan twist.”


Indeed, the 36th president well understood the moral ambiguities of power and politics and Schenkkan weaves this into his script as well.  To wit:   In Act 1, when Johnson is consulting with Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland about Operation Rolling Thunder that began on March 2, 1965, in response to a Viet Cong attack on a U.S. air base at Pleiku and sending in two battalions of Marines, LBJ soberly responds to McNamara:  All right.  My answer is yes but my judgment is no.”  Was ever a U.S. president more caught between a rock and hard place?


There are other revealing moments in this epic drama.  Consider Johnson’s monologue early on in Act 1 that describes his growing up in the Hill Country of Texas and his empathy for the women:  “As a kid in the Hill Country all the women I grew up with, my mother and my grandmother and my aunts, they were beat down and broke ‘fore the age of thirty by a miserable dog’s life . . . .Their backs were bent and their hands were crabbed and all their beauty and promise was stolen from them.  So when I went to Washington for the first time I did whatever I had to do to bring electricity to my part of the world.  I begged, I pleaded, I kissed up, I bent over, and yeah, I told a lie or two. . . . 


Okay, you might not always find Johnson likable in The Great Society.  But he definitely comes across, time and again, as a humane person who wanted to improve the lot of the poor, which he knew first-hand as a child.


Both All the Way and The Great Society were commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) as part of their American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, OSF’s multi-decade program of commissioning and developing new plays inspired from moments of change in United States history.  According to an online interview with Rauch, both All the Way and The Great Society are intended to share in the scale and in the spirit of Shakespeare’s history plays.  And, indeed, like them or not, their canvases are Shakespearean.


The acting is uniformly strong.  Brian Cox, of course, is the star-turn here and has the lion’s share of lines.  His Johnson, however, is far different than the exuberant Johnson that Brian Cranston conveyed in All the Way.   Cox, a veteran Shakespearean actor who has performed with The Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre, infuses more gravity into his principal.  And if this dampens the drama, so be it.  Cox succeeds in projecting the necessary authority and infusing the dark psychological underlining into his beleaguered Johnson. 


The ensemble, though excellent in their respective parts, hardly have a chance to imprint their character on the audience.  In fact, most of the actors have only cameo appearances in The Great Society.  To be sure, it is a compromise that Robert Schenkkan made when he wrote his sprawling script.



 So prepare to see some very fine actors here—Grantham Coleman (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Richard Thomas (Hubert Humphrey), Marc Kudisch (Mayor Richard J. Daley), Bryce Pinkham (Senator Robert F. Kennedy), and Frank Wood (Senator Everett Dirksen)—traverse the stage, speak their character’s truth, and vanish.



The creative team support the story and action, ensuring that everything briskly moves along and that scene changes are seamless.  David Korins’ raked wooden set with “bull pens” on either side of the playing area (where performers sit when not playing in their given scene) allows for the actors’ smooth entrances and exits.  David Weiner’s protean lighting shifts between washing the whole stage and spotlighting a character.  Linda Cho’s costumes includes the requisite power suits, the manicured dress of the women, and the regular clothing and uniforms of reporters and demonstrators.  Last, but not least, Victoria Sagady’s projection designs, with a Tally Board that flashes headlines and screens that show TV footage, help to anchor the production to the 60s.


The production biggest drawback?  It suffers from being the somber sequel to Schenkkan’s Part I of the LBJ plays.  The Great Society inevitably has a darker theatrical footprint than the former, and it’s naturally difficult for audiences to embrace this thornier play.


That said, The Great Society is a multi-faceted and perceptive portrait of our 36th president.  You might not always like what you see, but it is a truth that needs to be told.


The Great Society

Opened on October 1st, 2019

12-week limited engagement

At the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway

150 West 65th Street

For tickets and more information, visit or phone 800-447-7400.