The Great Tragedy of 'The Great Society'
“Everybody gets thrown.”
The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s sequel to the Tony-winning All the Way, picks up where its predecessor left off by opening with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Jack Willis) delivering an eloquent monologue about bull riding. From the very first moments of The Great Society, LBJ gets metaphorically bucked off his presidential perch and the play chronicles his slow motion fall until he eventually slams into the ground. Hard.
At the heart of the story is the conflict that arises when LBJ’s ambitious domestic social reform bills—known as the Great Society—get undercut by his actions that lead to and escalate the Vietnam War. Vietnam hangs like a menacing shadow over every aspect of the play (rising soldier death and injury tolls are projected on stage as each scene passes). As the war becomes more and more consuming, it strips LBJ of his budget, popularity, and power. The carnage is reflected on the set as the legislative backdrop begins to deteriorate; turning from a pristine, orderly hall into a variable war zone of overturned and explosion-riddled wood.
Willis once again displays commanding, magnetic control the role of Lyndon B. Johnson, but tones back the character’s bluster as things begin to fall apart. LBJ’s use of tension-breaking jokes and colloquialisms dwindles in The Great Society. It’s understandable considering the dire problems he faced, but it certainly doesn’t give the audience a moment to surface for air. They’re pulled down into the murky depths with the President. And while The Great Society artfully captures dread of a country at one of its darkest moments, it can’t quite match the mastery of All the Way.
The three acts of The Great Society don't possess the electrifying dynamism of All the Way. The first play is packed with political freewheeling, the Civil Right battle, and 1964 election drama, all while revealing the personal and somewhat private rationale behind LBJ’s decisions. The Great Society can’t quite tap into that same level of character depth and pounds the ideas of the Vietnam War and race riots (in Watts and Chicago following the events of the Selma marches) with little variation. All the Way spikes like an EKG, while The Great Society is a straight line trending downward to tragedy.
There’s also a hole in LBJ’s personality that never gets sussed out. As the play progresses, he seems utterly baffled that he doesn’t have the support of the working class and young rabble-rousers who are protesting the war. He sees them as his people, but never seems to understand why they’re upset. He can't fathom what's distressing about sending thousands upon thousands of them to die in the jungles of Vietnam. The lack of awareness seems totally incongruous with everything else established about the man throughout Schenkkan’s plays. It’s hard to tell if it’s because he’s oblivious, surrounded by yes men, blinded by the power of his office, or simply in denial, but it’s an out of character disconnect with humanity. For all the stirring monologues LBJ delivers, The Great Society could’ve used a character asking LBJ point-blank how he doesn’t see why the war might be upsetting.
The most troubling aspect about The Great Society comes from the way the play handles the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Both were huge parts of LBJ’s story, with King essentially being second lead character in both plays. Yet their deaths are handled in an unsatisfying few moments when LBJ is talking with President-elect Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Those events feel too big to be resigned to a quickly tacked on to the conclusion. While it may have been presumptuous for Schenkkan to assume LBJ’s reactions to both assassinations, seeing LBJ receive the news would’ve played into the tragic tone of The Great Society. He might express sorrow at the loss of these powerful peers or he might struggle to show remorse for men he believed politically betrayed him. Either reaction would be revealing and add to the drama. It just deserves more than a rushed aside: Oh yeah, those guys were killed. That happened.
The Great Society offers the portrait of a man broken despite reaching the pinnacle, despite the power. The Vietnam War ruined all of LBJ’s best-laid plans, and, at the end, he realizes it in three solemn words.
“I did this.”
The Great Society
Thru Jan 4, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $22–$127