It is nearly impossible to escape the shadow of Lyndon B. Johnson in Texas — and as a young boy, playwright Robert Schenkkan never tried.
The 36thpresident of the United States was his childhood hero.
Growing up in the heart of Austin — Johnson’s birthplace and hometown — Schenkkan was never far from the LBJ Presidential Library or the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and “everyone you ran into knew LBJ or had a handful of LBJ stories,” he said, including his parents.
“When I grew up in my house, LBJ was one of the good guys,” Schenkkan said.
The family cheered on the incumbent through the Johnson-Galore election. But just two years later, relations in Vietnam “ramped up in an extraordinary manner,” he said. And the eldest Schenkkan brother was nearing draft age.
“Suddenly, I didn’t feel so good about him,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright said of Johnson. “And that idea would dominate my thinking for a long time, until I left college and began my career in New York, started a family and began to realize how many government programs were helpful to me — and had their origin in the Great Society.”
Schenkkan reevaluated the president and the ambitious set of programs he spearheaded in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. He celebrated his aspirations and triumphs, and recognized his failures. The presidency was a job Johnson deeply wanted, but not by way of the 20thamendment — catapulting him into the White House in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
For his play, “All the Way,” Schenkkan narrowed his focus to this very year — one stoked by enormous stakes and tremendous conflict among strong-willed, shrewd, brilliant politicians, he said — and will discuss the subsequent film adaptation following a screening on Sunday, March 31, at Pierson High School, as part of the Sag Harbor Cinema’s “Present Tense” series.
“It’s a brilliant play and Robert’s a brilliant writer, who is new to the East End, and Lyndon Johnson has become a conversation that is more relevant,” explained Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, head of the Sag Harbor Cinema programming committee. “It’s been going through a process of reevaluation. His contribution to the country, his presidency, has been reexamined in recent years, and I think he makes for a very interesting character.”
Colored by the Vietnam War, so much of Johnson’s story has simply been lost, or overlooked, Schenkkan said, and he felt compelled to revisit it from a writer’s perspective.
“Ignorance of history is at astonishing levels throughout much of the population,” Schenkkan said. “Vietnam, of course, is and was a terrible tragedy for which LBJ must bear his fair share of responsibility. But then, the man’s story was much more complicated than that, and people have forgotten. I think people have forgotten how bad race relations were in 1963 and how heroic the efforts by so many people were and how many people it took to make this enormous seismic change in the country.
“The arc of that year is just so breathtaking, so complicated and you can just see the whole country shift in that moment,” he continued. “I felt very good having made that choice. He truly was fighting for the soul of the country and what this country was meant to be.”
Directed by Bill Rauch and starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame, “All the Way” made its Broadway premiere in March 2014, and it broke all existing box office records for a new play at the time.
It would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, as well as Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play and Actor in a Play, Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding New Broadway Play and Actor in a Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, and the Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Play.
“I was thrilled and surprised. If you put a gun to my head and said, ‘Okay, what will be your big Broadway hit?’ I would not have immediately said, ‘Oh, my 17-character, three-hour play about LBJ,’” Schenkkan said. “So it was very, very satisfying, but at the same time, it offered further validation for something I’ve felt: I think American audiences in fact, contrary to some general ideas out there, are very interested in theater that is about politics, or has in its central plot, political structure. And, of course, plays that deal with issues of weight and substance, and are about their own history.”
Surrounded with books and plays from an early age, Schenkkan loved to read and absorb history as a child, but loved his father’s made-up stories even more — which he would tell his four sons during impossibly long summer drives from Texas to Florida every year.
“My father used to entertain us; he had gotten his master’s in playwriting,” Schenkkan said. “And I’ve always enjoyed history of all kinds. I read it for pleasure. There’re just such extraordinary narratives out there — things that are so outlandish, if you made them up, nobody would believe you. In my research, I came across one of those weird things people do that just make you laugh out loud.”
During his presidency, Johnson purchased an Amphicar, the only civilian amphibious car ever mass-produced. On land, the vehicle looked like an ordinary automobile, and Johnson would take his guests on joyrides around his Stonewall, Texas ranch.
“Then, LBJ would pretend to lose control of the car and drive it into a lake. And he just thought this was hilarious!” Schenkkan said. “I thought it was pretty funny, too, and I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s just delicious.’”
For obvious logistical reasons, the scene could not be achieved on stage, but it played out brilliantly in the Steven Spielberg-backed film, “All the Way,” released by HBO in 2016 and also starring Cranston, Schenkkan said. Far from a filmed play, the adaptation adds depth through cinematic flourishes, he said, while staying true to the story.
“At the end of the day, film and theater are two different experiences in the one critical notion: that theater is a live event for the live actor happening in front of you in real time, in a way that has never happened before and will never be exactly replicated again,” Schenkkan said. “On the other hand, film can take you places in a literal way that stage is hard-pressed to compete with, and can bring you in to a different kind of intimacy, which in its own way can be extraordinarily cathartic. One is not better than the other. They are just very different approaches to storytelling.”
Playwright and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan will present his film, “All the Way,” on Sunday, March 31, at 3 p.m. at the Pierson High School auditorium, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor, as part of the “Present Tense” series. Admission is a $15 suggested donation. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.