PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Robert Schenkkan, the Kentucky Cycle Playwright With a New Passion for LBJ

By Robert Simonson
July 21, 2012

Robert Schenkkan covered 200 years of American history in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle. His new world-premiere play, All the Way, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, focuses on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.



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Playwright Robert Schenkkan hasn't been seen in New York City since The Kentucky Cycle — the sprawling nine-play work which made his name when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 — played Broadway. But to the West Coast of the country, he is a familiar face. His work Handler played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2002. By the Waters of Babylon followed in 2005. During that time, he has also had plays produced at the Mark Taper Forum and Seattle Children's Theatre. He's now back at Oregon Shakespeare Festival with his latest look at American history, a take on erstwhile Schenkkan family acquaintance Lyndon Baines Johnson called All the Way.

You have a real artistic home at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, haven't you?
Robert Schenkkan: I do. I really do. This is my third show and second world premiere, all of which have been directed by [artistic director] Bill Rauch. I'm really happy with this relationship.

How did it come about?
RS: Libby Appel, who was the then-artistic director, was very excited about a play of mine called Handler that she wanted to produce. Bill Rauch was her suggestion as a director. That was a spectacular experience. That is still a show that a lot of people who come to the festival mention as a highlight. That was the first show Bill directed here. Libby announced her retirement and Bill was her strong recommendation to the board as her replacement.

Schenkkan in rehearsal
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Your new play, All the Way, is part of a series of plays dealing with U.S. history at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
RS: It's a commissioned work as part of their "American Revolutions" series. They have commissioned 20-something works. I would guess this is easily the largest commissioning series in the country right now. The intention of the series was based loosely out of the idea that Shakespeare obviously borrowed generously out of Tudor history and English history for the plays we now call his "History Plays." Why shouldn't an American theatre do the same? The commission is very generously worded. The writers are invited to pick any subject, as long as it has bearing on the history of the United States, socially, politically, whatever. For me, when Bill approached me, I said I was interested in writing about LBJ.

Why?
RS: I grew up in Austin, Texas. My parents knew LBJ casually. My father knew him professionally. My father was a pioneer in public television and radio in this country. He had been hired by the University of Texas in Austin to set up their educational television and radio stations. That meant he actually had to go to then-Senator LBJ and get his blessing, because an educational station would have been in direct competition with LBJ's own radio station in Austin, which was the controversial source of his fortune. I'm glad to say that he not only gave his blessing but contributed generously to the station. Of course, he would go on to sign the Public Broadcasting Act that would create education television and radio in this country.

In researching this book, did you consult Robert Caro's famous biographies?
RS: Well, of course. How could one not? But LBJ was actually quite extensively written about, even before Caro. And the LBJ Presidential Library is in Austin, and the collection is quite extensive. I have read widely, and Caro is probably my favorite. The thoroughness of detail. And he's a wonderful writer. The part of LBJ's life that I'm writing about preceded any published work of Caro's. This last volume that he just released this summer actually covered some of the material I've written in this play.

Stacy Keach and Tuck Milligan in The Kentucky Cycle.
Photo by Joan Marcus

You cover LBJ's life from the assassination of Kennedy until his election to a second full term as President.
RS: Yes.

I was looking over the cast list. It's nice to see that you still don't shy away from large ensembles.
RS: You know, there's something so exciting about a big cast on stage. It is harder and harder to do that these days. One of the advantages of working here at the Festival is they have a big company. These actors play many, many roles, which the exception of the actor playing LBJ.

Are all the characters in the play based on real-life figures?
RS: Yes, I believe that is indeed the case. Though, of course, this is a play, it is not by any stretch of the imagination a documentary. It is not a history. I am telling a dramatic story. I have a point of view on it. The individuals mentioned are real, and the events I describe all took place, but I have also played fast and loose with chronology, and have put people in places where they weren't at a certain time. I've taken the kind of liberties that one takes, and that indeed Shakespeare took.

Aside from LBJ, who are the major characters in your play?
RS: Well, there's Martin Luther King; the leadership of the Civil Rights movement — you have Roy Wilkins, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael; and on the other side is Richard Russell, who is the leading Democrat Senator from Georgia who had essentially kept Civil Rights bottled up for 20 years, and was LBJ's mentor and father figure; there's Hubert Humphrey, essentially the leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and eventually LBJ's Vice-Presidential candidate; Walter Jenkins, LBJ's longtime assistant. There are the people one would expect to see. There are some people who were important who function in an offstage fashion. Bobby Kennedy, for example. He was very important psychologically to what happens to LBJ in the play, but doesn't appear in the play.

At the end of the process of writing this play, did you like LBJ? Did you hate him?
RS: My relationship with LBJ has really evolved over the years. Growing up in my father's house in 1964, we were huge LBJ fans and excited about what he was going to bring to government and Civil Rights. I entered high school and then college at the height of the Vietnam War, and of course I had a very different opinion of LBJ by that time. Many years later, I became more familiar with the staggering scope of his achievements in domestic politics, the programs he put into place that are still alive today and the source of a lot of current controversy. You simply have to acknowledge the achievement there. And as a politician and a political creature, the man is fascinating, in terms of being able to work the levers and lifts of the system. Was he a nice man? No. Clearly, no. He could be horrible, coarse, crude, cruel. And, also, he could be incredibly generous and was widely thought of as funny. He's a very complicated man. At the end of this process, I have a much greater appreciation for his complexity, and his tragedy.

I see him as a tragic figure ultimately. He was a man who did want to do good, and did achieve an enormous amount, particularly on the issues of Civil Rights and poverty. And all his work in Vietnam, the deceptions and lies, which began at the very beginning, undercut all the programs he loved and left such an enormous scar on the country. He's the full Shakespearean character. A man who rises from nothing to the crown, and then has to renounce the crown. It's an extraordinary arc, and a hell of a story.