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

By Robert Simonson
21 Jul 2012

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.