Get Real with Carla Stockton
Robert Schenkkan Helps Unpack the Paradox of NY’s Best Play, All the Way
Just a few minutes into my conversation with Robert Schenkkan, playwright of All The Way, this year’s winner of the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway, I see our commonality. As an author with a broad story to tell, he too is constrained by his medium and feels he must occasionally sacrifice nuance and subtlety to the convolutions of a story as wide and as deep as our country’s history itself, “…I only have two hours and forty-four minutes to get it done!” he exclaims. Listening on the other end of the phone, I nod knowingly. My space/time allotments here are similarly limited. My best hope is that whatever glimpse I manage to share here is provocative enough to entice you to read his work, see his plays…
Schenkkan is in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it all began for All the Way. I have told him I’ve been a fan ever since I saw The Quiet American, the brilliant film co-written with Christopher Hampton, and I have acknowledged how barraged he must be with interviews, have promised to be brief. “Yes,” he replied with a sputtering little laugh. “It’s been sweetly annoying.”
He’s in Ashland rehearsing his next play, The Great Society, which opens July 21, the sequel to All the Way. ATW tells the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s twelve months as “accidental president” of the US, culminating in his 1964 landslide victory over Barry Goldwater; TGS follows him through his elected term in office. Both comprise Schenkkan’s contribution to American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a project commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival “to do,” Schenkkan explains, “with American Historical figures roughly what Shakespeare’s history plays did for the royal Tudor lineage.” It’s huge.
The night I saw All the Way, the house was packed. All 1,445 seats in the Neil Simon Theater were occupied, as they have been since its opening.
So I ask Schenkkan what he thinks is the magic of the show.
“Bryan,” he answers automatically.“Definitely Bryan Cranston.” I shrug to myself. I know I’m not the typical audience member, but Cranston alone doesn’t captivate me. There has to be more to it. After all, this play has already had to wow audiences across the country before coming to New York, and it takes more than one actor to take away a Tony for Best Play…
Schenkkan agrees. “It’s a captivating story. The audience is very taken… it’s so startlingly shocking. It’s new, in a way, to everyone, even to those who lived through the time… But mostly it’s the character, who’s not so different from that other guy (for which Cranston is known). It’s highly entertaining to watch a dangerous, driven, high-achieving character in action, whether he’s selling meth or social change.”
“Bill Moyers once said that ‘The thirteen most interesting people I ever met were Lyndon Johnson.’” He is a truly Shakespearean hero, oversized not only in power but also in ambition, in both success and failure. “And,” Schenkkan asserts, “he is emotionally and intellectually provocative. He led at a time when the country was, as it is now, facing seemingly intractable social issues, but he made a difference. He got things done. In his first year in office, Johnson managed to get 116 bills passed into law.”
Schenkkan’s assessment is a revisionist view, one that is still evolving. “I began as a fervid Johnson supporter… My father, a pioneer in public broadcasting, had met Senator Johnson, who was instrumental in creating National Public Radio… I was eleven when he ran for President, canvassed door to door… Then as a teenager, after the Bay of Tonkin Resolution, which unleashed the Vietnam War, my view changed entirely; but twenty years later, as a married artist with kids, I depended on the social programs he’d created, and once again my perspective shifted. When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asked me to write for the American Revolutions project, I knew right away I wanted to write about LBJ.”
The success of this play, Schenkkan believes, comes from its focus: Power. The legitimate use of power, the designation and entitlement to power, the morality of power and the ends-versus-means conundrum. “An American President is arguably the most powerful individual in the most powerful office on earth. You have to ask what are the limits of that power? What do we believe is permissible to achieve an end that will be good? Is it possible to do something a little unethical, a little illegal if the ends are truly good? And who decides?”
I’m not entirely convinced. The multimedia production design re-creates the television-driven days of 1963-64, a world that is simultaneously black-and-white banal and technicolored melodramatic. The scenes alternate between the control of stylized movements and the maelstrom of quasi-restricted commedia chaos, which can be fun to watch. The cast is an assemblage of some of the best NY stage actors, and they guide the audience into a world turned upside down, into the washing machine atmosphere where everyone was manipulated by a kind of central agitator to laugh, cry, mourn, exult on cue. But there are so many characters, they often lose their authenticity. The presentation can begin to feel as disingenuous as the liars onstage. I had trouble suspending my disbelief. That said, I never disengaged; I was still glued to my seat as the audience jumped to its feet when Cranston returned for his curtain call.
Please see the play—there are discounted tickets out there—and after you do, you should tell me what you think it is that commands such adulation (you can comment here or on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr).
In the meantime, though Schenkkan has repeatedly said that this story, this quintessential theatrical character cannot be contained by any other medium than the live stage, rumors are flying as to where All the Way might be headed. Acting on a request I got from A.R.T.’s office at Harvard, I “ask Robert if it is true that he has signed with Steven Spielberg to do the series.”
Schenkkan laughs heartily, abandoning for a moment his audible restraint. Oh, he says, there is lots of interest. Lots of parties involved. But no deal. “He laughs again for another long moment. “We should be able to make some kind of an announcement very soon.”
He is still laughing as I thank him for his time, and I can hear him nod as I say, “We’ll stay tuned.”
Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.