Lyndon B. Johnson, the story goes, was at the climax of a speech promoting the Great Society, committing America to “nothing less than an all-out war on poverty,” when a voice from the crowd called back: “Mr. President, we surrender.”
But in real life, it was the president who finally surrendered, after his efforts to spread the wealth and in the process give equity to African-Americans—no longer legally second-class citizens after he’d pushed through and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that cost Democrats the South for generations—were brought down by the failing forever war in Vietnam, which left him without the capital, political or fiscal, to continue advancing his agenda.
This is the story Pulitzer-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan sets out to tell in The Great Society, now beginning a 12-week run at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Where Schenkkan’s Tony-winning All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston as Johnson, told the story of the 36th president from Kennedy’s assassination through the end of their shared term, The Great Society picks up with Scotsman Brian Cox, of Succession, finding a great Texas gravel to portray Johnson from the beginning of a term of his own after his landslide win in 1964 through his decision in 1968 not to run for a second one.
It’s powerful history, beautifully portrayed with lighting and sets that make use of every inch of the stage as the cast uses the full auditorium to tightly tell a story covering the world-historical likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert McNamara, RFK, J. Edgar Hoover and, finally, Richard Nixon, in a stand-out performance by David Garrison among the universally excellent cast.
Marchánt Davis also shines as a despairing Stokely Carmichael, whose interactions with King, played by newcomer Grantham Coleman, stand out as interesting and dynamic in their own right.
The use of three big screens and a dozen or so small TVs behind the stage to illustrate events is excellent, as are the actors’ use of slow motion and frozen moments to visually express the chaos and violence roiling Vietnam half a world away and the streets of America.
“It was an era that would define history forever: the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the creation of some of the greatest social programs America has ever known—and one man was at the center of it all: LBJ.”
That’s from the play’s promotional materials, and it’s unfortunately accurate as it keeps the spotlight squarely on Johnson, and while Cox is up to that task—he gives a physical, spirited performance of the back-slapping and arm-twisting president as a philosopher from a Texas where everything is bigger all but busting out of the confines of the Oval Office—there are few insights here into the president’s character or motives, and almost none about the people he’s interacting with.
Schenkkan, who earlier this year directed a reading of the Mueller Report to bring it to life, here seems to strip the life out of his material as it develops. The first third of the play, which focuses on the relationship between Johnson and King, and also the tensions between King and other civil rights organizers, has its own energy, but—given the spoiler alerts we’ve known about and mourned for a half century—the focus ineluctably shifts to just Johnson and King and the rest of the players are mostly reduced to foils or sparring partners for the president.
The characters, including the president, almost never seem to really be talking to each other, but only to be declaiming, and with each line at least doubling as exposition. Or you could say the characters all seem to be speaking to history, rather than the people they’re sharing the stage with as we see them perform it.
Notably, COINTELPRO is hardly touched on, more as a check-off than a plot point as the play pivots away from King after its first 45 minutes. Bobby Kennedy never quite becomes more than a jealous and looming political rival.
The Great Society ends with two beats: First, Johnson yelling president-elect Nixon out of what’s still his Oval Office—“I may not know much, but I do know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad. Get the hell away from my desk, you son of a bitch!” And then Lyndon resting his head on Lady Bird’s shoulder, preparing to return to Texas.
But we don’t really know anything about her from this play. Or about Texas. Or about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the man, just the figure striding the national stage.