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Generous, Sadistic, Noble: Seattle Playwright Recalls LBJ

A scene from "All the Way," a play about President Lyndon B. Johnson by Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan.
Seattle Repertory Theatre
A scene from "All the Way," a play about President Lyndon B. Johnson by Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan.

For those of us who came of age in the 1960s, Texas Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson was larger than life. 

Johnson had years of Congressional politicking under his belt when he was thrust into the presidency after John F. Kennedy's assassination. He used that political experience to change America. The Johnson administration ushered in a new era for civil rights, as well as environmental protections, among other cultural paradigm shifts.

But Johnson was a complex man, according to Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan. The Texas native knew Johnson through his father, a public broadcasting pioneer in Austin. The elder Schenkkan worked with then-Senator Johnson to get a public television station on the air there. 

Schenkkan recalls that in 1964, LBJ was a hero in his home.

Almost half a century later, Johnson is the central character in Schenkkan's Tony Award-winning play, "All The Way," and a second play called "Great Society."

"All The Way" came out of a commission from Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions Project. Schenkkan says, "the question it asked was could American playwrights do with American history what Shakespeare did with Tudor history?"

When Schenkkan received the commission, he knew at once that he would focus on LBJ.

"I have this personal history," he explains. "But LBJ is just a fascinating guy. He is truly Shakespearean in the way we use that word."

Schenkkan says when you ask his aides what LBJ was like, the answer is a web of contradictions: the most selfish, the most generous, the most noble, the most sadistic guy they ever knew. Former LBJ press aide Bill Moyers once described his boss as "the eleven most interesting people I ever met."

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"All The Way" premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ultimately, the play went on to a Broadway production in New York, where it earned Schenkkan a Tony Award for best drama. "Great Society," commissioned by Seattle Repertory Theater, debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival earlier this year. Both plays have their Seattle premieres this month at Seattle Rep.

It's a homecoming of sorts for Robert Schenkkan. He moved to Seattle in the mid 1990s, after his play "The Kentucky Cycle" debuted at the Intiman Theatre. That play won Schenkkan the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The playwright decided to make his home in the Northwest in part because of Seattle's robust theater community, and his relationship with the local theater companies. But Schenkkan says most of all, Seattle is a place that makes him happy.

"It's the combination of the ocean and the freshwater and mountains," Schenkkan says. "It's just so fulfilling at some basic psychic level."

Robert Schenkkan's play "All The Way" opens November 19th; "Great Society" begins at Seattle Repertory Theatre in early December. The plays will run in repertory through the end of 2014.