A Hinge of History

by August Schulenburg

in Edgerton New Plays

Post image for A Hinge of History

“I think what is particularly poignant about LBJ, and tragic about his story, is that he could see, actually, what was happening in Vietnam, but couldn’t find from his own political standpoint a way out, and he knew it would be the destruction of his domestic program which is all he really cared about, but he couldn’t find a way out.”
-Robert Schenkkan, about ALL THE WAY 

How much time in the theatre have you spent watching the kings and queens of English history? The repulsive propulsion of Richard III, the beautiful self-immolation of Richard II, the growth of Hal into Henry, the keen madness of Margaret; all live etched in our collective memories through the power of Shakespeare’s plays.

Now, how about the presidents and politicians of American history?

For all the drama of American history, and especially American presidential history, if you want to see politics from the pinnacle of power, you mostly have to settle for 1776.

There are recent and encouraging exceptions, most notably the success of Frost/Nixon, which captured the towering anxieties of our Richard the First. Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop currently incarnates Martin Luther King, a character of presidential size and impact.

Now Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (Handler, By the Waters of Babylon) turns his gaze to Lyndon Baines Johnson in his new play All the Way, premiering at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with support from an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award.

“What I am interested in is the ascension to power here, by Lindon Baines Johnson.  I’m interested in how he managed it, and I’m interested in what the costs of that were. So the drama here is quite Shakespearean in its intention and scope. Shakespeare of course was fascinated by kings, the whole notion of how you achieve the crown, how you maintain the crown…he had a lot to say about the moral ambiguities of power and politics, and that’s what we’re about here in All the Way.

Watching Schenkkan’s interview on the video above, I’m struck by how much we need that nuanced discussion of the moral ambiguities of power and politics, especially in a time where our political discourse is driven by absolutes and defined through opposition.

As Schenkkan explains, LBJ’s presidential career was one of extraordinary domestic accomplishment – The Civil Rights Act, The Great Society – marred by the growing tragedy of Vietnam. For all his legendary persuasiveness, and for the profoundly positive impact his legislation has had on the lives of millions, his legacy is still haunted by the chants of “hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

I’m thrilled that one of the Edgerton grantees is tackling such a Shakespearean subject with profound relevance for our current political state. What other hinges of history and presidents of size merit staging?

And why do our stages have more English queens and kings than American politicians?

The Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Program, directed by Brad and Louise Edgerton, was piloted in 2006 with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles by offering two musicals in development an extended rehearsal period for the entire creative team, including the playwrights. The Edgertons launched the program nationally in 2007 and have supported 128 plays to date in 50 different Art Theaters across the country. The Edgerton Foundation received the 2011 TCG National Funder Award in June in Los Angeles.

TCG member theaters with a strong and consistent track record of producing new work are invited by the foundation to submit letters of inquiry to plays@edgertonfoundation.org. A panel of readers reviews the plays and one-time grants ranging from $5,000 – $75,000 are awarded.

August Schulenburg is the Associate Director of Communications at TCG. He is also the Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, winner of the 2011 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. He is a playwright whose produced plays includeRiding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, The Lesser Seductions of History, Dream Walker, Rue, Jacob’s House and Other Bodies. He is also a director (most recently Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq) and actor (currently filming The Golden Scallop). Learn more here.

  • http://raburgess.com/ Randy Burgess

    Hey Gus – I found this post of yours via LinkedIn. I do make a habit of disagreeing with you, I know. But here I will not exactly disagree, but merely muse on a muddy sort of question your very interesting post raises in my mind. 

    We’ve had a fair number of films (not theater, I know, but in principle a similar kind of mythologizing) about recent presidents. Now we’re going to have a film about J. Edgar. And what bothers me and a lot of folks about these films is how they pander to false portrayals of the individuals involved, mostly through getting even simple facts wrong – perhaps  deliberately so. 

    I wonder, what was the attitude in Shakespeare’s time? He was working with pseudo-historical myths, more or less; but in our time history has progressed to the point that it is marginally less false. Facts are easier to verify. There is perhaps less opportunity to fictionalize in the name of art. Even so these films are trying to fictionalize and botching it. They reduce complexity to stereotype, which is the opposite of what you would like to see & what I would like to see.

    Even so I like what you write here, and the LBJ play sounds interesting. I guess that if there is a counter to my plaint, it’s that good plays will raise good questions about history, even as bad films raise bad ones. 

  • August Schulenburg

    Randy, I this is a great point. Our presidents do appear much more frequently on film than on stage. I wonder if this in someway connected to the powerful influence of Arthur Miller, his DEATH OF A SALESMAN and his essay, TRAGEDY AND THE COMMON MAN: http://theliterarylink.com/miller1.html. As he argues in the essay, “ I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possible lead in our time–the heart and spirit of the average man.” I wonder is the influence of this approach has inadvertently lead to the paucity of presidents on our stages. And as you say, this is a shame, because we are left with films that can obscure the rich complexity of fact at a time when we need to consider the consequences of personal choice in positions of great power.
    Thanks for stopping by – this is definitely a question worth exploring in more depth.

  • http://raburgess.com/ Randy Burgess

    That’s a really interesting essay – thanks for the link. Like many people, I detest Miller’s plays – we just saw “The Price” in a very small production at HB Studios, and while we enjoyed seeing the actors at work the play was pretty dreadful. But in this essay Miller, even though he flounders a bit on his understanding of psychology, does not merely make an assertion (about the common man etc.); he raises an excellent question about whether we in our modern era will even acknowledge that the tragic can exist. I’m going to put that essay aside & reread it again. Worth pondering.