A Not So Distant Mirror: Why Dramatists Return To History

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Editor's noteRobert Schenkkan's play, "All the Way," about President Lyndon Baines Johnson's relentless fight for civil rights, began performances on Friday, Sept. 13 at The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.

Bryan Cranston at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center (Dina Rosendorff/WBUR)
Bryan Cranston at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center (Dina Rosendorff/WBUR)

Three-time Emmy-Award winner Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC's "Breaking Bad," plays LBJ. Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which premiered the play in 2012, directs. "All the Way" was awarded the the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.

The show runs through Saturday, Oct. 12, but it's not an easy ticket to get

Why history? Why would a contemporary playwright turn to history as source material? Well, certainly there is a long tradition in the theater of doing so.

The very first historical play was “The Persians,” written by Aeschylus, in 472 B.C. Celebrating the famous Athenian victory eight years earlier over the imposing Persian forces of King Xerxes, every Athenian citizen would have known the facts. Aeschylus’ play could have been a simple bit of jingoistic puffery, a self-congratulatory nod to Athenian courage and military skill. Instead, he did a very novel and dangerous thing — Aeschylus used the historical events to subtly provoke his peers into a bit of soul searching regarding present day Athenian politics, which to his mind (later sadly borne out by history) was in great danger of abandoning her Republican roots for a more unattractive urge to empire. It wasn’t an appeal to pride — it was an appeal to conscience.

Shakespeare borrowed heavily from British history both to support Tudor claims to legitimacy (and ease his own way at a court which was always nervous about theater) and to investigate potentially dangerous issues regarding the proper relationship between the king and his people — which is to say, political power, its proper use and abuse.

Contemporary American playwrights needn’t worry so much about actual censorship and can grapple more directly with historical fact, either to challenge its prevailing interpretation, or to draw focus to specific parallels between the past and the present.

A close examination of our history can often shed light on the present. A close examination of our past can also provide a very useful lens through which we can more clearly weigh contemporary ethical issues.

Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” sympathetically re-examines the popular understanding of Martin Luther King, Jr. with an imaginative reconstruction of his last night. Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” explores the moral dilemmas of individuals struggling to reconcile their political and cultural beliefs during the height of the AIDS epidemic. And my own play, “The Kentucky Cycle,” critically examined American history and mythology — the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about how we came to be as a people, continue to have a profound, if sometimes unconscious, effect on who we are now.

My latest production, “All The Way,” follows President Lyndon B. Johnson through the 12 months of his first term: from his sudden rise to the presidency following assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 to his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in November 1964.

To me, this period marks a turning point in American history. It was in those 12 months that everything changed, ushering in a new political cycle, from which I believe we are just now emerging. LBJ’s landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 broke the back of the Southern Caucus and signaled a public rejection of segregation and Jim Crow, but it also destroyed the Democratic Party’s political sway in the 13 states that made up the Confederacy. With the “Southern strategy” — a covert appeal to racism disguised as a populist rejection of “big government” — the modern Republican Party rode white backlash back into national power.

The landmark victory of the civil rights movement also carried within it the seeds of its own destruction as younger generations of African-American activists would resent the political compromises made and increasingly reject the non-violent philosophy of their elders for a much more combative political and social agenda which insisted, quite understandably, on tangible results now.

LBJ once claimed he was going to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt” and his vision of America. The Great Society, after all, is without a doubt the high water mark of progressive politics in the U.S. — Medicare, Medicaid, poverty programs, job programs, environmental programs, consumer protection, etc. Predicated as they are on the controversial notion that the federal government has a responsibility to actively shape the marketplace and assist the less fortunate, these programs are at the heart of today’s contentious and highly partisan struggles in Congress. Indeed, it is shocking to see how similar the rhetoric remains.

And, of course, Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin incident and subsequent Congressional resolution set the stage for America’s involvement in Vietnam, which shattered not just the Democratic Party but the country as a whole. LBJ knew very early on that military “victory” was hopeless and could be disastrous for his Great Society. Determined to protect his beloved social reform agenda, the lying started right away. But it was his breathtaking miscalculation of treating Vietnam as if it were simply a domestic political problem which could be solved by leverage and horse-trading that in three short years would plunge him into the morass from which there would be no exit except by renouncing the power he had spent his entire political career pursuing — and lead to the destruction of the Great Society.

William Faulkner was right, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” A close examination of our history can often shed light on the present. A close examination of our past can also provide a very useful lens through which we can more clearly weigh contemporary ethical issues.

LBJ was widely regarded in his time as the consummate politician, as powerful and successful as any of Shakespeare’s kings. We look back in wonder and laud his amazing legislative accomplishments, but if we look closely, we also flinch at the damage done. His is a cautionary tale about the morality of power; In pursuit of a just cause, how far can one go? Do the ends always justify the means? Hamlet’s injunction to the players was “to hold, as ‘twer, a mirror up to nature.” That’s why dramatists return to history. It is a not-so-distant mirror in which to show virtue her own feature and scorn her own image.

Related: ‘All The Way’ With LBJ — Did He Break Bad, Too?

This program aired on September 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.