Play chronicling LBJ’s presidency holds Texas premiere at Zach Theatre

Morgan O'Hanlon

Picket signs flood the streets. Loud chants, shouted in unison, call for solidarity in the face of injustice. Though this image is pulled from a scene from Robert Schenkkan’s play “The Great Society,” it could easily be mistaken for a description of the news today. 

“The Great Society” is the second of UT alumnus Schenkkan’s plays chronicling former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s time in office, and it details the creation of the social programs from which the play gets its namesake. Though it’s no newcomer to the stage, the play’s premiere at Austin’s Zach Theatre on Wednesday will be the first performance in Johnson’s home state of Texas. 

“There are a lot of lessons to be learned from re-examination of the second term of President Johnson, both in a sobering way and in a hopeful way,” Schenkkan said. 

According to UT history professor Don Carleton, the source of the uncanny parallels between the Johnson era and today come from issues left unresolved by The Great Society. Carleton said that since the time of The Great Society, many of its original tenets have been either undermined or unraveled, and this has inspired the protests that we see today. 

“The reason there’s so much civil unrest is that the people who’ve been itching to get rid of these programs are finally getting their way,” Carleton said. “But the people who get direct benefits from these programs aren’t just gonna let that happen.”

Schenkkan said Johnson’s programs made him a great leader and an interesting subject to write about because of his powerful ability to create compromise across party lines.

“If you could separate his domestic policy form his foreign policy, I think he would be up there on Mount Rushmore,” Schenkkan said. “But you can’t take Vietnam out of the equation, and he should bear his fair burden of responsibility for it.”

The moral complexity of Johnson’s presidency inspired Schenkkan to use his play to tackle thematic issues such as exercise of political power and to what degree one can justly exercise their conscience.

“It’s a fascinating challenge and one that has grown less acute in recent weeks,” Schenkkan said.

As the national partisan divide strengthens, Schenkkan said he wishes there were another Johnson who could find common ground to make progress.

“We’re now in a position to better appreciate his political genius,” Schenkkan said. “Certainly, we could do with a little bit more of LBJ in the Democratic Party right now; he got stuff done.”

Opinions on the man himself aside, Schenkkan said studying the social unrest of the era and the responses made by leadership might help the U.S. avoid repeating history.  

David Steakley, a UT alumnus and creative director at Zach Theatre, said the play’s arrival in Austin may be late, but its timing couldn’t be better. 

“The audience is going to have a very strong visceral response to this work, because it’s going to feel like it was written the morning they walked into the theater,” Steakley said. “It’s disheartening to see us as a society either repeating history or grappling with issues that we never resolved.”