Monday, August 05, 2013

A Conversation with Alexander Harrington, playwright of "The Great Society"

A new play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his ambition  to wage legislative war on poverty opens off-Broadway this week.   THE GREAT SOCIETY will play a four-week limited engagement at the Clurman Theatre (Theatre Row: 410 West 42nd Street, NYC). Performances begin Saturday, August 3 and continue through Saturday, August 24. Opening Night is Thursday, August 8 (8 p.m.).   Tickets are available via Telecharge.

 I had an opportunity to ask the playwright Alexander Harrington some questions about his play, which I'm so very much interested.  

My interest goes beyond just an interest in American political history but became of a direct connection. 

I can't remember anybody telling me about my mother's family's connection to LBJ.  It was just something that was, like how our noses are similar and we're all short and most of us were teachers (not me!).   My mother grew up in Cotulla just off I-35 about 1/2 way between San Antonio and Laredo.  It used to be a tiny Texas town where the main industry was ranching.  
In 1927, Cotulla built the Welhausen School.  My Great Aunt Beth (Elizabeth Woolls Johnson - coincidental last name) taught there.  The next year, Lyndon Johnson became their principal.   He didn't stay long, but he definitely made an impression.  My Aunt Beth told me that Mr. Johnson treated all of the children the same, regardless of their race and station, that he believed all children deserved an education.   She quoted in an AP article years later: "We were all crazy about him.  He just moved right in and took over.  For example, he organized an athletic program for the kids that helped them tremendously.  When he wasn't tied up with that, eh was working with them on debate and declamation.  He didn't give himself what we call spare time.  He was a remarkable disciplinarian to be only 19."   Aunt Beth also told me that she would give him rides in her car because he had no car of her own.  
Years later, my Grandmother Frances Herring worked as a secretary for various Texas legislators in Austin, then she got a job as a secretary in Vice President Johnson's Austin office.   I inherited a few LBJ mementos from Aunt Beth and my Grandmother, the Life magazine, letters, articles, a rolodex from the office and some LBJ pre-signed note paper.    On November 22, 1963, my mother and her sister Diane were on their way to a big dinner for President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson  in Austin when they heard the news on the radio.   My Grandmother was invited to go to Washington, DC to work for LBJ, but declined due to various circumstances.  She died in 1965.  
The first book I read about him was "The Lyndon Johnson Story" by Booth Mooney.  My Grandmother gave it to my mother for Christmas in 1963.  It was just always on my bookshelf and I think I read it when I ran out of Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames .  I current in the middle of latest Caro volume on Johnson, "The Passage of Power." 
I immediately planned to see the play, but I really wanted to know more about the playwright's connection.   Alec Harrington, playwright of The Great Society, graciously answered my queries. 

I understand that your own connection to LBJ is via your Dad, who assisted in the drafting of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty legislation.  Did your Dad or other family members serve under Johnson's administration?   Continue to serve in government?

Alec:  My father was a socialist and deliberately did not seek government positions.  He felt he could be most effective as an organizer outside the government and as a writer.  My father's proposals for the War on Poverty – massive public works – were rejected as too expensive.  Because of this, I was really struck when he said "Jack Kennedy gave me credit; Lyndon Johnson snubbed me. Jack Kennedy was a dilettante when it came to poverty; Lyndon Johnson was serious about doing something for the poor of this country.”
Did you ever meet LBJ or any other member of the Johnson family? 
Alec: I never met LBJ or any of his family members.  I did meet Hubert Humphrey when I was in 2nd grade.  I also met Ted Kennedy.  Despite my father’s preference for LBJ over JFK on domestic policy, he campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 -- first, because of Vietnam, and second because he felt that Bobby had moved to the left of JFK on domestic issues, and that, because Bobby was committed to getting out of Vietnam, he would spend more on the War on Poverty than LBJ was spending.  My father became a close collaborator of Ted Kennedy’s, whom he felt was the most progressive of the Kennedy brothers.
Was there a certain literary source that gave you the most inspiration in writing this play?  
Alec:  Caro’s The Passage of Power came out a year after I finished my first draft of the play.  I did make two minor revisions to the play based on that book.  I have read all the volumes of Caro’s LBJ biography, and I particularly like Master of the Senate, but when I did the bulk of my work on the play, Caro had yet to publish a book about LBJ’s presidency.  My main sources are Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge, the second and third volumes of Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years; Randall B. Woods’ LBJ: Architect of American Ambition; Robert Mann’s The Walls of Jericho; and America’s Longest War by George C. Herring.
You're no stranger to writing and adapting an epic story (The Brothers Karamozov) there a difference when the characters involved are actual historical figures?  
Alec:  Both in adapting a novel and in writing about history I feel a responsibility not distort either what the author wrote or what the historical figures said and did.  This is not to say that I do not take dramatic license. I did not include every scene from Dostoevsky’s novel (some of them I adapted and later, very reluctantly, cut), I made cuts within scenes, cut characters, and added lines that where wholly my own and appeared nowhere in the novel. However, I strove to present all the philosophical questions Dostoevsky raised in all their ambiguity and complexity, without dumbing them down.  I wrote a two part adaptation that required 19 actors because I wanted to preserve many of Dostoevsky’s richly drawn minor characters.  In writing about the Johnson presidency, I took liberties: I have compressed and rearranged timelines and have historical figures performing the actions of other historical figures.  However, I have worked hard to accurately represent the views and significant historical actions of the people depicted in the play.  It pains me that, in order to cut the running time, I minimized Hubert Humphrey’s contribution to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and that –again, not having the time to fully discuss certain issues – I have distorted Robert McNamara’s views on the overthrow and killing of South Vietnamese President Diem (I think – and hope – this is the only instance in which I have not been fair).
Did you spend time at the LBJ library?
Unfortunately I did not have the money or the time to travel to the library.
I find it interesting that the York Shakespeare Company is one of the producers.   LBJ is as powerful politician is as Shakespearean as Caesar or Otello.  Do you note any connections?   Definitely a tragedy?  
Alec:  LBJ reminds me very much of Shakespeare’s Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) who overthrows Richard II.  Like LBJ, Bolingbroke is a pragmatist; he rules in shadow of a glamorous predecessor (although JFK is not neatly analogous to the incompetent, corrupt, tyrannical, and wildly narcissistic Richard), and Bolingbroke’s reign is consumed by his having to fend off attacks from those who question his legitimacy.
Johnson presidency was unquestionably a tragedy.  It was a tragedy for LBJ because he was deeply committed to helping the poor and Vietnam severely limited his ability to do that. It was also a tragedy for LBJ because, having steered the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to passage, he should have been beloved and honored by all Americans; having proposed and engineered the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, he should have been a hero to liberals and left-wingers; yet, he ended his presidency reviled by many Americans, particularly liberal and left-wingers.  Also, there is no question that the Vietnam was a blood-soaked catastrophe for the United States and the people of North and South Vietnam.
What do you think is the most particular point that the War on Poverty legislation that today's congress could draw down upon in the current fight against poverty?   
Alec:  Well, the problem is Congress is not currently fighting poverty.  The-New-Deal/Great-Society welfare state has been rolled back by presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. Obama expanded the welfare state with Obama care, but cut it with the sequester. 
What do you think is the most particular point of LBJ's methods that President Obama could use as a model?
Alec:  Many Democrats have expressed nostalgia for Lyndon Johnson’s arm-twisting.  Candidate Obama (along with David Axelrod and David Plouffe) is a Johnsonian tough.  Both his presidential campaigns were incredibly disciplined.  The 2008 campaign refrained from mud-slinging, but it turned serious allegations against Obama (Jeremiah Wright) to its advantage, and did not allow the other side’s tactics (McCain’s suspending his campaign when the stock market tanked) to get the campaign “off- message.”  The 2012 campaign did not have the delicacy of 2008’s.  Just as the swift boaters neutralized John Kerry’s combat record as an asset for Kerry (even though they never proved their allegations that Kerry’s medals were undeserved), the Obama campaign neutralized Mitt Romney’s business experience (even though it never proved that Mitt Romney caused the death of a steelworker’s wife).  
In advancing his legislative priorities, President Obama has been less than Johnsonian.   The Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats made Obama further water down a stimulus bill that was a compromise rather than an opening bid in the first place.  Cap and trade was killed; Dodd-Frank is inadequate; Obama gave the Republicans budget cuts during the debt ceiling fight, allowed them to put defense cuts rather tax increases in the  sequester, and failed to prevent the sequester.  
The story of healthcare reform is more complicated.  Obama was initially inept in allowing the Republicans to define the issue for the public, but he (along with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed) showed great toughness in using parliamentary tactics to get the bill passed in the face of Ted Kennedy’ death and Scott Brown’s election.
The Great Society is produced by York Shakespeare Company and Albert Podell.   It is directed by Seth Duerr.   The production stars Mitch Tebo (Classic Stage Company: The Revenger's Tragedy, The Dumb Waiter) as Lyndon Johnson, Elena McGhee (CSC, Blue Bloods, Louie) as Lady Bird Johnson, Yaakov Sullivan (Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Playhouse) as Richard Russell, James Lurie (TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as J. William Fulbright, Curtis Wiley (Broadway Nat'l. Tour: The Lion King) as Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Gray (Broadway: The Color Purple, Grease) as Bayard Rustin, Reed Armstrong (Broadway: Miss Saigon) as Robert McNamara, Charles F. Wagner IV (Regional: The Tempest, Hamlet) as Hubert Humphrey and Seymore Trammell, Robert Ierardi (West End: West Side Story) as Everett Dirksen and Nicholas Katzenbach, Jeff Burchfield (Metropolitan Opera, Ensemble Studio Theatre) as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, and Mac Brydon (Film: Lipstick Jungle) as Jack Valenti and Wayne Morse.
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