Take It Aside: Soliloquies in 'All the Way'
All the Way by Robert Schenkkan is a fast-paced play with a large cast and quick scene changes about Lyndon B. Johnson’s succession to president. These elements create an erratic and rapid setting for Johnson’s assumption to the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson’s struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and his campaign for the next presidential term. However, soliloquies by Johnson’s character are placed strategically to slow down the accelerated momentum of the play. These moments contain speeches and vignettes that are used as metaphors to help structure plot points in the surrounding scenes. Five specific soliloquies in All the Way not only relaxes the pace of the story and sets up themes portrayed in the adjoining scenes, but also demonstrate Johnson’s emotional status.
In the opening soliloquy, Johnson dreams about the time he and his grandmother hid in the root cellar from a Comanche raid. He describes being scared and feeling futile. “I piss myself like an idiot child crouchin’ in the dirt knowing it’s only a matter of time now before they find the trap door; discover me; haul me, screaming, up into the light…” (Schenkkan, 2014) This anecdote frames Johnson’s state of mind at the beginning of the play and also sets up the coming scene: Something traumatic has happened—President Kennedy has been assassinated and Johnson is thrust into the president’s role overnight. Yet, Johnson doesn’t say, “I’m scared of/anxious about being president.” Instead, his opening soliloquy shows his emotional state and creates a foundation for the next scene.
Johnson’s second soliloquy breaks the fourth wall as he reminisces about meeting Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn. Johnson discusses the struggle for power and the sacrifices needed to ensure triumph. “Everybody wants power; everybody. And if they don’t, they’re lyin’. But everybody thinks it should be given out free of charge… Nothing comes free. Nothin’. Not even ‘Good.’” As with the idiom “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” this soliloquy serves as a metaphor to imply that it is difficult to achieve something important without causing any unpleasant effects or making sacrifices. This aside also slows down the previous pace of the scenes created by hurried actions and dialog while preparing the audience for the next set of events—getting the Civil Acts bill signed.
In the third soliloquy, Johnson’s character takes the pace of the play way down, and he displays his personal feelings regarding morality and the law. Johnson opens up about the Mexican children he taught in Texas. “But God, did I love those kids of mine… But for each one of them, there would come a day when I would see the light in their eyes die because they had discovered that the world hated ’em just because of the color of their skin… What’s the point of bein’ President if you can’t do what you know is right?” (Schenkkan, 2014) Through this personal account, a sentimental side of Johnson is portrayed. While the other monologues have an aggressive mood and tone, this moment shows a softer aspect to Johnson, and is one of the places where the attempt to make Johnson sympathetic works.
The second act begins with Johnson discussing his passion for winning and politics. “Politics is war. Period. Before Santa Ana stormed his trumpeter played ‘El Deguello’—it means, ‘I cut your throat.’ It means no mercy. It means, no prisoners. That’s a political campaign.” (Schenkkan, 2014) As with the other soliloquies, a vignette is used to describe Johnson’s thoughts and feelings. This soliloquy portrays Johnson as a battle-ready soldier. His first year as president was an “accident,” now he needs to campaign and fight to earn the title. The soliloquy also introduces the second act—the fight for presidency.
Like a cool down after a workout, the last address to the audience works to calm the mood and energy of the play after the race of the prior scenes. The election is over. Johnson has won and he (and the play) can breathe. “You’re goddamn right it’s my Party and I had to drag it into the light kickin’ and screamin’ every inch of the way.” (Schenkkan, 2014) The closing soliloquy shares similar descriptive impressions with the first soliloquy, but instead of Johnson being dragged out of the dark, he is the one in control. This creates a sense of completion—and although this is the end of the play, Johnson is prophetic; alluding to how the calm (represented by the monologue) will not last.
Schenkkan successfully uses the soliloquy as a technique in All the Way to pace his play and create frames for scenes and themes. These five slowed-down moments with Lyndon B. Johnson create space and breathing room between scenes and acts in an otherwise fast-paced play. These soliloquies also assist in framing upcoming scenes and themes or putting prior scenes and themes into perspective. With the use of colorful speeches or vignettes, each address examines Johnson’s emotional state and the topics prevalent in the piece.
Schenkkan, Robert. (2014). All the Way. [Kindle Fire]. eISBN: 978-0-8021-9173-1