“The Great Society” is one of those self-negating political phrases, like “Peace for our time” and “Hope and change,” that later became bitter ironies used against the politicians who popularized them. The triumphant design of the poster for Robert Schenkkan’s play The Great Society (at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through November 30) suggests a stout defense of Lyndon Johnson’s 1965–69 term as president, but the play is a tragedy, or at least (given the question of whether Johnson had greatness in him) a chronicle of catastrophe. Johnson is seen putting the titular phrase at the center of his January 4, 1965 State of the Union address. From that moment, nothing goes right with his presidency, the most consequential one since Franklin Roosevelt’s.

In its broad contours, then, the sequel to...


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