Last night, I listened to a radio-play adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. My immediate impulse was to pack a go-bag and make sure the car had gas. I haven’t followed through on it—yet.
Originally written as a novel by Lewis in 1935 and adapted for the stage by him and playwright John C. Moffit as a commission of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, It Can’t Happen Here opened on October 27, 1936. While the premiere is credited to the Lafayette (later the Public) Theater in Manhattan, the piece opened simultaneously at 21 theaters in 18 cities across the United States, including Spanish and Yiddish-language productions.
It Can’t Happen Here again
It was a popular hit at the time, but Tony Taccone, who, with Bennett C. Cohen, re-envisioned It Can’t Happen Here for its Berkeley Rep premiere in 2016, called the original stage play “terrible.” The 2016 production ran throughout the last week in October as a live stage performance honoring the 80th anniversary of the play. As with the original production, the opening was nationwide, featuring 50 readings in 24 states. Originally, there was no plan to remount it, but with the ongoing horrors of the Trump administration and the pandemic, plus the fact of the upcoming election, it demanded to be done.
Since the work uses language, as opposed to visuality, as its driving force, when the decision was made in 2020 to remount it as a radio play, the structure of the work made that choice possible. As director Lisa Peterson explains in Berkeley Rep's introduction to the project, the other reason the radio-play format works is its historical link: radio was the main vehicle for entertainment and information in 1936. Finally, in the same way that the 1936 production featured 21 theaters across the country, and the 2016 reading featured 50, the 2020 radio play had 105 affiliates broadcasting at the exact same time, including Philadelphia’s own Arden Theater, People’s Light & Theatre Company, and Philadelphia Theatre Company.
No nuance needed
It Can’t Happen Here tells the story of a charismatic charlatan who wins presidential election by promising the working people of the United States that their voices will be heard once again if only they vote for him. Once in office, he invents a crisis that allows him to declare martial law. Very soon after, dictatorship, complete with mass arrests and concentration camps, follows.
The text, as rendered by Taccone and Brown, is punchy, forward, and direct in a way we do not hear anymore. Brutally honest, some of the language used cannot be reproduced in this review. Often in the theater, we talk about language being shaped to convey a specific shade of meaning. Here, the language is the message—no nuance need apply.
Most of the actors in this production are holdovers, and the voice work is strong throughout. I found Greta Oglesby, as Lorinda Pike, and to a marginally lesser extent Scott Coopwood, as Shad Ledue, to be especially affecting. Their interpretations create fully realized, three-dimensional characters, while others exist mainly to serve the plot.
A state of emergency
The notion that some characters exist merely as plot devices could lead to charges of didacticism, a common critique of many Federal Theater Project-era commissions. I reject that idea, because our country is in a state of emergency, and in an emergency, you use every technique you have. As Antonin Artaud said in his essay No More Masterpieces, “We are not free. And the sky may still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.” It is this clarion call that Lewis successfully sounds in It Can’t Happen Here. I would have disagreed with this analysis in 2016, but so much of what seemed unthinkable in Lewis’s play has happened here in the past four years that I believe the rest is but prophecy.
My biggest disagreement with Lewis’s work is that, much like the recent HBO limited TV series The Plot Against America (based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel charting an alternate history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election), he imagines that there are enough good people left to form a resistance and overthrow a repressive government, putting the country back on a positive path, one where all are welcomed and respected. I want to believe this. I truly do. But I cannot. I think we crossed that particular Rubicon a few years ago, and all I am left with is fear and questions.
Tune in and vote
What binds a society together? Can we build our society on the twin pillars of social Darwinism and zero-sum game theory and still remain a unified country? What is the balance between freedom and responsibility? If we feel entitled to insist that our belief system represents the only right way forward, who have we become? Can the common good be reconciled with the capitalist impetus to acquire? What will we do when the resources run out? Although it provides no answers, the experience of this piece is necessary to meaningfully continue that conversation.. Screw your courage to the sticking place, clear out two hours, and go have a listen. It’s streaming on YouTube in four episodes through November 8.
I end this review with the same sentence Berkeley Rep used to end its broadcast: Vote on November 3.
Image description: A photo of a stage production shows a family of five arranged as if they’re sitting in a car, with two men wearing helmets and long coats shining flashlights on the worried-looking family. The whole scene is washed in dramatic blue light.
What, When, Where
It Can’t Happen Here. Adapted by Bennett S. Cohen and Tony Taccone. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Audio streaming for free via YouTube through November 8, 2020. Berkeleyrep.org.