A promotional image for It Can’t Happen Here.
Some stories find their place immediately; some find resonance years or even decades later. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis is both – a bestselling novel when it first came out in 1935, it was even more of a hit as a play in 1936. More recently, the novel shot up to Amazon.com’s Top 10 bestselling list in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, you can see a free stage reading of the play tomorrow at Arlington Hills Community Center in St. Paul.
Interest in It Can’t Happen Here ebbs and flows in relation to concerns about the free press and authoritarianism. It also underscores many other concerns that are imminent and present today. At the peak of the novel and play’s popularity in 1936, MGM licensed the material for a film adaptation – only to cancel the project over fears that it would tank the studio’s German and Italian distribution. The move was publicly applauded by the German embassy, an odd piece of commentary that to some resembles present-day fears of foreign intervention in domestic U.S. affairs.
“A country that tolerates evil means–evil manners, standards of ethics–for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.”
— Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
The story of It Can’t Happen Here involves a populist candidate for president, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip. Windrip promises to make his country great and powerful again; backed by an alliance of industry magnates and the disaffected poor, he sweeps the election. In short order, Windrip consolidates his power, demanding financial contributions and censoring the press. Within a short time, society has been remade with an authoritarian police state, repression, and worse. The story wasn’t a pure fantasy tale – it depicted what was happening across the Atlantic, and what Sinclair Lewis worried would happen if the populist Huey Long won the presidential election.
Sinclair Lewis teamed up with John C. Moffitt to write the novel’s stage adaptation, which was sponsored by the Depression Era’s Federal Theatre Project. In an unusual act of synchronicity, the play ran in 21 theatres simultaneously; the Broadway production ran for a then-sensational four months. A shortened version of the play created by Kit Bix ran at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, where it was one of the most popular shows by capacity and sold out the seats at every performance. This abbreviated version has been presented several times in the area since, and is the one that can be seen in Monday’s reading.
Ironically, It Can’t Happen Here had resonance on both sides of the political aisle. While Long’s assassination in 1935 made his intentions a moot point, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s use of an unprecedented expansion of federal authority – including employing millions through the Works Progress Administration programs such as the Federal Theatre Project – made many Republicans and Democrats uneasy about how this power might be used for political ends and erode citizens’ rights. Just two years prior, FDR had used an executive order to declare public ownership of gold coins and bullion to be illegal, essentially confiscating private gold to bail out the Federal Reserve. During World War 2, another executive order caused the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans. Today, the use of executive orders to govern by fiat instead of through legislative action continues to generate great controversy.
The reading of It Can’t Happen Here is part of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library’s award-winning Untold Stories: Labor History Series. It is directed by Brian Bevill and stars Jim Lichtscheidl as President Buzz Windrip and Charles Numrich as small-town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup. Other members of the large cast include Clarence Bratlie Wethern, Jim Ahrens, Julie Phillips, Brianna Belland, Clarence Wethern, Kit Bix, Emily Logan Dooley, Stefan Holmquist, Brent Latchaw, Lukas Levin, Wes McClain, Tara Lucchino, Alex Moros, and Andrew Troth. The 1-hour reading will be followed by a public discussion.
Did You Know?
Several nation-wide efforts to organize staged readings of It Can’t Happen Here have sprung up in recent years. Kit Bix’s 60-minute abridged adaptation of the play is available free of charge for these readings.
For more information about organizing a staged reading of It Can’t Happen Here, contact Darryl Henriques at: pointoforder @ juno.com.
For more information about the 60-minute abridged adaptation, contact Kit Bix at: bixiekit @ gmail.com.
It Can’t Happen Here will be presented on Monday, May 14 at 7 PM at Arlington Hills Community Center in St. Paul, MN.