It Can't Happen Here

John Glore
 | Oct 05, 2020
It Can't Happen Here

Beginning on Oct. 13, South Coast Repertory community members will have the opportunity to hear a radio play based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, directed by Lisa Peterson and starring Academy Award nominee David Strathairn. The project, made possible through a partnership with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ;and more than 75 other theatres nationwide, will air in four segments via YouTube. All four half-hour segments of the radio drama (as well as a post-performance Q&A with the creative team) will begin airing on Oct. 13 and will be available for listening until Nov. 8.

From Berkeley Rep’s publicity for the production: “Written in 1935 during the rise of fascism in Europe, writer Sinclair Lewis’ darkly satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here follows the ascent of a demagogue who becomes president of the United States by promising to return the country to greatness.

In 2016, Berkeley Rep unveiled a new stage adaptation of Lewis’s prescient novel; one week after that production ended, the presidential election roiled our nation. Now, Berkeley Repertory Theatre reprises that production with the same director and much of the original cast, but this time as a radio play in four episodes​, just in time for the 2020 presidential election. The audio drama is being offered free to organizations across the country. Berkeley Rep intends for the project to encourage dialogue and motivate citizens to exercise their civic power and vote.”

Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis in 1944.

Sinclair Lewis established himself as one of the preeminent American writers of the first half of the 20th century when Main Street, a realistic novel about small-town life, took the country by storm in 1920. The novel’s phenomenal success (more than 2 million copies sold in the first few years after its publication) propelled Lewis to literary stardom and made him a rich man. Over the next 10 years he went on to write such enduring novels as Babbitt, Arrowsmith (Pulitzer Prize, 1925), Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth, leading to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.

Lewis’s writing generally offers a critical view of capitalism, materialism and unbridled ambition as exemplified in the lives of men from various strata of Middle American society—from a middle-class businessman (Babbitt) to a doctor and medical scientist (Arrowsmith) to a hypocritical evangelist (Elmer Gantry) to a prosperous automotive tycoon (Dodsworth).

While his novels typically adopt a satirical tone, they feature nuanced portrayals of flawed men who live lives of privilege but succumb to the temptations their privilege inevitably brings with it.

With It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis turned his focus to matters of state, and specifically to currents of fascism and demagoguery in American politics during the 1930s, when the Great Depression and political volatility in Europe and the U.S. weighed heavily on the minds of Americans. Critics and historians often cite the career of Huey P. Long as a likely inspiration for Lewis’s story of “Buzz” Windrip, a power-hungry Senator who sets out to ride a populist program and his own personal charisma to the presidency. Long (known as “The Kingfish”) was a fixture of Louisiana politics, a Democratic governor and then senator who exploited economic and class divisions to gain and consolidate power. Although his stance was generally progressive, Long became an outspoken critic of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and, with his populist “Share Our Wealth” platform, he was beginning a campaign against FDR for the 1936 election when he was assassinated—just before It Can’t Happen Here was published.

SCR’s ties to Berkeley Rep go back many years and remain strong. In fact, Tony Taccone, co-adaptor of the radio play and Berkeley Rep’s artistic director until last year, is currently working with SCR artistic director David Ivers on a new-play project that will appear soon at SCR, either on stage or on SCR’s virtual platform. And Lisa Peterson, director of It Can’t Happen Here, has been a frequent SCR collaborator; most recently Peterson staged Julia Cho’s Aubergine on the Segerstrom Stage​ (2019) and, the year before, directed Culture Clash Still in America in the Julianne Argyros Stage.