Sinclair Lewis’ Chilling Play, It Can’t Happen Here: A Read-Through by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

As a num­ber of com­men­ta­tors have not­ed, it has already hap­pened here in the past—that is, the fer­vid nativism, immi­gra­tion bans, and mass depor­ta­tions, the nation­al­ist, fanat­i­cal­ly reli­gious, anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mil­i­tan­cy… many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Amer­i­can author­i­tar­i­an­ism, in oth­er words. In the polit­i­cal cli­mate we face today, these strains have come togeth­er in some very overt ways, under the lead­er­ship of a pur­port­ed­ly charis­mat­ic leader who swayed mil­lions of fol­low­ers with the promise of renewed “great­ness.”

The ques­tions that now arise are those once asked by It Can’t Hap­pen Here, the 1935 nov­el by Sin­clair Lewis that imag­ined the elec­tion of a charis­mat­ic leader who promis­es great­ness, “then quick­ly becomes a dic­ta­tor,” writes the Amer­i­can Library Association’s Pub­lic Pro­grams Office, “enact­ing mar­tial law and throw­ing dis­senters into labor camps.” The nov­el res­onat­ed with a pub­lic increas­ing­ly con­cerned about ris­ing dic­ta­tor­ships in Europe, as well as the grow­ing pow­er of the pres­i­den­cy at home. “Short­ly after it was pub­lished,” the ALA notes, “the nov­el was recre­at­ed as a play and opened in 21 cities nation­wide on Octo­ber 27, 1936.”

You can see some still images of an orig­i­nal It Can’t Hap­pen Here pro­duc­tion in the video above about the Fed­er­al The­ater Project. Last year—almost eighty years after the play’s debut and just days before the pres­i­den­tial election—several dozen the­aters, uni­ver­si­ties, and libraries across the coun­try held read­ings of Lewis’ the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion. See one such read­ing at the top of the post, per­formed on Octo­ber 24 at the Yolo Coun­ty Library in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia by the Berke­ley Reper­to­ry The­atre, who at the time also staged a full, two part pro­duc­tion of It Can’t Hap­pen Here that was both “thrilling and grim,” as Alexan­der Nazaryan writes at The New York­er. (See a trail­er below)

The Berke­ley Rep’s pro­duc­tion sig­nif­i­cant­ly rewrote Lewis’ adap­ta­tion, which they decid­ed was “ter­ri­ble.” But the nov­el itself is not quite a lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece. “Lewis was nev­er much of an artist,” Nanaryan notes, “but what he lacked in style he made up for with social obser­va­tion.” While his skills as a close observ­er of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal ten­den­cies may still be unmatched, the pre­science of his nov­el in imag­in­ing the sit­u­a­tion we find our­selves in today may have as much to do with Lewis’ abil­i­ties as with the recur­rence of cer­tain depress­ing themes in Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life. As Alex Wag­n­er writes at The Atlantic, the mass depor­ta­tions and raids on immi­grant pop­u­la­tions that have now increased in cities nation­wide saw a chill­ing prece­dent in the 1920s and 30s, “a time of eco­nom­ic strug­gle, racial resent­ment and increas­ing xeno­pho­bia.”

Then, Her­bert Hoover, “promised jobs for Americans—and made good on that promise by slash­ing immi­gra­tion by near­ly 90 per­cent” and deport­ing as many as “1.8 mil­lion men, women and chil­dren” of Mex­i­can descent or with “a Mex­i­can-sound­ing name.” As many as six­ty per­cent of those deport­ed were U.S. cit­i­zens. We’ve seen in recent months numer­ous com­par­isons of our cur­rent polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion to Nazi Ger­many and Fas­cist Italy. While these may be war­rant­ed in many respects, they may also be super­flu­ous. To under­stand the ori­gins of racist author­i­tar­i­an­ism in Amer­i­ca, we need only look back to sev­er­al moments in our own his­to­ry, those that Lewis close­ly observed and sat­i­rized in a nov­el that once again shows us an image of the coun­try that many peo­ple have cho­sen not to see.

This read­ing will be added to our list, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Rec­og­nize a Dystopia: Watch an Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dystopi­an Fic­tion

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Philoso­pher Richard Rorty Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Results of the 2016 Elec­tion … Back in 1998

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bill W. says:

    For­get­ting of course, how Oba­ma end­ed the ‘Wet-foot, Dry-land’ pol­i­cy with Cuban refugees, and how he cre­at­ed the list of Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries to ban refugees from that Trump mere­ly enforced. Our new POTUS will have a long way to go before he catch­es-up with the num­ber of Ille­gals the Anoint­ed One deport­ed in his 8 years in office, a num­ber that sur­pass­es that of even GWB!

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