“We’ve got to change our system!” “Smash the crooked labor leaders!” “Make America a proud, rich land again!” They sound like the rants of a certain current Republican nominee. But they’re actually the ravings of Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the villainous presidential candidate in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here.”
The tale’s uncanny similarities to the current election, with demagogue Windrip pandering to the electorate’s basest instincts, inspired Berkeley Rep to adapt the novel into a new play that opens the company’s season on Friday, Sept. 30.
After their originally scheduled play dropped out, Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Associate Director Lisa Peterson decided to mount a political work in parallel with the election. “It was February,” Taccone recalls in a sunny room at Berkeley Rep’s offices. “Trump was gaining enough traction that you were like, ‘Oh, that’s curious.’ The book started to get referenced in articles about him.”
“I Googled ‘it can’t happen here,’ thinking, is that a thing?” says Peterson, who also directs the production. “Then we read that it had a theatrical history.” They had unwittingly dusted off an 80-year-old exemplar of political performance.
Lewis is better known for the novels “Main Street,” “Elmer Gantry” and “Babbitt,” as well as a 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature and a 1926 Pulitzer Prize that Lewis declined for “Arrowsmith.”
But “It Can’t Happen Here,” a cautionary tale about the rise of fascism through the American democratic process, was a best-seller in an era when Mussolini led Italy and Hitler was consolidating power in Germany. The complacent American populace is represented by protagonist Doremus Jessup, a Vermont newspaperman who realizes too late that it can, indeed, happen here.
Capitalizing on the book’s popularity, the Federal Theatre Project, an endeavor of the Works Progress Administration, commissioned Lewis and screenwriter John C. Moffitt to adapt it for the stage. And in a stroke of ambition not seen before or since, it premiered in 22 theaters, across 18 states, on Oct. 27, 1936.
Each locale interpreted the script in its own way, including a San Francisco version peppered with air-raid sound effects, Yiddish adaptations in New York and Los Angeles, an African American version in Seattle, and a Spanish translation in Tampa, Fla. (Lewis himself did a turn as Jessup in a Massachusetts summer-stock run in 1938.) Along with providing theater professionals with several months of desperately needed work, the productions entertained more than 500,000 people nationwide and doubled as antifascist propaganda.
But, Taccone says, “It was a terrible play. It was super-melodramatic and didn’t really tie to the book.” Many critics savaged it for those same reasons, but John Hobart praised the San Francisco production, presented at the Columbia Theater (now the ACT’s Geary Theater), in his review for The Chronicle. Describing it as a “taut drama” and “probably the most ‘important’ production the Federalites have yet put on,” he also made the wide-eyed observation that Windrip “combines the chief characteristics of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin with some of the less admirable qualities particular to the third-rate American politician.”
Nonetheless, Taccone and Peterson decided to go back to the source. “The novel’s got a very witty voice, and Lewis’ understanding of American politics was fantastic,” he says, and he and screenwriter Bennett S. Cohen wrote a new script with today’s social climate in mind. “The messenger was different back then,” he explains. “The world had not encountered Hitler yet, but now we are so aware. We talked a lot about how this (story) can still be impactful.”
Ambitious in their own right, Taccone and Cohen decided to retain the book’s scope: Not only does Windrip win the presidency, but he also soon institutes martial law, establishes concentration camps and purges his enemies: liberals, intellectuals and minorities. And as the writers updated Lewis’ vintage allusions and vocabulary, they left his prescient rhetoric intact.
“There was a funny moment when Lisa called me up and said, ‘This thing about the ‘1 percent,’ we can’t say that, because that’s now,’” Taccone says. “But it’s right from the book. That’s shocking, that drop-dead accuracy.”
Peterson deftly conjures the story in contemporary, almost experimental, staging that melds direct narration with sets that evoke both Norman Rockwell and dystopia, and wheeled props that can transport the characters from a political rally to a fireside chat within seconds.
“It’s choreography,” she says. “It’s not realism.” Nonetheless, she adds, “we really did want to make it look like a city looks now in America,” and the multiracial cast puts the lie to bigoted rhetoric of both past and present.
All of the actors play multiple roles, and many bring classical training to the task, including David Kelly as a fiery Windrip. “This is my favorite kind of theater,” says the 25-year veteran of Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He describes the format as “an ensemble telling of the story” but concedes that as the sinister Windrip, he’s on his own: “I predict there will be nights when people boo.”
After all, says Taccone, “We’re in Berkeley. It’s a hermetically sealed environment. The inconceivability factor, which is at the heart of the book, is at the heart of our experience right now.”
We should know the outcome of the current election on Nov. 8, two days after Berkeley Rep’s final performance. Meantime, we might reflect on Jessup’s hopeful musing: “Maybe he isn’t going to get elected!” Because it could happen.
Claudia Bauer is a Bay Area freelance writer.
It Can’t Happen Here: Adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen from the novel by Sinclair Lewis. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Previews through Thursday, Sept. 29. Opens Friday, Sept. 30. Through Nov. 6. $29-$97. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949.www.berkeleyrep.org
Read The Chronicle review by John Hobart of the 1938 play here.
Watch a narrated slideshow on the Federal Theatre Project, with footage from a 1936 production of “It Can’t Happen Here.”
See the Berkeley Rep trailer here.