In view of the forthcoming online presentation by nine companies of It Can’t Happen Here, a 1936 play adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s novel about the rise of American fascism, I’m providing here my slightly edited entry on the original New York production, at the Adelphi Theatre, on 10/27/36 (95 performances), as published in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1930-1940. The announcement for the online reading is pasted at the end of the entry.
In 1935, Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis published a best-selling cautionary novel in which he imagined the possibility of a fascist dictatorship in America. His novel provided the basis for this provocative but seriously flawed WPA-sponsored drama, adapted by from the book by Lewis and John C. Morfitt, which was unique in being given a production simultaneous with 22 others in 18 cities across the nation. Each production was totally independent in approach.
Doreaus Jessup (Seth Arnold) is the politically liberal editor Port Beulah, Vermont’s The Informer. He believes with his fellows that the sanctity of traditional democracy will never be seriously threatened from within. However, a reactionary demagogue named “Buzz” Windrip (John Adair) is making a push for the presidency, supported by a private army of “Corpos,” a local band of which kill the town’s old grocer when he objects to its demands that he take down posters of an opposition candidate. Windrip is elected, and his fascist dictatorship soon blankets the nation, wiping out free speech and other human rights. Finally, revolutionary cells started by men like Jessup, who has escaped to Canada from a concentration camp, begin forming to plot the overthrow of the ruler.
At a time when fascist forces were appearing in a number of guises in the United States, none could deny the play’s topicality and its white-hot response to a potential threat affecting all Americans. A number of commentators disparagingly viewed the work as campaign propaganda for the Democratic Party on the eve of 1936 presidential election; others thought it anti-Roosevelt. Nonetheless, as dramatic art It Can’t Happen Here had major shortcomings.
Brooks Atkinson noted that “the characters are meagerly defined, the dialogue is undistinguished, and many of the scenes dawdle on one foot.” Grenville Vernon declared it “a crude cartoon, a play not of human beings but of stenciled puppets.” Numerous complaints were registered against the ineffective production, directed by Vincent Sherman. When the final curtain fell at 11:30 p.m., Lewis was called out to give a speech. All he said was, “I’ve been making a speech since seven minutes to 9.”
The play was the product of an often tempestuous collaboration between Lewis and Moffitt, with the script undergoing frequent revisions during the period that it was in rehearsal around the country. Each day’s mail brought the frazzled directors new changes, and when the New York creatives requested an extension of the rehearsal period to assimilate the revisions, they were prevented from doing so by the pre-established arrangements for a simultaneous opening, and reprimanded for making a prima donna request.
In addition to the New York production and those nationwide (a 23rd opened two weeks later in Kansas City), the play also received two other simultaneous showings locally, one on Staten Island (by the Suitcase Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, the other in a Yiddish-language version—Da Ken es Nit Geshen—at the Biltmore Theatre. The Yiddish version included child actor Sidney Lumet—later renowned as a film director—as David Greenhill. It contained some material not in the English version, particularly a concentration camp scene.
The total audience seeing it nationwide was estimated at half a million. All its performances together added up to 160 weeks, or the equivalent of a five-year run.
To supplement the above account, with an abundance of visual documentation, readers may wish to view this excellent nine-minute video about the play and its relationship to the Federal Theatre Project.
Nine NYC-Based Theatre Companies Join Forces to Present
“It Can’t Happen Here”
October 28, 2020
Based on the Sinclair Lewis Novel
About the Rise of Fascism in America
Playful Substance joins
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, New Heritage Theatre Group/Impact Repertory Theatre, New York Classical Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Repertorio Español, and Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment
A historic reading of Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 classic “It Can’t Happen Here,” adapted for the stage by John C. Moffitt and Sinclair Lewis; unprecedented collaboration in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Hebrew. Viewable at 1 PM at https://nytf.org/live and only available until November 1.
hosted by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, nine prestigious theatre
companies will come together on Wednesday, October 28 to present an
unprecedented virtual play reading – in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian,
Turkish and Hebrew – of “It Can’t Happen Here”, a dramatization of the 1935
novel by Sinclair Lewis imagining the rise of fascism in America. More than 60
actors with Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, National Yiddish
Theatre Folksbiene, New Heritage Theatre Group/Impact Repertory Theatre, New
York Classical Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Playful Substance,
Repertorio Español and Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment
will participate in this one-time event.
Adapted for the stage by John C. Moffitt and Sinclair Lewis in 1936, “It Can’t Happen Here” was presented simultaneously by 21 theater companies under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theater Project as fascism was on the rise in Europe. The work chronicles the rise of a demagogue who is elected President of the United States after fomenting fear and promising sweeping economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values.
The organizations are presenting the multi-lingual reading of this landmark play to bring attention to the need for greater support of the theater industry, which has been impacted in a dramatic way during the COVID-19 pandemic (and on the heels of the announcement that Broadway will not raise its curtain again until after May 2021). “It Can't Happen Here” is a benefit, through permission from Theatre Authority, Inc. for the nine participating theater companies.
The reading will take place on Wednesday, October 28 at 1:00 PM Eastern Time, and then only be available for viewing until Sunday, November 1 at 1:00 PM Eastern Time. The event will be presented on National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s website at https://nytf.org/live.
“We got hold of the script for ‘It Can't Happen Here’ about a year ago, already knowing of its history with the Yiddish WPA theater. We had been planning to present a staged reading of this play before the pandemic struck,” said Motl Didner, Associate Director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. “The idea to present this in several languages with many other theater companies came out of a conversation that we had with our friends at New Heritage Theatre Group / IMPACT Repertory Theatre about the need for a new Works Progress Administration to help artists and cultural organizations get through these times when we have seen the devastation of our entire industry. We are all in this together.”
"A powerful necessary voice from the 30s talking about today. It did happen in Italy, it can't happen here?,” said Laura Caparrotti, President and Artistic Director of Kairos Italy Theater.
“The creation, history and significance of the 1930’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theater Project, established during the great depression under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, placed a spotlight on the importance of the role of arts and culture in the United States,” said Voza Rivers, Executive Producer, and Jamal Joseph, Senior Artistic Director, at the New Heritage Theatre Group/ Impact Repertory Theatre. “Not only did the Federal Theatre Project program employ tens of thousands of workers in theater, music. arts, etc., it also supported racial integration of black and white Americans. Significant theatrical presentations were produced and presented. Because of the challenging times we are now living in today, COVID-19, systemic racism, and civil unrest, we applaud the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene for selecting the 1936 play ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ by John C. Moffitt and Sinclair Lewis. A play that brings to light a message for today that “it can happen again” if our country and citizens can’t find a way of living together peacefully and in harmony. New Heritage Theatre Group believes that the positive power of theater, music, and art can break down any and all barriers of misunderstanding.”
“Since our inception in 1977, Pan Asian Rep has promoted stories seldom told and voices seldom heard. Our productions have focused on stories of probing social justice issues, making ‘It Can't Happen Here’ a project that aligns directly with Pan Asian's values. We are thrilled to join this roster of change-makers in the American Theater to tell this timely tale,” said Tisa Chang, Artistic Producing Director at Pan Asian Repertory Theater.
“The authoritarian playbook is neat, trim and oh so effective. It takes hold so quickly, so quietly, using predictable, repeatable steps that make it easy to just follow along. Stories can be disruptive. That's part of their power,” said Bree O’Connor, Artistic Director at Playful Substance. “It may be disheartening to hear how familiar It Can't Happen Here sounds to our 2020 ears, but what a gift it is to have voices from 1936 reach out to disrupt THIS moment. To disrupt us.”