It Can’t Happen Here is a stage production out of Berkeley, Calif.’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre that focuses on the political landscape of 1936 America — a time and place with a series of social and economic factors completely different from our own. Or maybe not so different.
It Can’t Happen Here, an adaptation of the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name, centers on the rise of politician Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip. He’s charismatic. He’s ruthless. He’s power-hungry. He gains a constituency with divisive rhetoric, proposing massive governmental reforms, ending corruption, and promising to return America to greatness. Sound familiar?
And though the full production of this play — costumes, sets, lighting effects, etc. — takes places solely on the West Coast, you need not pack your bags and buy a plane ticket: Over 30 venues around the country are taking part in a nationwide reading of the brand new adaptation on Mon. Oct. 24, including Village Repertory Theatre at Woolfe Street Playhouse.
Lewis’ semi-satirical novel has actually been adapted into a play once before, in 1936, when it too opened in theaters across the country. In fact, the first adaptation was the inspiration for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s pitch to organizations nationwide.
Keely Enright, Village Rep’s founding artistic director, was immediately on board. “I was familiar with the novel,” says Enright. “And I was very familiar with how much this Sinclair Lewis novel had impacted the elections of the mid 1930s. So I was like, ‘We’d love to participate.'”
Readings like this are somewhat of a passion project for Enright. “I love to do plays and theatrical pieces that talk about another time that still resonates with us today,” she says. “It’s another way to look at history.”
The original 1936 adaptation, though co-written by Lewis himself, “wasn’t as dramatically compelling as his book had been,” says Enright.
Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director and co-writer of the new adaptation, is more blunt about his feelings towards the original play. “It’s bad,” he says. “It’s super melodramatic. Supposedly it was put together in two weeks and Mr. Lewis was in such a bad way with his co-writer that they refused to talk to each other.”
Eighty years later, Taccone has taken it upon himself to formulate a proper adaptation. As for the process, “It was daunting,” says Taccone. “But the entire staff of the theater was very excited about the possibility of doing it.”
As he reread the novel in preparation, Taccone couldn’t help but notice striking parallels between the book’s demagogue politician Windrip and today’s Donald Trump.
“It’s shocking, honestly,” says Taccone. “The description of the populist character in the novel, he’s a quote-unquote truth teller. He’s willing to say things that other people are no longer willing to say. He’s anti-establishment. He’s after the fat cats and the Wall Street guys. He’s a man of the people and all this. It’s very similar.”
But the correlations between the 1935 novel and modern America don’t stop there. It prophetically paints a society that looks all too familiar. Says Taccone, “All these factors that are quite relevant to us now, a huge income gap between the rich and the poor, racism, global terror, you put all those in the same stew and you have the capacity for a very simple, angry constituency to respond favorably and emotionally to somebody who’s gonna be a very authoritarian populist and that’s what happened then and that’s what’s happening now.”
Across the nation, support for this cautionary tale has been overwhelming. “We’ve now got over 30 organizations from libraries to universities to theaters that are going to do a staged reading of the play,” says Taccone. “The rights are free so anybody that wants to do it can. We’re really interested in that kind of across-the-board experience. We’re not interested in just professionals doing it.”
As for Woolfe Street Playhouse, well, there just happen to be a bunch of professionals putting on the show. “We’re using our Village Rep ensemble of member actors so they’re all great,” says Enright.
The ensemble will perform a stripped down version of the play, sans costumes and a set. “[Berkley Rep] really made it a communal experience,” says Enright, “so that the audience feels as though they are a part of a rally and in that mentality. So it’s really kind of fun.”
The best part? This reading is open to the public. “It’s a totally free event,” says Enright. “The bar will be open. We’re going to try and make it just as much a party as sort of a historical event.”
There is no political agenda, and no, there’s no anti-Trump propaganda, either. For both Enright and Taccone, the goal is simply to arouse conversation. Says Enright, “It just kind of allows people to go, ‘Wow, how did we get here? How did this happen? And how is it replicating a time and place that this particular writer thought was possible 80 years ago?'”
“The polarization in this country is really intense,” says Taccone. “We need to find ways to talk to each other at this time, because God knows what the hell’s gonna happen.”