In 1935, with the ascent of Hitler and Mussolini and the rise of fascism in Europe, Sinclair Lewis (the first writer from the US to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in Literature) published his dystopian satire on American politics, It Can’t Happen Here. The cautionary tale is presumed to have been inspired by the presidential candidacy of Louisiana Governor and US Senator Huey Long, a radical demagogue assassinated in September of that year, just prior to the book’s release. In 1936, Lewis and John C. Moffitt created a stage adaptation of the novel, which opened on October 27, in 21 theaters across seventeen states, in productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project – a program established as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (of which Long was a vocal critic), to fund live performances during the Great Depression.
In September 2016, at the height of the last US presidential campaign, Berkeley Repertory Theatre revived the play in a new adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen. With a desire to have it seen by as wide an audience as possible, the company offered free rights to any organization that wanted to present its own production or reading. Now, in advance of this year’s election, Berkeley Rep is reprising its resonant adaptation as a new audio drama in four episodes (directed again by Lisa Peterson, with sound design and music by Paul James Prendergast), and sharing it, again gratis, with more than 70 theaters, universities, libraries, community centers, and radio stations throughout the country (including New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company and DC’s Arena Stage), to encourage dialogue and to motivate listeners to exercise their right to vote.
The prescient story, with uncanny parallels to our present time, follows the path of the fictional Buzz Windrip (played by original cast member David Kelly), a power-hungry populist demagogue who becomes POTUS by promising to return the country to greatness and prosperity, but, upon election, unleashes his ruthless tyrannical rule on the people. Journalist Doremus Jessup (performed by Academy Award nominee David Strathairn) opposes Windrip and fights against his totalitarian regime as part of a liberal rebellion, realizing that it not only can happen here, it has. The voices of Kelly and Strathairn are joined in the audio drama by those of Elijah Alexander, Danforth Comins, Scott Coopwood, William Thomas Hodgson, Anna Ishida, Sharon Lockwood, Eddie Lopez, Alex Lydon, Tom Nelis, Greta Oglesby, Charles Shaw Robinson, Gerardo Rodriguez, Carolina Sanchez, and Mark Kenneth Smaltz.
It Can’t Happen Here debuts on Tuesday, October 13, at 8 pm ET via Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s YouTube channel. A live Q&A session with the creative team will take place following the broadcast at 10:15 pm ET. The production, offered to listeners free of charge, with no registration required, will be available on demand through November 8. In addition to partnering in the national streaming, Roundabout Theatre will hold two “Community Conversations” to discuss the play and listeners’ responses to it via Zoom, on Sunday, October 25, at 2 pm or 5 pm ET. To pre-register for the timely event, go online. Please note that you do not need to have a Zoom account to participate; you will be sent a link to access the discussion after registering.
To hear more about Sinclair Lewis and It Can’t Happen Here, you can watch a themed episode of Roundabout’s “Theatre Talk” below: