In It Can’t Happen Here, one of the candidates for president of the United States declares “the people are sick to death of political chatter…It’s time to ACT” — and promises to “build a wall of steel.”
“That line jumped right off the page,” says Dan Wackerman, when he re-read Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 play. The parallels to today’s contentious presidential election were so striking that Wackerman, the artistic director of the 21-year-old New York-based Peccadillo Theater Company, has organized a free staged reading of the play scheduled for Monday, March 21st, 7:30pm at the National Arts Club in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood.
The 17-member cast will include Greg Mullavey, best known for his role as Tom Hartman on the television series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.“The play is a remarkably prescient analysis of how a fascist strongman might actually come to power in this country,” Wackerman says. “It’s also a good, suspenseful story.”
Lewis, best known for such novels as “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” “Arrowsmith”and “Elmer Gantry” — and the first American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature — originally wrote It Can’t Happen Here as a novel, published in 1934. He adapted it for the stage along with Hollywood screenwriter John C. Moffitt.
The Federal Theatre Project opened It Can’t Happen Here simultaneously in nearly two dozen different productions in theaters across the nation, from Los Angeles to Omaha to Birmingham, and including Broadway’s Adelphi Theatre, where it ran for some three months. (The Adelphi, later renamed the George Abbott Theatre, was razed in 1970.)
Two years later, Lewis rewrote the play on his own, cutting down the number of speaking parts and scenes. It is the 1938 version that Peccadillo is staging.
Set in a “small American city” in Vermont (!) — “The time: very soon, or never” — the drama focuses on the effect of the campaign and its aftermath on a few citizens, including a newspaper editor, a druggist, a farm couple, a factory owner, a doctor, and a recent college graduate, all of whom know one another. We never see the candidate himself, whose name is Buzz Windrip, although we do at one point hear him give a speech over the radio, and we see a number of his aides and paramilitary supporters (i.e. henchmen.)
Initially, many of the characters support Windrip’s candidacy, pleased by his promises to “keep our dollars at home and reduce taxes”; to “stop vulgar crime like drug trafficking” as well as “bribery, grafting, treason.” A Windrip campaign aide says: ”The country’s gone soft, but Windrip will discipline it.”
“All he wants us to do is put ourselves in his hands, and he’ll work a miracle,” says a character named Lorinda, the Society editor of the local newspaper, although she is simply summing up, and mocking, the prevailing view.
“We need a miracle,” the newspaper editor argues with her. “The world is full of trouble.” He believes Windrip to be “a man of the people.”
It’s the campaign aide, trying to recruit people for Windrip, who says:
“If this nation is not re-galvanized into the spirit of ’76, any foreign power would walk in and subject us to slavery. We intend to build a wall of steel against European dictatorship.”
Addressing a huge crowd, introduced by a movie star, Windrip himself says over the radio:
“I’m not going to address this radio audience as ‘my friends,’ because lots of you are my enemies – I hope so!…This isn’t a campaign; it’s a revolution.”
“…The people are sick to death of political chatter. For 160 years, the Congress has been discussing, discussing. It’s time to ACT – not under a gossiping committee, but under the leadership of one man, whom you can hold responsible. I’m not begging for office, but demanding – demanding! – that I be sanctioned to lead the United States – the last democratic and civilized nation left on earth—into the kind of corporate state that alone can face the raging barbarians. Let me tell you what kind of man Buzz Windrip is. He’s a first-class man for anybody to hate. All the milk-and-water reformers, and all the glittering rich folks hate him – yes, and fear him – because he’s a farmer, born on the farm…”
(“Sinclair Lewis was thinking of Huey Long,” Wackerman says, talking about the populist politician from Louisiana who was assassinated in 1935. It Can’t Happen Here was written more than a decade before Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.)
“Individualism is a glorious word, and if for the moment we give up a few individual luxuries,” Windrip continues, “it is only so that in the long run we may starve ourselves to greatness.”
By the time Windrip has made his radio speech, his campaign has already turned violent, his supporters killing one of the main characters, although blaming somebody else for the murder. Once Windrip takes office, the characters who supported his candidacy are one by one disillusioned, dismissed and destroyed.
“I see this play,” Wackerman says, “as suddenly more relevant than it has been since its first production.”