I thought I’d check out what leading theatres in my home state of California have been up to, and I came across Berkeley Rep’s late 2016 project “It Can’t Happen Here,” a timely play co-adapted by Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen. The piece is based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” a 1935 cautionary tale that told its American audience, “Yes, fascism can happen here. It’s not reserved for Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. And no, it won’t happen through radical violence — it’ll happen through a democratic election.” Turns out, 82 years later, he’s still talking to us.
In the HowlRound article “It Can Happen Here,” David Dower, Director of Artistic Programs at ArtsEmerson and previous Associate Artistic Director at Arena Stage, speaks with Taccone about the novel and the play. Taccone talks about the haunting parallels between the novel’s demagogic presidential candidate Berzelius Windrip and Trump. (No I will not call him “President Trump.” I’d rather have fried scorpions in my mouth than those two words.) Windrip speaks foolishly, lacks evidence and substance in his speeches, attracts violence, seizes control of the newspapers (He even goes so far as to arrest and kill his critics), attacks a religious minority, and promises America renewed prosperity. Hm, sounds familiar.
Dower shares that the novel not only illustrates how a demagogue reaches power, but predicts what happens once he’s gotten there. He’s nothing but a puppet, used for the far right’s securement of power. Once they’ve reached the White House, though, the puppet is impeached within months due to temperamental behavior and the puppeteer, the real fascist arises, or as Dower says, “Elect your Windrip puppet and watch the puppet’s masters come out of the shadows.” I’m not quite sure which is worse.
Berkeley Rep courageously took on a challenge in adapting “It Can’t Happen Here” because it announced the play in April without a script, and it would be going up in September. And who even knew what would be happening by that time? Well, unfortunately, it was still relevant, and continues to be overwhelmingly so.
Even more courageously, however, was the fact that the Rep spoke explicitly to the political climate immediately preceding the 2016 election. Its voice rang clear about a polarizing subject, which could potentially harm the theatre when donors, sponsors, or the Board could’ve disapproved of the voice. Berkeley Rep was fully aware of this, and went through with it anyway.
And the Rep didn’t enclose “It Can’t Happen Here” within Berkeley’s progressive community. It made sure the play reached communities that may lie elsewhere on the political spectrum. It organized a nationwide series of free, public readings held two weeks before the election in which 50 organizations across 24 states participated. Participants included 20 theaters, 12 universities, 12 libraries, a high school, a coffee house, and four in-home readings in blue states, red states, and swing states.
Lewis predicted correctly thus far: Windrip is in office. And theatres, like Berkeley Rep, must continue to act courageously. The theatre puppet must continue to stand against the political one.