On October 24, 2016, 2 weeks before Election Day, we both attended a local staged reading of the play It Can’t Happen Here, based on the 1936 novel by Sinclair Lewis. The novel, and the play, describe the rise and rule of a charismatic, dogmatic, conservative politician who is eventually elected president. He promises a return to traditional values, but reneges on his promises soon after he takes office, turning the country into a totalitarian regime within a period of a few months. Anyone who doesn’t offer complete, unquestioning loyalty to the new regime is imprisoned or executed.
This may sound like a drastic scenario, something that “can’t happen here,” but Lewis wrote the novel originally because he was watching this very thing happen in Nazi Germany at the time. The original stage adaptation was created the following year. The original 1983 TV miniseries about an alien invasion,V, was also based on It Can’t Happen Here (and the later reboot series). V’s creator, Kenneth Johnson, was inspired by Lewis’ work, but the network executives at NBC thought the story would be more interesting if the American fascists from the book were turned into aliens for TV.
When you hear, or read, the story, the parallels to Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, and his politics, are unavoidable. A new stage adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here was recently written and produced by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. They organized the series of nationwide, free, public readings in October, which included the one we attended. The program from Berkeley Rep’s fall production of the play has a few interesting articles about Sinclair Lewis, how the novel and play came to be written, and the state of global politics in the 1930s. The situation was frighteningly similar to the one we find ourselves in now.
We’re sharing an audio recording of the play, because we think it has an imporant message that deserves a wider audience. The characters in the play stay complacent, thinking that things won’t get any worse, over and over, until it’s almost too late. It’s human nature to think It Can’t Happen Here. But, as Sinclair Lewis saw happen in Nazi Germany, sometimes it can, and does.
It Can’t Happen Here Act 1
It Can’t Happen Here Act 2