Column: The night a federal theater group defiantly staged an anti-right-wing play in 21 cities — simultaneously

berkeley
The Berkeley Rep’s David Kelly as American dictator Buzz Windrip in “It Can’t Happen Here.”
(Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

While the tenor of the presidential campaign has not a few Americans pondering the fascist threads in our recent political history, infused as it is with xenophobia, chauvinism and disdain for dissent, word arrives of a successful stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ prescient 1935 anti-fascist novel “It Can’t Happen Here.” The Berkeley Repertory’s version will run through Nov. 6, the Sunday before election day.

And that in turn evokes the moment when the New Deal’s Federal Theatre, already under conservative attack as an ostensibly subversive organization, defiantly produced its own staging of “It Can’t Happen Here” as a nationwide event, opening the play simultaneously in 21 theaters in 17 states on the night of Oct. 27, 1936.

The story is told in my book “The New Deal: A Modern History,” but it’s worth telling again, for this most audacious theatrical effort in American history stirred and unified the country far beyond the expectations of the Federal Theatre’s brilliant director, Hallie Flanagan.

Here was a play by one of our most distinguished American authors, based on a burning belief in American democracy.
Hallie Flanagan, “Arena”

As Flanagan recounted the reactions in her memoir, “Arena”: “There were news stories for and against, from one end of the country to the other. Some people thought the play was designed to re-elect Mr. Roosevelt; others thought it was planned in order to defeat him. Some thought it proved Federal Theatre was communistic; others that it was New Deal; others that it was subconsciously fascist.” The Hollywood Citizen-News fretted that the play would “antagonize sympathizers of the Hitler and Mussolini regimes,” while Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner slammed it as “PROPAGANDA—naked and unconcealed.”

In short, “It Can’t Happen Here” was provocative, as all great theater should be.

The Federal Theatre often is remembered today as a launchpad for the career of Orson Welles. He had been brought on initially to run the troupe’s Negro Theatre Project, for which he produced a “Macbeth” set in Haiti. Dubbed the “Voodoo Macbeth,” the play was at once a pioneering theatrical production and a Harlem community event.

Welles would go on to make theatrical history with a play that failed to open. It was “The Cradle Will Rock,” an opera about a steel strike written by the gifted —and openly Marxist composer — Marc Blitzstein.

The 1937 production was ordered postponed because of a budget crunch, but Welles and his co-producer John Houseman chose to frame the order as an attempt at political suppression. He was right and not right: The budget crunch was an expression of right-wing discontent with the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre’s parent; but “The Cradle Will Rock” was not the particular target. Anyway, on June 15, Welles and Houseman rented a theater on their own and staged a public dress rehearsal of the opera, Blitzstein at the piano, as an act of defiance. The event would feed the legend of Orson Welles, audacious wunderkind.

By then the Federal Theatre had experienced its most important success with “It Can’t Happen Here.” Sinclair Lewis had based his central figure, the dictator Buzz Windrip, on Louisiana’s Huey Long, but his broader target was fascism in all its manifestations. In the book, Windrip defeats FDR for the Democratic nomination for president and takes over the government, creating a band of paramilitary shock troops called the Minute Men, seducing the public by railing against foreign influences and promising prosperity, and throwing dissenters into concentration camps.

A large audience... breathed in unison a sigh of thanksgiving that it was fantasy and not actual fact.
San Francisco Chronicle

Under his regime most Americans would learn in school “that God had supplanted the Jews as chosen people by the Americans, and this time done the job much better, so that we were the richest, kindest, and cleverest nation living; that depressions were but passing headaches and that labor unions must not concern themselves with anything except higher wages and shorter hours and, above all, must not set up an ugly class struggle by combining politically; that, though foreigners tried to make a bogus mystery of them, politics were really so simple that any village attorney or any clerk in the office of a metropolitan sheriff was quite adequately trained for them.” 

Windrip’s counterbalance is the initially complacent Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who counsels his readers, “the hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see….It was not that he was afraid of the authorities. He simply did not believe that this comic tyranny could endure.” In the course of the book, Jessup defects to the resistance.

Flanagan depicted the decision to mount a stage version of the novel, to be co-scripted by Lewis himself, as a chance to “test the professional expertness of Federal Theatre in both its national and its regional aspect.” She tried to downplay the political flavor of the work. Her office advised producers of the regional stagings to “avoid all controversial issues — political angles of any degree… since Federal Theatre is interested only in presenting good theatre.” Overt references to any foreign power or personalities were barred. 

But the political import of the work was inescapable; a film version already had been killed by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer out of solicitude for the Nazi regime’s sensitivities. Flanagan treated the Federal Theatre production almost as an act of patriotism: “Here was a play by one of our most distinguished American authors, based on a burning belief in American democracy.”

Each of the 21 stagings had its local flavor. In Seattle the play was produced by the city’s black theater unit and reimagined as a herald of the dangers posed to minorities by dictatorship; in Birmingham, Ala., it was staged as a political convention, with bunting on the set and a brass band stationed in the boxes. One production canceled in advance was in New Orleans, Flanagan recalled, because local “officials felt it inadvisable to produce a play against dictatorship in a city where many people still revered the memory of Huey Long,” who had been assassinated the year before.

On the whole the effort was an astounding nationwide success. Flanagan wrote: “In an amazing variety of methods, in English, Yiddish, and Spanish, in cities, towns, and villages, before audiences of every conceivable type ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ played, under Federal Theatre, 260 weeks, or the equivalent of five years.” The political and ideological nature of the play wasn’t lost on audiences, she recalled, quoting a San Francisco newspaper review observing that as the curtain came down on the play, “a large audience… breathed in unison a sigh of thanksgiving that it was fantasy and not actual fact.”

Yet Sinclair Lewis hadn’t crafted his book as a fantasy, but a warning. When one of his characters muses that it “might be a good thing to have a strong man in the saddle, but — it just can’t happen here in America,” he is answered silently by another, whose lips frame the words, "The hell it can’t!”

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