GUILFORD—Don McLean is producing a staged reading by Guilford Center Stage that asks a timely question: Could it happen here?
“Timely” may be an odd word for a work based on a semi-satirical political novel written in 1935 during the heyday of fascism in Europe.
The production by Guilford Center Stage is an adaptation for the stage by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. However, McLean believes the work has resonances for America today.
Set against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, the play describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a demagogue who is elected President of the U.S. after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values.
After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of European fascists such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
A growing number of Americans during the 1930s began to ask the question of whether what was happening in Europe could “happen here?” — a question that McLean points out has taken on a new resonance for many since the election of Donald J. Trump.
On Oct. 18-20, at Broad Brook Community Center in Guilford Center, Todd Mandell and Richard Wizansky will direct It Can’t Happen Here with a cast of 11 community actors: Christopher Emily Coutant, Barton Evans, Jenny Holan, Michael Fox Kennedy, Jonathan Kinnersley, Bridget McBride, Arthur Pettee, Peter Seares, Bob Tucker, Robin Wolf, and Rick Zamore.
Julie Holland is the stage manager. David Underwood does the lighting and sound, and Joan Peters is handling the costumes and set consultation.
Guilford Center Stage is a project of Broad Brook Grange, and was begun in 2015 to make greater use of the building’s 19th century stage. Its particular goal is to present plays which have regional, local, or, as in this case, personal connections to the theater company. Several of the nine productions to date have been premieres.
McLean contends that Guilford Center Stage decided to do It Can’t Happen Here as a reading rather than a full production because the stage at the Broad Brook Community Center is small and the cast is so large that it wouldn’t easily fit on the stage.
“Our theater is a very sweet space for putting on productions, but it has its limitations,” explains McLean.
The size of the stage means that some ways of putting on a show work better than others.
“There are over 40 people in It Can’t Happen Here, although some may have only a line or two,” adds McLean. “The play moves quite quickly, and we thought a reading the more appropriate format for this work.
“There will be some costumes and props. Unlike they do in some readings, the actors here won’t perform their parts with scripts in hand, but rather will have internalized their roles. I think that the production has turned out to be quite compelling in this way of presenting It Can’t Happen Here.”
In keeping with the mission of Guilford Center Stage to promote works that are place-based and have some connection to Guilford or at least Vermont, McClean and his team chose this work not only for its topical theme but because Sinclair Lewis was living in Barnard, Vt., when he wrote the book in 1935. The setting is a fictional Vermont town.
“The novel is full of local color,” McLean says. “There are references to the Rutland Herald and escaping to Canada as a refuge.”
As a novel, It Can’t Happen Here was enormously popular.
“Lewis wrote it at perhaps the apex of his reputation,” McLean says. “He had just won the Nobel Prize and already was known for such celebrated novels as Babbitt and Main Street.”
Sounding the alarm
Lewis was encouraged to write It Can’t Happen Here by his wife, columnist and radio commentator Dorothy Thompson.
“She was an important journalist who had been writing as early as 1931 about Hitler,” says McLean. “People in America were mostly unaware of his importance at that time.
“Hitler seemed to most a wimpy and weak politician, and people called him ‘the little man’ and were totally unprepared for how powerful he would become. Obviously, such an attitude can resonate with us today. It was Thompson who early on pointed out: Hey, this guy is dangerous.”
Actually the model for the main character in Lewis’ novel was not so much Hitler as Huey Long, who was starting a run against Roosevelt for president in 1935. However, right after the book was published, Long was assassinated, an event which added to the novel’s popularity.
In 1936, with John C. Moffitt, Lewis adapted his novel into a play, also titled It Can’t Happen Here, which premiered on Oct. 27, 1936, in 21 U.S. theaters in 17 states simultaneously, in productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project.
“This version is still sometimes done,” McLean says. “But all in all, it doesn’t work that well on the stage. Unlike the novel, it was never very popular. While there are many editions to be found of the novel, I could find only one of the play, online, in such poor typeset that the text was difficult to read.
“We still wanted to do the novel, and considered adapting it ourselves, but then we discovered that a new stage version of the novel by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in September 2016. We found the text nicely set up on the page, and was easy to work with.”
McLean believes Taccone and Cohen’s It Can’t Happen Here succeeds in highlighting, better than Lewis’ own adaptation, the original novel’s similarities with the Trump presidency.
“In it, President Windrip says ‘You know what we do with people like that,’ which is something President Trump actually said [recently],” says McLean. “This material is full of interesting historical stuff that parallels our times.”