Sinclair Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ as radio theater masterpiece – people’s world
Available on demand now through Sunday, November 8, and free to listeners (but donations are gratefully accepted), is the Berkeley Rep radio theater production of It can’t happen here.
Written in 1935 during the rise of fascism in Europe, Sinclair Lewis’ dark satirist It can’t happen here follows the rise of Buzz Windrip, a demagogue who becomes President of the United States by promising to make the country great. In the fall of 2016, Berkeley Rep unveiled a new theatrical adaptation of this premonitory blockbuster novel. A week after the end of this production, the presidential election shook our nation. Reality TV host and real estate mogul Donald Trump has become President of the United States.
Now, Berkeley Rep is reprising that production with the same director, but this time as a four-part radio play, just in time for the 2020 presidential election. Much of the original cast has returned, including David Kelly in as Buzz Windrip nominee, and Oscar nominee David Strathairn joins him as liberal protagonist, Vermont reporter Doremus Jessup.
It can’t happen here was quickly adapted into a play and produced by the WPA’s Federal Theater Project on October 27, 1936, in 21 US theaters in 17 states. To honor this event which takes place on the eve of the 1936 election and once again affirm the essential role that theater can play in the nation’s social discourse, Berkeley Rep has partnered with the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and to over 60 theaters across the country to broadcast this new radio playback version.
The radio adaptation is by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, largely adapted from the novel, with sound design and music by Paul James Prendergast. Lisa Peterson has led production, which has met in recent weeks by long-distance recording due to the coronavirus crisis.
The show has an intro and four episodes, each approximately half an hour long. It can be paused for breaks. After the play, an additional feature film with the writers and the director explains how the production came about and how they interpret its current meaning.
Other actors include Elijah Alexander, Danforth Comins, Scott Coopwood, William Thomas Hodgson, Anna Ishida, Sharon Lockwood, Eddie Lopez, Alex Lydon, Tom Nelis, Greta Oglesby, Charles Shaw Robinson, Gerardo Rodriguez, Carolina Sanchez and Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Citizens, activists, soldiers, workers, radio voices, prisoners and many more are all played by the members of the company and the sound designer.
Sinclair Lewis embraces a wide range of characters ranging from intellectuals to politicians, local officials and judges, to workers and their families. The show features a healthy mix of female and male voices, and a range of political perspectives, including a communist and a socialist, which will sound very contemporary to listeners today. Among the various media mentioned in the production is the Everyday worker, today’s precursor People’s world. Lewis describes how some stand firm in their commitment to free speech and fair government, while others, some easily and others opportunistically, are enamored of the network of compliance and collaboration with the new order.
The story of It can’t happen here is relatively familiar, although a prospective film version was never produced at the time. Suffice it to say (no plot spoilers here!) That Lewis doesn’t end his alarm and warning story with a cute red, white, and blue bow. The struggle for democracy continues with every generation, including our own, on the eve of a crucial election in which America’s future course will be shaped.
This is a masterful production which, for some of the elders among us, will recall the glory days of radio theater before television and present a semblance worthy of that era to younger listeners.
To start listening, click here:
The representative of Berkeley IT CANNOT HAPPEN HERE: introduction