Check It Out: Radio Play It Can’t Happen Here



From a reader:

A fascist leader rises to power promising to return the U.S. to greatness, forging an alliance with anti-Semitic Christian nationalists. While people laugh at his “amusing antics,” the leader attacks the media, promotes white supremacy, and has people beaten at his rallies. Soon after his election, he begins mobilizing militias and jailing the opposition. Sound familiar?

This is the plot of It Can’t Happen Here, a radio play produced by the Berkeley Repertory Theater based on the 1935 novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis. Lewis’s novel was written at a time when Hitler had come to power in Germany but it was not fully clear what a full consolidation of Nazi power would mean. The novel and the play reveal that fascism does not arrive all at once, fully formed, but has a trajectory and momentum, and that people interact with this in ways that can assist fascism or derail and defeat it.   

This version, adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen, and directed by Lisa Peterson, was first presented on stage in 2016 in the months leading up to the Trump election. Speaking of the difference between the 2016 production and the current one, Taccone said, “When we first did the stage version of the play there was an absolute sense that it could not happen here. In the deepest parts of ourselves we didn’t believe it either. What’s changed is now we believe it.”

At a time when many theaters are shuttered and struggling to find new ways to reach audiences, Berkeley Rep decided not only to produce the play as a radio drama in four 30-minute segments but to make the play available for production free of charge to 21 theatres across the country. And 105 theaters (as of the play’s opening) are co-sponsoring the online production and making it available to their audiences.

The production follows Doremus Jessup, an older newspaper publisher, and his family in a small town in Vermont. While most people in the town support the politician, Buzz Windrip, Doremus sees him as a threat but at first doesn’t think he can win the presidency. But Doremus slowly comes to think he can.

Doremus’s response is to lock himself in his private library where no one else, other than his dog, is permitted, to contemplate the situation. Doremus’s vision of what to do is limited by his individualism. “I prefer mass action by one person,” is his catchphrase.

The central theme of the play is the transformation that Doremus and his family go through as fascism viciously consolidates its power. While some fall into collaboration or acceptance of the regime others break out of their comfort zones and their resistance empowers others. And in the process, they find community and strength.

The play is full of darkly comic moments that had me laughing out loud but then being hit by the implications. At one point, after Windrip is elected, Doremus tells his wife, Emma, that they are building a police state. Her reply: “Oh you worry too much. I have to go run some errands. It will work out.”

In some other scenes Doremus, concerned about Windrip’s popularity, goes to talk to some leftist friends. They tell Doremus that Windrip is no different from other capitalist politicians and that it doesn’t make a difference who is elected. Both funny and sad… and all too familiar.

I strongly encourage readers to listen to the Berkeley Rep production, perhaps after a day of hitting the streets demanding Trump Pence out now! The play is an excellent way to provoke discussion about the importance of the fight today to drive out Trump and Pence and what is needed.

At an online discussion on the first night of the play, Tony Taccone, co-author and former artistic director at the Berkeley Rep, was asked about what the play has to say to people today. “It’s imperative,” Taccone said referring to the need to act. “It’s time to take your blinders off if you have them on. Get yourself out of your comfort zone as Doremus does in the last act with the farmer. We’re all out of our comfort zone and there is a fear and a sense of anxiety that fills us all. We have to remember that history opens up only so often like this and there is an opportunity for the human race and the species to take stock of ourselves and find out who we want to be and exercise every power that we can to try and make that happen.”

“It Can’t Happen Here” runs through November 8. You can listen to it on YouTube.



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