It Can’t Happen Here: a demagogue rises, but the parallels aren’t yuge | The Knowledge Dynasty

It Can’t Happen Here: a demagogue rises, but the parallels aren’t yuge

A Sinclair Lewis novel about the rise of a dictator has been adapted for the stage, seeking to cast new light on the age of Trump but it’s more agitprop than satire.

In those entertaining early days of the Republican primaries, the illogical popularity of Donald Trump seemed like a lark. Snarky nicknames were coined, toupee memes were shared. And even when Trump dissenters were sucker-punched at rallies and racists grew emboldened, candidate Trumps oratory provided comic relief because so many sensible Americans were confident that, comparisons to Mussolini notwithstanding, it really cant happen here.

In 1935, just after the rise of the Third Reich, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a satirical novel about fascism in America. His intention was to shake up an American electorate complacent that the land of the free could never become a police state. So Lewis wrote about a demagogue who becomes president of the United States by promising to return the country to greatness and by demanding law and order.

Now the time seems ripe for a new look at Lewiss cautionary tale. The world premiere of Berkeley Reps theatrical adaptation of It Cant Happen Here promises shrewd parallels between then and now. But the production is less lacerating satire than agitprop. Tony Taccone and Bennett S Cohen intended to improve upon a previous theatrical adaptation staged by the earnest WPA in 1936. Yet under Lisa Petersons stylized direction, this version retains a didactic righteousness.

The play never shakes its bookish shape. Actors stand in sober formation to address the audience. Descriptive sentences are parceled out to actors and dialogue takes the backseat to pontificating and political speechifying. Characters arent much more than mouthpieces.

The mouthpiece with the best words is Doremus Jessup, played by Tom Nelis. A social-democratic newspaper editor (from Vermont of all places), Jessup is the wry voice of reason. He knows those who express certainty that theres no way Americans will elect Buzz Windrip are overestimating the country. Played bigly by David Kelly, Senator Berzelius Buzz Windrip is a charismatic charlatan who spins stagecraft and peddles fears.

Taccone and Cohen sprinkle Trumpiness throughout their adaptation. Resemblances to todays headlines are like a theatrical round of Wheres Waldo. Windrip, we hear, pretended he was his own publicity man, telling reporters that he was the smartest man on Earth. At a rally, Windrip kicks out a commie, yelling, Get him out Get him out of here! In the good old days we wouldve known what to do with this boy.

These nimble additions put a fresh orange coat on the 1934 narrative but Sinclair Lewiss original book was eerily on the nose. Lewis describes Windrip as vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ideas almost idiotic. He is backed by The League of Forgotten Men men who would fit well into a basket of deplorables one imagines. To add to the festive election spirit, the theater audience is instructed to cheer and boo on command. Placards are thrust into our hands. Flags are waved.

But after Windrip is elected, the play loses some of its cleverness. The genre shifts to wartime noir as paramilitary thugs squash dissent, martial law is imposed, jails spill over into concentration camps and a resistance movement forms. But for all the high stakes suspense and totalitarian brutality, the stage action fizzles. Its hard to care about resistance fighters who spout undiluted ideology.

To the extent that there are parallels to contemporary politics in the plays second half, its the Bush administration that one sees reflected scoundrels exploiting patriotism and snatching liberties in the name of freedom. Lewis even anticipated freedom fries; Jessup recalls the war hysteria that had them calling sauerkraut liberty cabbage.

From our vantage point, this as an eerily prescient foreshadowing of current affairs. But like some other politically knowing dystopian narratives, (Orwell’s 1984 for one) Lewis was writing about the state of his own contemporary society. His objective was to take down presidential hopeful Huey Long who was actually assassinated before the election. In Sinclair Lewiss call to arms, the fearless journalist and his printing press is the final image that inspires hope for political change. Eighty-one years later, Americans might be forgiven for believing that that wont happen here.

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