Sunday, October 23, 2011

Today the themes of It Can’t Happen Here still resonate—with people aligned all along the political spectrum. It’s famous on the Internet for the line, “When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” However, that line actually doesn’t appear in it.

It resonates particularly now, with economic conditions uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1930s.  Still, it's important to note the differences that bear on the play.  Private armies within the U.S. are part of its story--while we got fleeting glimpses of what that might be like in New Orleans after the hurricane, in the 1930s there were fresh examples of the Pinkertons and other private forces, plus the ostensibly public police serving industrialists, used to break strikes in various parts of the country.  (All this is noted by Jan-Ruth Mills in her paper, "Not a 'Simpler' Time," issued by the Rogue Theatre in Tucson, in connection with the readings Monday.)

The Federal Theatre production was controversial from the day it was announced. “Some people thought the play was designed to reelect Mr. Roosevelt,” wrote Hallie Flanagan. “Others thought it was planned in order to defeat him. Some thought it proved the Federal Theatre was communistic; others that it was New Deal; others that it was subconsciously fascist.”

The Birmingham production
 It was too much for a couple of cities. New Orleans officials feared it, St. Louis officials wanted to change its intent, so both productions were withdrawn. But theatres that embraced it were allowed to make it their own. The all-black production in Seattle emphasized what fascism does to minority groups, as did the Spanish version in Tampa. Each theatre staged it differently—in Birmingham it was done as a big political rally, in the Brooklyn-Queens production, the set suggested a whole town. The Yiddish version in New York, playing to recent refugees from Germany and Austria, was set against an encroaching darkness.

On opening night, the head of the League of New York Theatres called it “a bold adventure in a field we all ought to enter if we really want to keep the theatre throughout America alive.” By night’s end, telegrams from other cities—Bridgeport and Cleveland, Miami and Indianapolis, Omaha and Denver, Tacoma and Boston—told of capacity audiences and popular acclaim.
the Seattle production

Also opening successfully that night were two productions in Los Angeles (one in Yiddish), plus productions in San Francisco, Newark, Detroit, Bridgeport and Yonkers. Federal Theatre productions opened later in nine more cities, including Philadelphia and Des Moines.

It Can’t Happen Here played long runs in New York and elsewhere, and six units took it on tour. It was so popular that in 1938 Sinclair Lewis rewrote the script for a commercial run, in which he played the hero. It was revived several more times.

In fact, the script that most of us will be reading on October 24 is this revised script--it's shortened, more focused and with fewer characters.  The original script was by Lewis and screenwriter and playwright John C. Moffitt, which they finished while not speaking to each other--they were ensconced in different hotel suites, and communicated through Hallie Flanagan, who went back and forth.  The play wasn't even begun when the production was announced, and they changed it so frequently that they were driving the theatre directors crazy with changes--pages would arrive changing scenes they'd just been rehearsing.  Sinclair Lewis was so upset by the set in the big Manhattan theatre that Flanagan had to supervise the making of a new set the night before opening.  Some of the readings are using this original script (Cleveland) or scenes from it not included in this version (Seattle.)  Both contain elements of the novel, but are quite different.

Yet with the same play in at least 21 theatres in 17 states, nothing like that October 1936 opening night of the Federal Theatre production had ever happened before. And it has never happened since.

No comments: