Sinclair Lewis’s ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ as masterpiece radio theater

Available on demand now until Sun., Nov. 8, and free to listeners (but donations 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’s darkly satirical It Can’t Happen Here follows the ascent of Buzz Windrip, a demagogue who becomes president of the United States by promising to return the country to greatness. In the fall of 2016, Berkeley Rep unveiled a new stage adaptation of this prescient best-selling novel. One week after that production ended, the presidential election roiled our nation. Reality TV host and real estate mogul Donald Trump became president of the United States.

Now, Berkeley Rep reprises that production with the same director, but this time as a radio play in four episodes, just in time for the 2020 presidential election. Much of the original cast has returned, including David Kelly as the candidate Buzz Windrip, and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn joins it as the liberal protagonist, Vermont newspaperman 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 U.S. theaters in 17 states. To honor that event taking place on the eve of the 1936 election, and once again affirm the critical role that theater can play in the nation’s social discourse, Berkeley Rep has partnered with Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group and over 60 theaters nationwide to broadcast this new radio play version.

The radio adaptation is by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, liberally adapted from the novel, with sound design and music by Paul James Prendergast. Lisa Peterson directed the production, which came together in recent weeks by long-distance recording owing to the coronavirus crisis.

The broadcast has an introduction and four episodes, each about a half-hour long. It can be paused for breaks. Following the play, there is an extra feature with the authors and director explaining how the production came into being and how they interpret its present-day meaning.

Others in the cast 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, campaigners, soldiers, workers, radio voices, prisoners, and many others are all played by members of the company and the sound designer.

Sinclair Lewis embraces a wide cast of characters ranging from intellectuals to politicians, local officials and judges, working people and their families. The show includes a healthy mix of women’s as well as men’s voices, and a range of political outlooks, including a Communist and a Socialist, that will sound very contemporary to today’s listeners. Among the various media mentioned in the production is the Daily Worker, forerunner of today’s People’s World. Lewis delineates how some hold steadfast in their embrace of free speech and fair government, while others, some readily and others opportunistically, are seduced into the web of conformity and collaboration with the new order.

The story of It Can’t Happen Here is relatively familiar, even though a prospective film version was never produced at the time. Suffice it to say (no plot spoilers here!) that Lewis does not wrap up his tale of alarm and warning with a pretty red, white, and blue bow. The struggle for democracy is ongoing in every generation, not the least our own on the cusp of a crucial election in which the future course of America will be written.

This is a masterful production that for some of the oldtimers among us will recall the pre-television glory days of radio theater—and introduce a worthy semblance of that epoch to younger listeners.

To start listening, click here:

Berkeley Rep’s IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: Introduction


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.