'It Can't Happen Here' happens here again

This Monday, a revival reading of Sinclair Lewis's fable of an American fascist coup opens a rare window into Depression-era Washington, when politics were radical, artists were agitators, and theater really seemed to matter.

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'It Can Happen Here' premieres at the Moore in October 1936.

This Monday, a revival reading of Sinclair Lewis's fable of an American fascist coup opens a rare window into Depression-era Washington, when politics were radical, artists were agitators, and theater really seemed to matter.

Maybe it’s the spirit of the times moving over the land. Maybe it’s just blind luck. Neither Arne Zaslove and his Endangered Species Project in Seattle, nor 21 other theater companies in other cities around the country, likely guessed when they set out to simultaneously revive a Depression-era play about an American fascist dictatorship that popular rage and resentment would erupt in this month's “Occupy” protests. But if anxious, overheated times call for anxious, overheated art, then Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which Zaslove and company will present in a semi-staged reading this Monday (Oct. 24) at the Museum of History & Industry, is just the agitprop the doctor ordered. At the very least it offers a psycho-historical wormhole back to a time when theater mattered and political theater flourished around the country, thanks to New Deal back-to-work subsidies. And to a day when this frontier backwater became a mainstage where art and politics converged, and a frontline when they collided.

To judge by a rehearsal, it will be a rousing reading, voiced by both newcomers and familiar local stage veterans. Though he was the first American writer to win a Nobel prize, Lewis started out writing potboilers — and, some critics grumbled, never stopped, even when his themes grew serious. And so he keeps the show moving with ample action, noble speechifying, and blood-boiling sleazy villainy. What happens here on stage is just what was happening in Germany and Italy when Lewis wrote, which he and others feared would happen if Huey Long, Louisiana’s highflying strongman governor, won the presidency: A smooth-talking populist gets elected president by promising many chickens in every pot, then assumes dictatorial powers and deploys his militiamen (“the corpos”) to smash dissent.

True-blue Americans, personified by a gentlemanly Vermont newspaper editor named (no kidding) Doremus Jessup, belatedly recognize the peril and form an underground resistance to fight for liberty. The play even includes a preemptive answer to critics, voiced by the heroine: “Sorry to be so melodramatic, but revolution’s always a bit melodramatic, don’t you think?” Occupiers and Tea Baggers might both find something to identify with.

Lewis's original novel spins this tale at epic scale; it even anticipates Iraq 2003 as the corpos concoct an invasion of Mexico to distract the restive public. He and his collaborators agonized and agonized again to boil it down to something manageable on stage. His final version, in 1938, tells the tale entirely through the travails of Jessup's family, in the sort of small-town setting that was Lewis’s natural element. Lewis himself played Jessup in the first production of that version.

Arne Zaslove (now semi-retired but remembered for his UW teaching, Big Broadcast holiday shows, and exuberant Shakespeare interpretations at the late Bathhouse Theatre) is hardly a minimalist. He’s restored two scenes, set in the White House and a concentration camp, from the outsized original version. Zaslove’s counterparts in other cities, from New York and Los Angeles to Elko and Myrtle Beach, may find their own solutions. Their readings, instigated by San Francisco Mime Troupe member Darryl Henriques, reprise the simultaneous premiere performance of Lewis’s play by (as variously reported) 22 or 24 companies in 18 or 21 cities on Oct. 27, 1936, on the eve of a presidential election. That uniquely ambitious and controversial effort marked the high point of the Federal Theatre Project, the New Deal program that used Works Progress Administration funds to give actors and other unemployed stage professionals work — and, not accidentally, to try to seed high-quality, socially engaged regional theaters throughout the land.

The Federal Theatre's struggles are recounted in part in John Turturro’s 1999 film The Cradle Will Rock, and in detail, as they unfolded in Seattle, in Barry B. Witham’s The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study. Politics — liberal, anti-racist, pro-labor — suffused it from the start, alarming WPA bureaucrats, local officials, and newspaper editorialists. Here in Seattle, another conflict complicated the effort — a rift that would reverberate for decades through the local cultural scene.

Florence and Burton James, director/producer and actor/technician respectively, arrived in Seattle in 1923 to teach at Cornish. Five years later they founded the Repertory Playhouse (a.k.a. "the old Rep"), staging European classics, avant garde works, and original plays at various venues. In 1930 they acquired an old tile factory at NE 41st Street and University Way and had their playhouse at last. For years the Jameses worked closely with Glenn Hughes, the founding head of the University of Washington's drama division and vice president of their board. Hughes hired both as instructors and used their playhouse for UW productions. Their relationship collapsed in 1932, partly over artistic differences — Hughes favored crowd-pleasing comedies, the Jameses more provocative fare — and particularly over turf: They refused to let him use the playhouse for non-student productions they saw as competition.

Their rivalry peaked in 1935 when the WPA launched the Federal Theatre Project. Seattle, a hothouse of leftwing politics and culture, seemed readymade for it: A coalition of progressive, labor, and grange groups called the Washington Commonwealth Federation formed that same year. It published its own newspaper, drove the agendas of the state Democratic Party and legislature, and passed a local version of the New Deal, including the first state pension system in the nation.

Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Burton and Florence James were in the middle of the mix. Naturally they pitched for a piece of the Federal Theatre action. Its administrators opted instead to appoint their nemesis Hughes as their regional director.

The Jameses saw another route. The Federal Theatre’s brief included establishing “Negro units,” a mission that sounds patronizing today but which did much to nurture African-American actors and playwrights, and even more to enrich the Federal Theatre’s offerings. The Jameses had already worked with Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church to produce a hit gospel play, In Abraham’s Bosom. Now they started a Seattle Negro Repertory Company that would outshine all other Federal Theatre efforts in the state. Seattle’s African-American community was small, but it seems to have included an outsized share of acting, dancing, and musical talent. One recently arrived actor from New York, Theodore Browne, also proved a gifted playwright.

The Negro Repertory Company debuted with another popular gospel show, Noah. It tried unsuccessfully to stage Porgy, the source for Porgy and Bess; many in the local black community found the play’s language offensive. So it produced something more provocative: Stevedore, a searing melodrama about a persecuted black shipworker that ends on a rousing pro-union note. The subject resonated especially in Seattle, where police had violently suppressed a recent longshoremen's strike; the audience would join the cast on stage for the closing "workers unite" chorus.

The company’s next show proved equally provocative — too hot for the WPA, in fact — though its book was 2,400 years old: a rollicking staging of Aristophanes’ antiwar Lysistrata, set in Africa with echoes of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Orson Welles’s Haitian Macbeth. Lysistrata opened to a sellout audience of 1,100, apparently wowed press and public — and immediately closed; the WPA’s state director, hearing that it was “indecent and bawdy” (what, Aristophanes?), shut it down. Many accounts claim that, in Witham’s words, the director’s wife and secretary objected to “the sight of black people performing the sexually suggestive comedy.” He ordered all future scripts submitted for prior review.

The ripples reached Washington, D.C., rocking the delicate relationship between the WPA and Federal Theatre. To avoid a public rupture, the latter’s administrators cut a deal: Lysistrata would stay dark, but the WPA wouldn’t meddle in future productions.

That may have provided cover for the next production, It Can’t Happen Here. Seattle's share in that national project fell to the Negro Repertory Company by default; Glenn Hughes hadn't progressed with what was supposed to be the main Federal Theatre effort here. Florence James and her African-American cast seized the chance to try to bring it all home: She changed the setting from Vermont to Seattle’s Central District. Blaine became the gateway to Canada, where (as in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale a half-century later) American freedom fighters flee to safety. White actors played President Buzz Winrip and his henchmen, while everyone else — from corpo thugs to Theodore Browne as the noble Jessup — was black. Close your eyes and try to imagine, if you attend the MOHAI reading.

Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company enjoyed more successes: Natural Man, Browne’s gritty musical retelling of the John Henry legend, Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, and An Evening With Dunbar, a moving bio-tribute to the poet Paul Dunbar that the troupe’s black members created after escaping, briefly, from white supervision. Florence James had by then resigned from the Federal Theatre after tangling with higher-ups. First, however, she staged an unlikely topical hit: Power, a multi-media “living newspaper” about what was then the hottest issue in Seattle, the contest between public and private power (i.e. City Light and Puget Power) for the electric market.

The Federal Theatre Project eked out a couple more years. In Seattle it shifted to safer children’s theater, with actors from Lysistrata and It Can’t Happen Here donning bunny ears for Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Finally, in 1939, with much deploring of communistic propaganda and federal misspending on the arts (sound familiar?), Congress pulled the plug.

The Jameses fended off UW and kept their Repertory Playhouse going until the postwar red scare. One of its features, late-night improvisations on the day’s news by a troupe called the Topical Players, impressed Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie when they busked through town in 1940, and anticipated Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.

But in 1948 the Jameses and another Repertory staffer got called before state Rep. Albert Canwell’s Legislative Committee on Un-American Activities on one witness's false testimony, the only non-UW people subpoenaed in a putative investigation into campus subversion. They vehemently denounced the proceedings and received sentences for contempt, which were suspended or ultimately waived. They and their theater were now radioactive; friends and audiences shunned them, and two years later they dropped the final curtain. In a final irony, the university finally acquired the playhouse Hughes had long coveted. It could, and did, happen here.

If you go: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, read by the Endangered Species Project and directed by Arne Zaslove. Museum of History and Industry. Monday, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m. Admission and parking free.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.