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Rogue Theatre

'It Can't Happen Here' happening here

Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale of American fascism gets a 75th anniversary revival

Imagine America under the leadership of a charismatic patriot. He promises to restore our faded prosperity and greatness. He ascends to power by the will of the people, allowing him to be above and beyond the law. To preserve order in the face of growing dissent to his rule, he shreds the Constitution for the good of the country, declares martial law and jails his opponents en masse. Tolerance is gone, replaced by jack boots.

Sinclair Lewis imagined it all in his novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.” It was written in 1935 as a cautionary tale to Americans when fascism was a populist movement based on discontent, spreading across Europe, guided by Hitler and Mussolini.

Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, also turned the novel into a play of the same name with the assistance of John C. Moffitt. In October 1936, the play premiered simultaneously at 22 theatres across 18 states. It played a total of 260 weeks and was seen by more than 316,000 people.

Ironically, production of the play was underwritten by the federal government. It was funded by the Federal Theatre Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the vast government effort to create jobs and counteract the Great Depression.

On Monday, Oct. 24, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its premier and the Federal Theatre Project, theatres across the country are simultaneously presenting a staged reading of the play, its warnings still intact and relevant. In Tucson, The Rogue Theatre will join in reviving the work.

Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project from 1935-39, said about the work, “No one agreed on the play, but everyone had to see it. It was called good, bad, savage, mild, American, un-American, fascist, communist, too far left, too far right, a work of genius, a work of the devil.”

Defending the government’s sponsorship of the play at the time, Flanagan declared, “We want to do “It Can’t Happen Here” because it is a play by one of our most distinguished American writers. We want to do it because it is about American life today, based on a passionate belief in American democracy."

She added, “The play says that when dictatorship comes to threaten such a democracy, it comes in an apparently harmless guise, with parades and promises; but that when such dictatorship arrives, the promises are not kept and the parade grounds become encampments. We want to do “It Can’t Happen Here” because, like Doremus Jessup (the play’s main character) and his creator, Sinclair Lewis, we, as American citizens and as workers in a theatre sponsored by the government of the United States, should like to do what we can to keep alive the ‘free, inquiring, critical spirit’ which is the center and core of a democracy.”

The Rogue Theatre, a local troupe with a reputation for presenting thoughtful, intellectually stimulating works, is suggesting a $10 donation for admission. The Rogue Theatre is located at 300 E. University Blvd. in the Historic Y Building.

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Click image to enlarge

Poster from the 1936 Detroit production of Sinclair Lewis' 'It Can't Happen Here.'

If you go

  • “It Can’t Happen Here,” a staged reading presented by The Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Off-street parking is available.
  • Monday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 pm
  • Suggested donation: $10