That summer, Hallie Flanagan steered the Federal Theatre Project on its most ambitious project, one about which she was later to grumble, “Who thought up this idea, anyway?” The idea was that in eighteen cities nationwide, the Theatre Project would launch simultaneous productions of a play based on Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel It Can’t Happen Here. The October 1936 openings would be a kind of anniversary celebration for the project. The book, published in 1935 and mirroring ongoing events in Germany and Italy, told the story of Senator Buzz Windrip, who establishes a fascist dictatorship in the United States after he is elected president, and uses a brutal private army called the Minute Men to erase liberties and crush dissent. MGM had paid $200,000 for the film rights, then shelved the project as too controversial. Lewis, who had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930 for works such as Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry, gave the theatrical rights to the Federal Theatre Project because he admired its work and expected it to treat the material evenhandedly.
He adapted the novel himself with the help of a Paramount Pictures writer, John C. Moffitt, but their collaboration was difficult. The two writers, working first in Vermont and then in separate suites at the Essex House in New York City overlooking Central Park, kept producing differing versions of characters and scenes while Flanagan shuttled from one to the other trying to persuade them to agreement. Cascades of changes rained down on the directors and actors, who tried to fight off panic as opening night—set for October 27—neared. Telegrams poured into Flanagan’s office from the various production units around the country. A message from the project in Los Angeles spoke for them all: “MAKING SUPERHUMAN EFFORTS TO MEET OCTOBER 27 LEWIS PLAY STOP IMPERATIVE HAVE NO MORE REVISION STOP STOP.”
Convinced that there had to be an ulterior motive in the plan for simultaneous productions but not sure what it was, the press swirled around the project, speculating as to whether it was meant to be pro-fascist, anti-fascist, or some propaganda-based variation in between. The Louisiana project canceled the opening scheduled for New Orleans, where the memories of Huey Long’s near-dictatorship burned bright, and Flanagan called off the St. Louis production rather than tone down the script as requested. Since the opening was just a week before the presidential election in November, the multiple presentations also were suspected of trying to exert some kind of pressure at the ballot box, presumably in Roosevelt’s direction, though again, just how the play was to accomplish this, nobody knew.
Rewriting went on virtually to the rise of the opening curtain. Somehow, Flanagan managed to keep the scheduled date intact despite Lewis’s fits of pique that held up the writing, problems with the set construction, and the requirements not only of typing, copying, and mailing each new version of the script but also of translating it into a Yiddish version to be shown in New York and a Spanish one in Tampa. On the night of October 27, the show went on as planned in Birmingham, Alabama; Boston; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Miami; Newark; New York City; Omaha; San Francisco; Tacoma, Washington; Tampa; and Yonkers. The Los Angeles project mounted two productions, New York four. New York’s main production took place at the Adelphi Theatre on 54th Street, and included in its cast a child actor named Sidney Lumet. After the curtain fell, the audience clapped for a dozen curtain calls, until Lewis finally took the stage to calls of “Author! Author!” When the calls changed to “Speech! Speech!” the tall, slumped Lewis took out his watch and answered, referring to the play, “I’ve been making a speech since eight-forty-five.”
The concept of the play, if not its quality, won the Theatre Project another round of critical applause. Audiences and most reviewers responded to the central theme that fascism need not be imposed through an outside military takeover; it could arrive when well-meaning citizens fail to defend essential freedoms. To Flanagan, it meant that the “first government-sponsored theatre in the United States was doing what it could to keep alive ‘the free, inquiring, critical spirit’ which is at the center and core of a democracy.”
It Can’t Happen Here continued in its original venues, added new ones, and would go on to play for a total of five years’ worth of theater nights and reach an audience of half a million. And as the play was beginning this long run, Americans went to the polls on November 3 and voted for a second term for their president, once more asserting their preference for democracy.