In 1935 — dismayingly close to a full century ago — the writer Sinclair Lewis wrote a book called “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Written a full decade before the end of World War II, and during the rise of the charismatic populist politician Huey Long, whose frightening ascent (or at any rate frightening to Americans outside his cult) was stopped by an assassin in 1935, the book — an alternative history that posited that a charismatic populist improbably named Buzz Windrip winning the presidency from FDR — is based both on Long and on Mussolini and Hitler.
It’s a scary but ultimately hopeful novel that Lewis and John C. Moffitt turned into a play the next year. It’s been revived sporadically ever since.
Now, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, Motl Didner, have arranged a staged reading of “It Can’t Happen Here.”
That reading “is strategically timed to be aired a few days before the election,” Mr. Mlotek said. In part, that’s because it’s a political allegory that seems oddly, even presciently well suited to our times. But just as it points out the dangers that might lie ahead, it also models real hope.
“In the spirit of the creation of the WPA” — the Works Project Administration, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal — “we are bringing together American theater companies,” he continued. “They’re English-speaking, Yiddish-speaking, Hebrew-, Turkish-, Italian-, Spanish-speaking companies.” Actors from nine companies — all nonprofit, many ethnic — will perform one or two scenes from “It Can’t Happen Here.”
There are quite a few differences between now and then. One the one hand, technology has brought us inventions that we unthinkingly rely on now but literally were unimaginable then (Eighty-five years ago, people probably could have imagined FaceTime, though not as something actually physically possible. I have a feeling that absolutely no one would have thought of GPS on a cell phone.)
On the other hand, the flu epidemic was more than 15 years in the past, and few people seem to have been thinking of novel coronaviruses or worldwide pandemics.
Now, although none of the performers nor the crew nor the audience can leave home, the show still can go on.
On Wednesday, October 28, somewhere between 80 and 90 actors, in somewhere between 80 and 90 homes, will do a staged reading of “It Can’t Happen Here.” Each troupe’s own director will direct his or her actors in one or two of the play’s scenes.
“Each company will do it in its own language, and there will be supertitles,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We are all confined to our homes, but we are coming together.
“It will be quite an interesting technological feat,” he continued. “And it will be pre-recorded. We’ve learned the hard way that the safest way to present things to large groups is to pre-record.”
“In this time, when we are seeing or feeling the manifestations of quasi-authoritarian behavior, it is an important piece to be seen and heard,” he continued. “And it’s equally important for me to bring these theater companies together.
“All theater is hurting now,” he went on. “Forget about commercial theater; how will nonprofit companies like ours sustain ourselves, if we are looking at perhaps another year of programming without audiences?
“Here we are, being creative, finding a way. But we are not monetizing it, we are just putting it out there. Hopefully, people will support their respective theater companies.”
The idea of interacting with all the companies grew out of work that the Folksbiene has done with the Immigrants Rights Coalition. And it’s entirely logical; the company’s home, from when it was possible for a company to have a physical home — and the place that will be its physical home again, when such a thing again is possible — is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. From the museum, at the southern end of Manhattan, a visitor can see the Statue of Liberty, with her majestic green arm holding her great green torch overhead, still, despite everything, welcoming immigrants.
This professional nine-company, multilingual reading isn’t the only performance of “It Can’t Happen Here” that the Folksbiene has planned, Mr. Mlotek said. In November, the company is planning an all-Yiddish reading of the play; this time, the actors needn’t be professional. The Folksbiene is looking for anyone who can speak Yiddish to join. “If you want to read a part, just get in touch!” he said.
Because of agreements with the actors’ union — which balances the actors’ need to act with their need to be paid for their work — the reading “will be available only for 96 hours,” Mr. Mlotek said. So if you can’t see it when it first airs, you won’t have much time to catch it before it’s taken down.
“It Can’t Happen Here” is a natural piece for our particular time and place, Mr. Didner said. It was commissioned by the Federal Theater Project, part of the WPA, and “it was performed simultaneously by 21 theater companies across the country. It was introduced in translation in several languages, including Yiddish and Spanish, as well as French and German and Italian. We found the original translation into Yiddish at the New York Public Library.
“That’s how it started.”
The production also grew out of the relationship between the Folksbiene and the New Heritage Theatre Group; the two worked together on “Soul to Soul,” an annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr, last year. New Heritage, the oldest Black nonprofit theater group in the country, was another WPA project; its founder, Roger Furman, “came out of the American Negro Theater,” and “it was a continuation of the Harlem Renaissance,” Mr. Didner said.
“We kept in touch since then, and we were talking about what projects we could do together. We were having a conversation this summer about the effects of covid on the entire theater industry. We were talking about how it had a double impact on us. Not only are we unable to perform, but our donors are being impacted by the economy.
“One of our partners said, offhand, ‘We really need a new WPA,’ and I said ‘Ooooohhhhh!’ That was a delightful moment. And I said, ‘There is a work out of the WPA that speaks to where we are in the upcoming election, and also was a project of the WPA and the Federal Theatre Project. And really we should be doing it together.’”
So then they enlisted seven other groups, and went to work.
“It’s not the same as putting on a stage play that would run for weeks, or for months, but it’s providing paid employment to 80 to 90 actors,” Mr. Didner said. “It’s a commentary on the dangers of what would happen to our country under the leadership of a populist demagogue who encourages his followers to control the populace with fear and violence. It was theoretical when Sinclair Lewis wrote it, but history has proven that it can happen here. But we have an opportunity to change that.
“We’re also looking for the creation of a new WPA. Artists aren’t looking for a handout. We are looking for support.
“There is a lot of innovation going on now. Artists who are working in isolation are finding many new ways to explore a new medium. I am seeing a lot of experimental stuff coming out of theater companies. They’re producing a lot of new content —but no one has figured out the business model.”
There is a local fun fact about Sinclair Lewis that it would be too frustrating not to mention here.
As time has passed, the people who remember Sinclair Lewis confuse him with Upton Sinclair, the muckraking journalist who wrote “The Jungle.” The two shared similar politics. Upton Sinclair was a little older and lived far longer; he won a Pulitzer. Sinclair Lewis — who also wrote, among many other works, “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” and “Elmer Gantry” — was the first American to win a Nobel for literature. And Upton Sinclair used some of the profit he made from “The Jungle” to open a commune — a Utopia — for “authors, artists, and musicians, editors and teachers and professional men,” as the New York Times put it, on Englewood’s East Hill. Women were welcome; they could look after the children. Sinclair Lewis, at 21, was a janitor. The Helicon Home Society lasted for five months, until a fire drove out everyone except for the one man who died there.
So as it turns out, both Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis had a connection to Englewood.
And Sinclair Lewis’s prescient, frightening, and ultimately hopeful work, presented by a man from Teaneck and performed by an ensemble representing the will to work together and make art together that is so powerful within us, will be online from October 28 until November 1.
Save the Date
Who: Zalmen Mlotek and the Folksbiene
What: Present a nine-company ensemble reading of Sinclair Lewis’
“It Can’t Happen Here”
When: It will be online from October 28 at 1 p.m. until November 1 at 1 p.m.
How much: The performance is free. Donations are extremely welcome.