Barnard Theater Group Tackles Sinclair Lewis' Cautionary Tale Of Totalitarianism

Jun 19, 2018

What would happen if a fascist dictator was elected president of the United States, after winning an election built on fear and hate-mongering? That's the premise of the 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, which Sinclair Lewis wrote while living in Barnard.

Now a Vermont theater group is putting on a play adaptation of the novel, just a few miles up the road from where Lewis wrote his cautionary dystopian tale.

Former theater professor and Barnard resident Daniel Patterson plays Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip — a corrupt, egotistical and power-hungry politician who is elected president — in the BarnArts Center for the Arts production running through July 1.

Windrip is a con man, who promises economic and cultural reforms as he sweeps into power while promoting American values.

Patterson said Lewis wrote the novel while Hitler was rising to power, and he said Lewis set his story in this country to caution Americans against being complacent about demagogues.

“If we’re not careful," Patterson said, "these things could happen — concentration camps, people being put away, people being put to death, our freedoms being limited, the journalists in the country being silenced.”

When It Can't Happen Here was published, Lewis was married to journalist Dorothy Thompson.

Thompson was the first woman to head a foreign news bureau, and the couple built up strong roots in the little central Vermont town. Their property, Twin Farms, was a meeting place for writers and artists. 

Thompson even lived out her life there after she and Lewis divorced, and is buried in Barnard.

"I think it's easy to draw connections between this play and current political situation, for good reason. But I also do think it's a timeless story about America and about human nature and about how humans organize themselves and how people are governed." — Teo Zagar, Barnard resident

BarnArts executive director Linda Treash said that in the play, it’s a Vermont journalist who takes on the maniacal politician and challenges Windrip's reign.

“He, I think, represents the voice of reason and wisdom,” said Treash. “And it just seemed like a great opportunity to do something very interesting and historic and connected to the community.”

Sales of It Can't Happen Here took off after the 2016 election, and readings of the play were held across the country in the lead up.

But local filmmaker and Barnard resident Teo Zagar said the book reminds us that power-hungry politicians have been around a long time. And, he said, they’ll most likely continue to challenge our democracy again into the future.

“I think it’s easy to draw connections between this play and current political situation, for good reason,” Zagar said. “But I also do think it’s a timeless story about America and about human nature and about how humans organize themselves and how people are governed. And I just think we too easily forget our history in this country.”

When the Lewis novel was first adapted into a play in 1936, it was a big sprawling production with about 40 characters.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a theater group in Berkeley, California, whittled the play down and updated the dialogue. The current Barnard production of It Can't Happen Here is the Vermont premiere of the fully staged updated version.