Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Doremus Jessup can never die."

Be a Corpo! Kick the crap out of somebody.

Now, if you have read the stage adaptation of It Can't Happen Here, you have most likely not read the one which was performed by the Federal Theatre Project as part of a cross-country effort to open the same show on the same night - October 27, 1936. That version was co-authored in great haste by Sinclair Lewis and John C. Moffitt. Lewis was unhappy with the outcome, and revised the script for publication.

Lewis' 1938 version (available from Dramatists Play Service) has sixteen characters, performed in six scenes spread across three acts.

The original 1936 version, presented in Cleveland at the Carter Theatre, features no less than 27 names characters as well as numerous extras, performed in fifteen scenes - most of them entirely different sets.

It is this version, one entirely impractical to stage as a full-production but entirely within our means as a staged reading, that we will present on Monday, October 24 beginning at 7 PM at the Cleveland Public Theatre.

At first I thought, what the hell, just do the later version. It is a tighter script, no doubt. But there are several strong artistic and practical reasons to stage the original version.

First of all, what a unique experience! An historic occasion deserves a little reach.

Second, it doesn't matter that there are more actors, a staged reading is easily double-cast.

Third, the revised edition streamlines the course of events, but leaves out a great deal of outrageous detail, including the decent into madness of President "Buzz" Windrip, and the fate of Pastor Paul Peter Prang, a character loosely-based on (or entirely meant to represent) Father Coughlin.


But the real selling point for me is the ending. The 1938 edit leaves Doremus Jessup and Eppingham Swan face to face, each certain to die very shortly, but a shining ray of hope hanging over the proceedings as his daughter and grandson safely pass into Canada. The original version was much more dire, with Jessup escaping a concentration camp to an unknown fate while the imprisoned Prang prays over the dying form of a fellow inmate, while at the same time its Jessup's daughter Mary who holds the gun on Swan, allowing her boy to escape.

The 1938 revision is more Hollywood. The original 1936 version is much more interesting, inspiring, and non-traditional, and by that I mean less obvious macho bullshit. The original script is a big, beautiful, sprawling mess. And I think it's better that way. And that's what we're going to do.

All images from one of the New York City productions of "It Can't Happen Here," 1936.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum

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