Richard Lingeman on the revival of It Can’t Happen Here; Erika Eichelberger on the global fight over tar sands.


IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE (CAN IT?): Fascism in America? Nah, it can’t happen here, people said. But Sinclair Lewis, Nobel Prize–winning author (and a Nation contributor), challenged that shibboleth in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy in which a folksy, Huey Long–style demagogue is elected president and soon becomes an American Hitler. In 1936 the WPA Federal Theater Project mounted twenty-two simultaneous nationwide productions of the novel, which Lewis and John C. Moffitt adapted for the stage. In September, in commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of those productions, about twenty-two theater companies and universities across the country staged readings of Lewis’s play.

The instigator was California actor and comedian Darryl Henriques, who calls the Federal Theater Project “the greatest flowing of theatrical talent the country has ever witnessed” and says his idea for the revival “had everything to do with what’s going on in America.”

“We have a form of fascism that hides behind the illusion of elections, a government that is wholly owned by the corporations and consistently ignores the well-being of its citizens in order to enrich the rich.”

Most of the readings took place on October 24—the date of Black Thursday, the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. In Seattle Arne Zaslove mounted a lavish reading with the Endangered Species Project, dedicated to putting on “the great plays you seldom see.” Producing director Mark Seldis of the Ghost Road Company in Baldwin Hills, California, says of its performance, “It was clear from audience reactions that It Can’t Happen Here certainly resonates today.” Mike Smith Rivera of Burning Clown Productions, who held a reading in New York with the WorkShop Theater Company, says “much of the discussion was centered around” Lewis’s prescience “in foreseeing many of society’s present-day problems”—problems currently dramatized by Occupy Wall Street.

As Federal Theater Project director Hallie Flanagan once put it, dictatorship comes in “an apparently harmless guise with parades and promises…[but] the promises are not kept and the parade grounds become encampments.”   RICHARD LINGEMAN

TAR SANDS FIGHT GOES GLOBAL: As US environmentalists rally their forces before the Obama administration’s final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, European countries are embroiled in a struggle to ban importation of the dirty oil. A proposal to tighten the EU Fuel Quality Directive, passed to cut carbon emissions, would rate fuels according to their environmental impact. Tar sands oil emits at least 23 percent more greenhouse gas than conventional oil and creates three times as much in production.

The British government, which once warned Canada about the dangers of exploiting oil sands, is now fighting the new proposal. British transport minister Norman Baker opposes singling out oil sands and wants to halt the proposal until the emissions values of all crudes, not just oil sands, are included. Joss Garman, an activist with Greenpeace UK, calls this position a “straight wrecking tactic.”

Officials on the Fuel Quality Committee will vote on the measure at the end of this year. If approved, says Garman, a European ban “could be a game-changer.”   ERIKA EICHELBERGER

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