Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sinclair Lewis, American Prophet

When I read Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel about the rise of fascism in America, I was riding a train from Atlanta to New York...inadvertently maintaining continuity with the period in the story. I was by turns aghast, despairing, awe-struck, and incredulous at Lewis's writing--there's no other word for it but, "prophetic."

I immediately saw that It Can't Happen Here would work very well as a theater piece, and the way I see it, by using a strict adherence to the story and period it would allow the audience to make the disquieting connections to current events and climate.  In my work with my solo show,Il  Teatro Machiavelli, (wherein I present a period- and dramaturgically airtight Punch-and-Judy-show adaptation of Machiavelli's The Prince) I generally find that the othertimeliness of the setting heightens the timelessness and contemporaneity (yes, that's a word) of the show's themes in the audience's experience.

All that to say, I'm becoming more convinced that the time is ripe for this show.  I saw the attached video starting to make the rounds from the YouTubes, and I dove straight back into the book for the prequel.  Read this, from It Can't Happen Here, then (try to) watch the video.  Is there any other word, but "Prophetic"?

BackgroundBuzz Windrip is the candidate for President, who is campaigning on a platform of smoke-and-mirrors populism.  The groundswell of support in the nation is being led by a WCTU type (Yes, the organization still exists in operation) named Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch. (I insert here a picture of the founder of the WCTU, just because Miss Annie Turner Wittenmyer looks like just the type of gal to start a Women's Christian Temperance Union):  

In the first song, the League of Forgotten Men is a loose ad hoc confederation of disgruntled Depression-unemployed men. In the second, more ominous, song, M.M. is abbreviation for the paramilitary arm of the Windrip movement, the Minute Men (a festishistic patriotic throwback to the Nation's Founding mythos...Tea Party, anyone?). Doremus Jessup is the New England Newspaperman who serves as the primary protagonist of the story. (Lewis could really craft a name, that's for sure.)

Before the cheering, as the Windrip parade neared the platform, they were greeted by Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, the celebrated author, lecturer, and composer, who--suddenly conjured onto the platform as if whisked out of the air--sang to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" words which she herself had written:

Berzelius Windrip went to Wash.,
Riding on a hobby--
To throw Big Business out, by Gosh,
And be the People's Lobby!

Buzz and buzz and keep it up,
Our cares and needs he's toting,
You are a most ungrateful pup,
Unless for Buzz you're voting!

The League of the Forgotten Men
Don't like to be forgotten,
They went to Washington and then
They sang, "There's something rotten!"

And later, just after Windrip is elected:

Past [Doremus Jessup's] house after midnight, through muddy snow tramped a triumphant and reasonably drunken parade, carrying torches and bellowing to the air of "Yankee Doodle" new words revealed just that week by Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch:

The snakes disloyal to our Buzz
We're riding on a rail,
They'll wish to God they never was,
When we get them in jail!

Buzz and buzz and keep it up
To victory he's floated.
You were a most ungrateful pup,
Unless for Buzz you voted.

Every M.M. gets their whip
To use upon some traitor,
And every Antibuzz we skip
Today, we'll tend to later.

Then, when I saw this, I was gobsmacked:

So.  Any one of my Lefty artist friends wanna get a copy of the book and start a conversation?

1 comment:

  1. I will have to dig out my copy now. I think I'm developing an allergy to nationalism, however, or exceptionalism, or whatever they're selling it as now.