When Dorothy Thompson disembarked from the ocean liner Leviathan in New York on September 14, 1934, it was the first time the reporters waiting at the dock seemed more interested in her than in her Nobel Prize-winning husband, the novelist Sinclair Lewis. He, too, had come to meet her, and was waiting at the side of the pier, quietly irritated by all the attention she was getting.
Thompson, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post and other publications, was in the spotlight as the first American correspondent to be expelled from Nazi Germany. A few weeks earlier, as she was having breakfast in her Berlin hotel room, a trench-coated Gestapo agent had appeared at the door with an order that she leave the country within 24 hours. Under police escort, she boarded a train for Paris the next day, her arms filled with American Beauty roses given to her by the cluster of fellow foreign correspondents who came to see her off.
Although Adolf Hitler usually avoided one-on-one interviews, Thompson, who spoke German fluently, had managed to obtain one several years earlier, before he took office. She found “a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure … the very prototype of the Little Man.” His eyes had “the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics and hysterics.” This description had infuriated the future dictator, and he demanded from his staff immediate translations of anything else she published. Later, she watched storm troopers marching down Unter den Linden shouting curses at Jews. “I saw them in my mind’s eye, marching on and on, over frontiers, north, east, west and south,” she wrote. “The boiling kettle had exploded.”
Back in the United States, Thompson embarked on the first of several marathon lecture tours warning about the rise of fascism. She found the country in turmoil. Desperate voters had placed their hopes on Franklin D. Roosevelt, but so far his New Deal had done little to ease the pain of the Great Depression. Every day brought shocking headlines. Ten men paroled from a Pennsylvania prison asked to be readmitted because they couldn’t find jobs. Chicago ran short of money to pay schoolteachers. In Appalachia, some people were surviving on wild grass, roots and dandelions. Millions of out-of-work Americans were evicted from their homes and plunged into just the kind of despair that had made it so easy for a charismatic leader like Hitler to point to scapegoats.
And America had its own rising demagogues. One was Father Charles Coughlin, the golden-voiced “radio priest.” Weekly broadcasts brought to a vast audience his sonorous baritone that would rise to a passionate crescendo; according to one poll, some 16 million people heard him at least once a month. Ministers rescheduled church services so they would not lose parishioners to Coughlin’s talks, and high school football games were timed to end before he went on the air. He spoke to live audiences as large as 30,000 people and received more mail than the president. He had long denounced bankers and financiers, at least once calling them “Shylocks,” and by the late 1930s would make strident diatribes against Jews. A newspaper he controlled printed installments of the notoriously false Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the decade’s end would find Coughlin praising Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The evils of communism, he claimed, stemmed from a Russian Revolution that had been backed by Jewish bankers. Coughlin was building a national movement.
Meanwhile, some Ku Klux Klansmen in Georgia, imitating followers of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, began calling themselves the Blackshirts. Admirers of Hitler would soon form themselves into the German American Bund, whose brown-shirted followers drilled beneath the Nazi flag at a network of summer camps. Occultist William Dudley Pelley started a paramilitary militia known as the Silver Shirts. Pelley told a congressional committee that “Mr. Hitler had done an excellent job in Germany,” and that America could address the “Jewish question” by gathering all Jews into one city in each state.
Sinclair Lewis absorbed his wife’s alarm at the rise of the Nazis. His marriage to her was clouded by his alcoholism, his violent rages and his jealousy of her expertise about European politics and headline-winning expulsion from Nazi Germany. “If I ever divorce Dorothy,” he would say, “I’ll name Adolf Hitler as co-respondent.”
Even so, the year after Thompson’s return from Germany, Lewis plunged into a nine-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week marathon of writing to produce a novel about a fascist takeover in America. It Can’t Happen Here portrays an unscrupulous, power-hungry senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who, aided by a Coughlin-like Bishop Prang, wins the 1936 presidential election. (When he’d had a few drinks, Lewis enjoyed doing imitations of Coughlin and other demagogues of his day.) Windrip proclaims martial law, and an armed militia—the Minute Men, or MM, in a nod to Hitler’s SS—helps him override courts and Congress and throw his enemies in prison. The plot goes on, improbably, from there. Although far from great literature (“I’ve done better books,” the author acknowledged), the novel touched a nerve and it sold 320,000 copies.
The novel is in print today, amid growing concerns about authoritarianism both in the United States and abroad. At one point in 2017, it appeared on Amazon’s list of top ten best-selling books. But few people remember the play that the book inspired. It Can’t Happen Here was one of the most popular nationwide theater events of the Great Depression, staged by a remarkable, largely forgotten branch of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The play reached hundreds of thousands of audience members in multiple languages. It also helped provoke a real-life drama: a congressional investigation whose star was an undercover agent.
The Federal Theater Project was led by Hallie Flanagan, who was, in the words of actor and director John Houseman, a “small red-haired lady with the firm mouth and the ferocity of an aroused lion.” In 1935, she was directing the acclaimed experimental theater program at Vassar College when she received a call from her old friend Harry Hopkins. He was now the head of the Works Progress Administration, the agency creating jobs for millions of Americans as the centerpiece of the New Deal. He invited her to Washington, where he told her, “Unemployed actors get just as hungry as anybody else.”
Hopkins already had plans to create jobs for out-of-work writers and artists, but there was a bolder dimension to the administration’s hopes for reviving the theater. At the White House, Flanagan later recalled, Eleanor Roosevelt asked her “whether the time had come when America might consider the theater, as it was considered abroad, a part of education.” The first lady figured most Americans would say no if the matter were put to a vote. But since Congress had already set aside money to take care of people in need, a Federal Theater Project seemed worth a try.
With that, Flanagan became the head of a major New Deal program. She and Hopkins fleshed out plans for this unprecedented venture as they traveled by train to a theater conference in Iowa, where Flanagan’s appointment was to be announced. Everything she saw out the windows as they steamed through the cities of the Midwest reinforced the urgency of putting people back to work. “These slums through which we were riding, these ramshackle, vermin-infested buildings housing our fellow citizens were one reason,” she recalled in her 1940 memoir. “These pale children sitting listlessly on fire escapes were another. Sullen youths hanging around our street corners were another. Worried-looking men, gathered in silent knots before employment agencies, were still another.”In a country where many people could no longer afford an evening at the theater, thousands of men and women on relief were jobless actors, directors, set designers, musicians and stagehands. At its peak, the Federal Theater Project employed nearly 13,000. It put the lights back on in dozens of theaters. And its productions also traveled to prisons, reformatories, settlement houses and psychiatric hospitals. In the summer, the project mounted free plays in parks. When a million people in the Ohio River Valley fled a disastrous flood, a Federal Theater Project vaudeville troupe performed for weeks in the camps, shuttered factories and garages where the refugees were housed. One murder mystery, in which members of the audience were enlisted as witnesses and jurors, was mounted across the country in 258 Civilian Conservation Corps camps, where young men were at work planting more than 3.5 billion trees and constructing bridges, trails, shelters, roads and buildings in state and national parks. Altogether, the project’s more than 1,200 plays would be seen by nearly 30 million people, up to 65 percent of whom had never seen live theater before.
It Can’t Happen Here, Flanagan and her staff thought, would make a splendid, timely play. Sinclair Lewis was not known for being a playwright, however, so Flanagan paired him with Hollywood scriptwriter John C. Moffitt. Their collaboration turned out to be tempestuous, and the two were soon not on speaking terms. Flanagan installed them in apartments on different floors of New York’s Essex House, on Central Park South, where they wrote, and raged at each other, while she mediated by passing notes between them. “Mr. Moffitt … paced up and down in his apartment … and threatened, if Mr. Lewis did not omit certain scenes and include others, various unusual reprisals,” she later recalled in her memoir. Before long, Moffitt fled back to Hollywood, and Flanagan replaced him with another writer.
Flanagan was eager to show that drama was not just for Broadway audiences, but for everyone. In what one scholar calls “probably the largest mass opening in the history of the theater,” It Can’t Happen Here was scheduled to premiere simultaneously on 21 stages in 17 states. As opening night approached, frantic telegrams flowed in from theaters. Denver: Where is revised version act three Lewis play rush immediately. Chicago: New ending revised act three Lewis play does not make sense please advise. San Francisco: Object to cutting White House scene only good scene Lewis play. Nebraska: Person in high place considers White House scene quote ill-advised unquote letter follows. Los Angeles: Imperative have no more revision. Flanagan and her colleagues had their own last-minute jitters about offending people who could threaten their funding. Five days before opening night, they telegraphed all 21 theaters: Cut White House scene stop cut line quote billygoats of Supreme Court unquote stop.
Other obstacles loomed. In New Orleans, there was some concern that audiences would see the play as a dig against the recently assassinated governor and U.S. senator Huey P. Long. Although Long was on the political left—he battled corporations, promoted federal spending and advocated for the redistribution of wealth—he also pushed through laws that stripped power from courts, cities and counties, and concentrated it in the state government he tightly controlled. He built a new and ostentatious governor’s mansion and state capitol, and had state police cars delivering copies of a newspaper he ran. When a legislator suggested he was violating the Louisiana Constitution, he replied, “I’m the Constitution around here now.” He had his sights set on the presidency when the son-in-law of a political rival killed him in 1935. “New Orleans officials,” Flanagan later wrote in her memoir, “felt it inadvisable to produce a play against dictatorship in a city where many people still revered the memory of Huey Long.” There were no performances in Louisiana.
Lewis continued to revise and argue with his latest collaborator, meddling ceaselessly with the casting and rehearsals of the flagship production on Broadway. Two days before opening night, he called Flanagan at 7 a.m. to thunder that it was no good: “I want you to … postpone the play a week and get new people to do everything, or do it yourself. Why, the living room they have got up there on the stage looks more like a cheap boarding house. … It is all terrible. It is all a failure.” Flanagan altered the set to mollify him.
The play opened in all 21 theaters on schedule, on October 27, 1936. In Broadway’s Adelphi Theater, every seat was taken, and a hundred spectators stood in the rear. A photo shows Flanagan chatting with the gangly Lewis, towering a head and a half above her, before they took their seats. “As the house lights dimmed off and the audience rustled into silence,” she recalled, “I watched anxiously.” At the intermission, she hailed a taxi and rushed downtown to catch part of the play at another theater—in Yiddish. Despite not knowing the language, she found the actors far more expressive, “and on the whole I thought it a better show.” Unlike the English production, the Yiddish-language version also included a scene set in a concentration camp. Flanagan headed back to Broadway in time to hear a vigorous ovation. “The tall, gaunt, awkward Lewis,” wrote one spectator, “who looked like a dolled-up scarecrow in his tuxedo, finally emerged on the stage.” When the audience demanded, “Speech! Speech!,” Lewis replied that the play itself was his speech. He and Dorothy Thompson then hosted a party at the Plaza Hotel for the cast and crew. Telegrams flowed in from around the country telling of enthusiastic capacity audiences. In Boston, 300 people had been turned away.
The play was unusual not only for its nationwide opening. Actors in Chicago spilled into the theater’s aisles and boxes to bring the action closer to the audience. The production in Tampa was in Spanish. In Seattle the cast was all Black, except for the would-be dictator and his sidekicks, who were white—and this at a time when white and Black actors virtually never appeared on the same stage. Like New York, Los Angeles held performances in both English and Yiddish. For some of the actors in the Yiddish versions, the sight of uniformed, jackbooted militiamen strutting about the stage was frighteningly familiar, because they were refugees from Europe. On the opening night of the New York Yiddish production, several audience members fainted.
The play was no masterpiece, an ungainly sprawl with a cast of more than two dozen that, if not shortened by a director, ran three and a half hours. But its action spoke to the political moment. “The theater enlarged its appeal beyond mere entertainment into a living, graphic document of contemporary forces,” wrote the Miami Herald. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson thought the play crude but acknowledged that “thousands of Americans who do not know what a fascist dictatorship would mean now have an opportunity to find out.”
After the initial run, a New York “Suitcase” traveling company, with its sets all folded into a 30-foot-long truck compartment, brought 133 performances of the play to school auditoriums, Civilian Conservation Corps camps and other venues. Federal Theater Project units in several other states, as well as New York’s Yiddish production, also took the play on the road. Altogether, at an average ticket price of 30 cents, as many as 379,000 people saw the show.
Only a few months before It Can’t Happen Here unfolded on American stages, far-right army officers in Spain revolted against the country’s democratically elected government. Hitler and Mussolini rushed bomber squadrons, tanks, artillery and other help to the rebel officers. The Spanish government appealed to the Western democracies to sell it arms, but in vain. Foreign volunteers, who before long would include 2,800 Americans, rushed to defend Spanish democracy. Suddenly the long-simmering advance of fascism was boiling over into war.
While millions of Americans worried about an increasingly bellicose Hitler, others feared that the Great Depression would push the U.S. electorate in the direction of socialism. This seemed to be happening in some places abroad: In France the left-leaning Popular Front won power in 1936, and socialist Léon Blum became prime minister.
American business groups began pumping out a torrent of books, articles and pamphlets attacking the New Deal. One of the most strident of these groups was called the Constitutional Educational League. The organization attacked Roosevelt, Jews and labor unions in a blizzard of newsletters and pamphlets with titles like Communism in Our Schools?, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You! and High Taxes: The Quick Way to Communism.
The great majority of the Federal Theater Project’s plays were in the standard repertory, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan, but some reflected the values of the New Deal. One-Third of a Nation, for example, took its title from Roosevelt’s second inaugural address and dramatized the plight of people in shoddy and dangerous housing. Dialogue of senators objecting to subsidized housing was taken straight from the Congressional Record. When a slum tenement in Philadelphia collapsed, the event was written into that city’s version of the show.
Another Federal Theater Project play, Triple-A Plowed Under, showed how farmers succumbed to debt and saw their land auctioned off. A very young Orson Welles directed an all-Black cast in Macbeth, set in Haiti, with the witches as voodoo priestesses, that toured the country in a special train and was seen by 150,000 people. A play called Spirochete tackled a subject seldom dealt with on the American stage: syphilis. In the lobby of the Chicago theater where it played, nurses and doctors offered the audience blood tests.
The plays continued to win critical praise. Eleanor Roosevelt attended performances. Two of the greatest living playwrights, George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill, gave the project the right to perform some two dozen of their plays at royalties far below the normal rate, so long as ticket prices were kept low. (The average theater ticket during the Great Depression was around $1.10 to $2.20. The Federal Theater Project was able to make its tickets comparable to the 25 cent admission price for a movie.) Countries as varied as Norway, Mexico and Czechoslovakia sent representatives to study the project. Versions of It Can’t Happen Here reached the stage in Canada and in France. Flanagan was invited to speak about her work in Europe. With support from the White House and from theatergoers around the country, she was riding high. She received such an overwhelming cascade of mail that the project was given an additional staff member to help sort through it, a quiet young woman named Hazel Huffman. At first, no one paid her much attention.
Although programs like the Federal Theater Project were highly popular with the public, there were danger signs for its longevity. In early 1938, a U.S. senator from Georgia denounced Turpentine, a Federal Theater Project play with a Black cast about the South’s notorious debt-bondage labor camps. Many white politicians from the Jim Crow South were also upset with Flanagan’s insistence on integrated audiences and equal pay for Black and white actors. When the committee that would later be known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities formed in the spring of 1938, with a focus on stopping communist infiltration, one of the first groups it investigated was the Federal Theater Project.
The hearing itself was high drama, complete with a surprise player: Hazel Huffman, the former mailroom worker for the project, who turned out to be an undercover agent. Huffman claimed to represent an organization of 900 theatrical employees, but little trace of such a body existed other than a letterhead listing her as its secretary. Flanagan said she had found proof indicating that Huffman was paid for leaking draft scripts of the project’s plays and other confidential information to the extremely hostile Hearst newspaper chain. (One Hearst paper fired a drama critic who favorably reviewed one of the plays.) Other evidence suggests that Huffman’s backer may have been the Constitutional Educational League, which gave its annual “Americanism Award” for that year to Congressman Martin Dies of Texas, the House committee’s chair. The league and Dies’ committee shared files on those they considered subversive.
In the witness chair, Huffman unleashed accusations against Flanagan and her colleagues—incompetence, wasteful spending and more—but her main focus was communism. She proclaimed that communist leaflets were sometimes distributed in the project’s offices, that Flanagan had written of her admiration for the experimental Soviet theater of the 1920s, that some Federal Theater Project staff were members of the Communist Party or its front groups and that Black protest songs used in a play, How Long, Brethren?, had previously been published in a communist magazine. All of that was true, and not surprising, for in the 1930s, the American Communist Party was at the height of its influence, and WPA officials were not allowed to ask about the political affiliations of their employees. Huffman condemned It Can’t Happen Here as “anti-fascist in the extreme.”
With Huffman’s help, the committee found several other present or former employees of the project to testify. One spoke darkly of the numerous “aliens” the program employed. Another, a former stage manager, testified about a staff party where men “of the colored race” were dancing with white women. Sally Saunders, an actress and Austrian immigrant, testified about how shocked she was to be asked for a date by a Black man working for the project, charging that “social equality and race merging” was part of the communist program. “Reds Urged ‘Mixed’ Date, Blonde Tells Dies Probers,” trumpeted William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American, beside a large photo of Saunders with a dark hat tilted atop her blond pin curls.
The committee made little attempt to balance the testimonies of Huffman and other adversaries with those of witnesses defending the project. Only months later was Flanagan even allowed to appear. Committee members grilled her using a list of questions prepared by Huffman. Alabama Congressman Joe Starnes repeatedly interrupted Flanagan to ask her about “communistic” tendencies. “You are quoting from this [Christopher] Marlowe,” he said at one point. “Is he a Communist?”
“He was the greatest dramatist … immediately preceding Shakespeare,” Flanagan explained. Starnes also inquired about the seditious inclinations of “Mr. Euripides.” After a few more such exchanges, the committee cut off Flanagan’s testimony, and she never got the chance to read a statement she had prepared. Admirers in the press defended her, with columnist Heywood Broun facetiously praising the acumen of Starnes, who “can detect a radical at a distance of more than three centuries.”
The hearings marked the beginning of the end for the Federal Theater Project. Both House and Senate debated a measure to save it, but despite passionate lobbying by famous directors and actors—one of them, Tallulah Bankhead, was the niece of a senator and the daughter of the speaker of the House—it was given only a few more months of life. On the final night of the project’s production of the children’s play Pinocchio at New York’s Ritz Theater, the curtains remained open as stagehands dismantled the set and laid the puppet in a coffin labeled “Killed by Act of Congress, June 30, 1939.”
What remained of the project, Flanagan wrote, was “a blueprint, a memorandum for tomorrow.”
The fascist takeover portrayed in It Can’t Happen Here never did happen here. But, of course, it did happen elsewhere, as Hitler’s troops moved first into Austria, then Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and finally into almost all of Europe. Japan spread a similar sort of rule throughout Asia, and before long the United States was at war.
The people whose lives intersected through the Federal Theater Project went their different ways. Flanagan returned to her job as a college professor. Dorothy Thompson’s marriage to Sinclair Lewis did not last, but her career as a journalist did. The three-times-a-week syndicated political column she wrote—a first for an American woman—was read by millions. Conspicuously laughing and jeering from a press seat, she attended the notorious 1939 rally where 20,000 supporters of the German American Bund filled Madison Square Garden. She went on to cover World War II, and she was so respected for her prescient denunciation of fascism that she was invited to address Britain’s House of Commons. She also sponsored numerous Jewish refugees immigrating to the United States, which earned her a flood of antisemitic hate mail.
As for Huffman, she went on to do more work for the House Committee. After attending a rally where Woody Guthrie sang, she testified about the folksinger’s subversive tendencies. Her papers reveal an anxious woman, constantly prospecting for more undercover assignments and struggling with successive drafts of a never-published book about “the Red Theater.”
Actors continued to perform It Can’t Happen Here after its Federal Theater Project run. In one Massachusetts summer stock production, Sinclair Lewis himself appeared onstage, playing the role of the heroic journalist who helps defeat the fascist militia. This allowed him to declaim such lines as “This isn’t any one-horse European country that a dictator could get hold of. No sir! … It can’t happen here!”
MGM bought the screen rights for It Can’t Happen Here from Lewis, lining up an all-star cast including James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore. However, after reportedly spending $200,000 (roughly $4 million today) on casting, sets and other expenses, the studio canceled the project. MGM gave various excuses, but most evidence suggests that it feared that going ahead with the film would cut off the lucrative market for all its movies in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Japan. Indeed, the German Film Chamber in Berlin denounced Lewis as “a full-blooded Communist.” MGM soon found a less threatening product in 1939 with Gone With the Wind. Hitler so loved it that he reportedly watched the film three times.