Friday, January 27, 2012

Hell is Ugly People

Before discussing the niggling fascism of The Fountainhead and its seductive portrait of a self-willed hero, it's best to begin with a definition of an infamously slippery term. Susan Sontag's definition, in reference to the films in photography of Leni Riefenstahl, will guide our way:
Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, "virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.
This is by no means a perfect definition for my purposes; Rand's notions of heroic individualism at first blush would seem to preclude any consideration of masses of people. (This is, however, belied by her later development of a personality cult of young admirers that adopted her opinions, tastes, and even fashions.) Yet much of it is discomfittingly apropos: Howard Roark's egoism, his absolute self-control and stoic endurance of every obstacle, the master/slave dichotomy at work with him not just socially but sexually (my god, the rape scene!), his magnetic virility.

On its own Roark's role as a paragon of overwhelming power might not be so bothersome. But the problem is thrown into stark relief when one considers the cast which surrounds him, which is largely a rogue's gallery of "selfless" venality.

Of the mere mortals that stand in Roark's path, the most pesky are Peter Keating and Ellsworth M. Toohey. Keating, Roark's "rival" (Roark naturally could give a damn, while Keating is haunted by his own feeling of inferiority whenever dealing with him) has no particular interest or talent in architecture, but does it in order to be more famous and financially successful than anybody else. Toohey, architecture critic for tabloid rag The New York Banner, is a self-described "humanitarian" whose charity work and social conscience are a cover to enhance his own standing and power and paper over his own lack of talent.

The unifying thread of all such characters is their "selflessness." This is something Rand details to great extent, so it is worth clarifying: a power-hungry douchebag like Peter Keating is egotistical, "selfish," in the traditional meaning of the term, but he is in a sense "self-less," in that his entire identity is wrapped up in how he is perceived by others. He has no self, while Roark, even though he is 'better' than everyone else, is only concerned about living up to his own standards.

This is the pervasive theme of The Fountainhead, whose original working title, based on this theme, was Second-Hand Lives. Rand developed this notion and the idea for the book after asking a young Hollywood secretary what her goal in life was. The response:
Here's what I want out of life. If nobody had an automobile, I would not want one. If automobiles exist and some people don't have them, I want an automobile. If some people have two automobiles, I want two automobiles.
An appalling outlook it is indeed, and Rand's formulation of 'self-lessness,' based around this idea, is novel and genuinely insightful. One of the few positive things one can take away from this book is this consideration of whether one is acting for one's own enjoyment, or merely to curry favor with others. I

But, typical of her black-and-white thinking, Rand goes on to insist that this is the only alternative to Roark's heroic individualism, which is itself the only kind of virtue possible. Thus traditional selflessness and altruism are not merely matters of individual generosity or societal cooperation, but a barely-disguised collectivism that seeks to drag the best and brightest into a stew of mediocrity and completely eradicate the notion of the self (it also bears little relation to what any person actually thinks):
You must be willing to suffer, to be cruel, to be dishonest, to be unclean--anything, my dear, anything to kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego. And only when it is dead, when you care no longer, when you have lost your identity and forgotten the name of your soul--only then will you know the kind of happiness I spoke about, and the gates of spiritual grandeur will fall open before you.
Toohey is the most obviously villainous example--his very name is the sound one makes when hawking spit--but virtually anyone who isn't working for or paying Roark is emotionally defective: Keating's mother, who "supports" him every step of the way, is a passive-aggressive emotional vampire whose "love" is a cover for emotional manipulation, while his girlfriend Catharine, Toohey's niece, is pitifully passive and frail, with no will of her own to protest Keating constantly ignoring her and taking her for granted.

More than just morally defective, the undesirables in Rand's universe are physically repulsive too: Toohey is an obvious case, fey and skinny, a sickly creature with a Hitler mustache. But it extends to all manner of minor and background characters. Some of The Fountainhead's most vivid passages are the ones communicating physical disgust. In a memorable scene, Keating goes to one of the partners of the architecture firm he works for in order to force him to retire, and ends up giving the poor bastard a second fatal stroke.  The language Rand uses to describe this nonentity is some of the most viscerally disgusting in the book:
Heyer sat still, with his pale, bulging eyes blank and his mouth open in a perfect circle. Keating shuddered and wondered whether he was speaking to an idiot.

Then Heyer’s mouth moved and his pale pink tongue showed, flickering against his lower teeth.

“But I don’t want to retire.” He said it simply, guilelessly, in a little petulant whine.
Rand describes how the old man’s “left hand with the paralyzed fingers jabbed at [a sheet of paper] blindly, purposelessly, like a hook,” how “the yellow face at the edge of the table opened its mouth and made a wet, gurgling sound like a moan.” Then: “A shadow cut diagonally across his face. Keating saw one eye that did not blink, half a mouth open, the darkness flowing in through the hole, into the face, as if it were drowning.”

Later Toohey opens up a Home for Subnormal Children, which I guess is supposed to be funny in an "oh, those bleeding heart liberals" kind of way:
A small, experienced staff was chosen by Toohey. It had been harder to find the children who qualified as inmates. Most of them had to be taken from other institutions. Sixty-five children, their ages ranging from three to fifteen, were picked out by zealous ladies who were full of kindness and so made a point of rejecting those who could be cured and selecting only the hopeless cases. There was a fifteen-year-old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was also her grandfather; a person called "Jackie" of whose age or sex nobody could be certain. They marched into their new home, their eyes staring vacantly, the stare of death before which no world existed.
The hatred of weakness is most explicitly articulated by an acolyte of Roark's, a young sculptor who attempted to shoot Toohey:
Listen, what's the most horrible experience you can imagine? To me--it's being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a drooling beast of prey or a maniac who's had some disease that's eaten his brain out. You'd have nothing then but your voice--your voice and your thought. You'd scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you'd have the most eloquent words, the unanswerable words, you'd become the vessel of the absolute truth. And you'd see living eyes watching you and you'd know that the thing can't hear you, that it can't be reached, not reached, in any way, yet it's breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of it's own. That's horror. Well, that's what's hanging over the world, prowling somewhere through mankind, that same thing, something closed, mindless, utterly wanton, but something with an aim and a cunning of its own.
Rand makes strength and beauty into absolute ideals and frivolity, frailty, and ugliness, which is a hallmark of fascism. She allows no room for compromise, ambiguity, or charity, and so adopts an attitude of austere judgment and contempt. This permeates the book throughout, in every aspect and area, including, as we will see, the realm most often thought immune from such attitudes: love.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Triumph of the Will to Power

One need but read the opening paragraphs of The Fountainhead to understand how it ended up selling a zillion copies:
Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone—flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.

The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.

His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind.
Ayn Rand's simple prose gets right to the point and stabs the reader in the eye with it. With its talk of 'explosions of granite,' 'cutting rocks,' the 'weight of blood,' the narrative mainlines awesome virility like heroin straight into the reader's brain. Rand intended protagonist Howard Roark as an ideal, a god among men, and to identify with him is to channel Olympus, to master nature itself:
He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky.

These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.
It’s a literary amphetamine; after reading the book's first chapter, I wanted to put a cigarette out on somebody’s face just because I could. Reading it leaves no question of why the act of building a skyscraper is referred to as 'erection.'

Rand's shtick from the beginning was the glorification of individual strength over collectivism, but her early writing was seriously handicapped by luridly focusing on her heroes' exploitative sexuality and general contempt of humanity without providing much reason to not be utterly repulsed. Her greatest stylistic advancement, then, was to create a protagonist the reader could identify with, and whose disconnection from other people is enchanting rather than alienating.

There is a newfound self-awareness at work in passages like this exchange, between villain Peter Keating and Roark:
“Can’t you be human for once in your life?”


“Human! Simple. Natural.”

“But I am.”

“Can’t you ever relax?”

Roark smiled, because he was sitting on the window sill, leaning sloppily against the wall, his long legs hanging loosely, the cigarette held without pressure between limp fingers.

“That’s not what I mean!” said Keating. “Why can’t you go out for a drink with me?”

“What for?”

“Do you always have to have a purpose? Do you always have to be so damn serious? Can’t you ever do things without reason, just like everybody else? You’re so serious, so old. Everything’s important with you, everything’s great, significant in some way, every minute, even when you keep still. Can’t you ever be comfortable—and unimportant?”

Any artist can relate to Roark's drive to follow his creative impulse, to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else. He doesn't care what anybody thinks, to the point of what most people--and everyone in the book--considers career suicide: getting kicked out of architectural school, going to work for a has-been, insisting his buildings be built according to his desires and not the client's, going to work in a granite quarry rather than take a job with a firm, etc. And he beats the odds every time.

It's a creative person's wet dream, and at least initially, it all helps bypass the fact that Roark's behavior is kind of sociopathic. He never expresses much of any emotion, not even when by himself, and never doubts or regrets anything. He doesn't deal with people except to the extent that they are useful to his work (I'm not even going to touch the book's infamous rape scene right now).

Yet such a term as 'sociopath' is almost beside the point. Rand considered her fiction to be "Romantic Realism," dealing with idealized types and how life "ought" to be, and by her reckoning we all ought to be Nietzschean antichrists. Literally. If Christ is a paragon of selflessness, charity, and love, Roark is his antipode, the embodiment of self-interest, anti-socialism, and...not hate, not exactly:

“Howard, why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you.”

“Well, that’s it! Why don’t you hate me at least?”

“Why should I?”

“Just to give me something. I know you can’t like me. You can’t like anybody. So it would be kinder to acknowledge people’s existence by hating them.”

“I’m not kind, Peter.”

It's no mystery why disgruntled teenagers and college students become as obsessed with Rand as they do, especially with The Fountainhead so often serving as the gateway drug. Its early passages are intoxicating; I knew better, and yet Roark's appeal still managed to breach my defenses. However, the book's most superficially appealing traits are also the source of nearly every one of its many major weaknesses. As I will discuss in subsequent posts, its idealism saps the storytelling of all tension, and its celebration of overwhelming strength, and a consequent disgust with anything perceived as weak, makes it a profoundly beguiling and deceptively benign work of aesthetic fascism.


I'm now over a third of the way through The Fountainhead. I've debated whether or not to post my responses as I go along, or to put them all under one post. There's simply too much ground to cover, however, my notes are getting much too long to adequately condense into one entry, so I'll be summarizing my thoughts thus far and jotting down anything that comes to mind, and then will review the book and its conception and publishing history when I'm finished.

Then beginneth Atlas Shrugged....

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sing Us a Song, You're the Overman

With royalties from Night of January 16th providing a steady income, Ayn Rand set about writing what would become The Fountainhead. In writing it, however, especially when it came to devising a climax to tie everything together, Rand found herself blocked for the first time in her life. To occupy her time and free her mind she turned to various side projects; she spent months writing and working on an abortive stage version of We the Living, entitled The Unconquered. She also turned one of her novellas, Ideal, into a stageplay that was never produced.

A breakthrough of sorts came when she traveled with her husband Frank O’Connor in July 1936 to Stonington, Connecticut where Frank was playing “Guts” Regan in a summer stock production of Night of January 16th. (Regan is a gangster who is in love with and helps Karen Andre, who he knows loves Bjorn Faulkner; that Frank should play the hapless vertex in a love triangle was a sad anticipation of his forlorn acquiescence of Rand’s later affair with the imposing and twenty-years-younger Nathaniel Branden.) There, inspired by a Saturday Evening Post short story originally entitled The Place of the Gods, a dystopic tale of a man in a primitive future stumbling upon the remains of a 20th century city, she produced in mere weeks her own dystopic fable.

In Anthem’s distant future, “collectivism” has won out and all of society is organized around a single state, so much so that individual identity, the very word “I’ itself, has been erased. The people spend their days in assigned labor and are not given proper names, but rather designations like Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000, those of our protagonist and his eventual female partner. E, as I’ll call him, happens upon an old tunnel from the Unmentionable Times, where he rediscovers electricity and the light bulb. He shows his discovery to the Council of Scholars, but is rebuked for thinking himself above them, and he flees into the woods. Liberty 5-3000 follows him, and they eventually come upon an old cabin on the side of a mountain. It is from reading the books inside that E, now rechristened Prometheus, rediscovers the word “I.” The book ends with a paeon to the ego and a vow to create a world “where each man will be free to exist for his own sake.”

Anthem recalls not so much 1984, to which it is often compared, or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the prototypical dystopia from which both Orwell and Rand drew liberally, as much as it does The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both works are narrated by naïve beings, one a child, the other child-like due to his upbringing. Both take place in slave societies. And both hinge on their protagonists consciously risking damnation to free the enslaved (in this case it is the protagonist himself and his mate). The details are obviously far different, but in these respects they are most similar.

Mark Twain, however, was dealing with actual slavery. Ayn Rand only thinks she does. In her preface she sniffs,

The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default.... They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: “But I didn’t mean this!”

Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name.

That this talk of moral responsibility for concentration camps and serfdom was written in 1946 is rather appalling, and Anthem, seen in this light may well seem unreadable but for another crucial difference from Huckleberry Finn: humor. Twain’s book is shot through with scabrous irony, right down to the affection Huck uses in such a self-evidently crude epithet as ‘Nigger Jim.’ Its humor is bone dry, but it’s there.

Anthem is quite funny, too, but without meaning to be. For all its celebration of happiness as the individual’s highest good, its solemn, self-consciously biblical style, with shades of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is utterly mirthless, treating everything about its world with the utmost seriousness. In certain passages, especially the ending, this has a certain effectiveness:

But I am done with this creed of corruption.

I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.

This god, this one word:


It has the same grandiloquent appeal, an awesomeness in its desire to overwhelm, as much Soviet art, such as “The Motherland Calls.”

But this tone is sustained no matter how ridiculous the circumstances. And they are most ridiculous. People are given names such as Collective 0-0009, Democracy 4-6998, and Unanimity 7-3304. Workers, the Old Ones, retire to the Home of the Useless at age forty, and if they survive, they become Ancients at age…forty-five! It took twenty men to invent the candle, and “fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils for the Candle, and to decide upon the number needed, and to re-fit the Plans so as to make candles instead of torches.” At one point Equality 7-2521 imitates a retarded child, “Union 5-3992, who were a pale boy with only half a brain,” in order to fit in. The prose apes Nietzsche’s stentorian bravado but has none of his wit, and that is deadly.

If Rand had had a sense of humor, she might have had some Tom Stoppard-esque loopiness on her hands to use against her declared enemies. This is supposed to be bleak satire, and so the gross exaggeration is most certainly intended. But satire needs some basis in reality, some plausibility, in order to bite, and there is nothing plausible about a group of collectivists this face-palmingly stupid being able to regress all of humanity back to the somewhen between prehistory and parable. The book mistakes reducto ad absurdum for clairvoyance, and so instead of laughing at the foolish collectivists, one is expected to fear them and has to giggle at Rand’s apocalyptic fervor for thinking such ridiculousness a serious threat.

As such Anthem is a minor camp classic: incredibly mannered, artificial, deadly earnest, and all to extraordinary comic effect. It’s also possibly Rand’s best work; it lacks the stiltedness of We the Living and the sexual authoritarianism and misanthropy of Night of January 16th, and it makes its point far quicker than the mammoth Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Its kitsch quotient saves it from being completely repugnant, and there is undeniable style to its prose, albeit to unfortunate ends; it is like watching a swimmer swan-dive into an empty pool.

Like so much of Rand’s early work, though, Anthem would not find an audience for some time. Unable to find a publisher in America (one reader rejected it in on the grounds that Rand “didn’t understand socialism”), Rand was able to have it published in England in 1938 under its original title Ego. It would not appear in America until 1946, by which time its author had attempted prophecy again with somewhat greater success by turning her predictive eye on--who else?--herself.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Are You Madoff?

The play that would come to be known as Night of January 16th is not Ayn Rand's only play, but it is the only one, outside of a failed adaptation of We the Living entitled The Unconquered, to be produced. For an established popular novelist, a single play might seem no more than a curiosity. Yet Rand's body of fiction is quantitatively slight, and moreover, the play would have a significant impact on the trajectory of Rand's career. It is also, in itself, a fascinatingly grotesque piece of theatre.

Night was written under the title Penthouse Legend in a few months in 1933, during Rand's years in Hollywood and amid composition of We the Living. It shares with that book a similar early fixation on seductively powerful individuals and a notable outside influence: the broad outlines of its plot were modeled after The Trial of Mary Dugan, a 1927 Broadway hit about a chorus girl accused of murdering her sugar daddy, a married business tycoon. Mary Dugan was staged entirely in a court room, with the audience sitting in as jury, with no curtain or similar theatrical convention.

The broad contours of Rand's play are similar to the original. The staging retains its 'realistic' style, while the story follows a similar outline: Karen Andre stands accused of murdering her sometime boss and lover, the business mogul Bjorn Faulkner, who fell to his death from his penthouse window. Various witnesses testify, usually first questioned by the District Attorney and then by the defense, each time complicating--severely--the story of what happened. The original was a popping melodrama, whereas Night is a quasi-Nietzschean attack on traditional values and pleasant people.

Rand's biggest twist on the material is to draw members of the audience up to serve as the jury, and to vote in the end on Andre's guilt or innocence. In theory the testimony offered is evenly balanced enough to make both a possibility. But in doing so, the audience is judging not just Andre, but "its soul" and “sense of life,” because every character of any significance is supposed to be a symbol of some outlook. In taking sides one is "admitting" that one’s soul is either bold and individualistic and uncaring of the shackles society places on great men, or petty and altruistic and traditional. It's like answering the question of whether you're still beating your spouse.

As if the false dichotomy weren’t bad enough, the deck is stacked in Karen Andre’s favor by portraying anyone with any sort of concern for others as a buffoon or brigand. My favorite is Magda Svenson, “fat, middle-aged, with tight, drawn lips, suspicious eyes, an air of offended righteousness,” who speaks halting English in a pronounced Swedish accent and, when taking her oath, “takes the Bible, raises it slowly to her lips, kisses it solemnly, and hands it back, taking the whole ceremony with a profound religious seriousness.” Naturally she's a killjoy:

FLINT: Can you tell us an instance of Mr. Faulkner’s extravagance?

MAGDA: I tell you. He had a platinum gown made for her. Yes, I said platinum. Fine mesh, fine and soft as silk. She wore it on her naked body. He would make a fire in the fireplace and he would heat the dress and then put it on her. It cooled and you could see her body in silver sheen, and it been more decent if she had been naked. And she ask to put it on as hot as she can stand, and if it burned her shameless skin, she laughed like the pagan she is, and he kissed the burn, wild like tiger!

It's all so oddly compelling. Because her morality makes a virtue of pride, vanity, and power, Rand takes her heroes’ sadomasochistic authoritarianism to be self-evidently awesome. Thus the opening statement giving us our first sense of the departed Mr. Faulkner,

A man who found a fall from the roof of a sky-scraper shorter and easier than a descent from his tottering throne of the world’s financial dictator. Only a few months ago, behind every big transaction of gold in the world, stood that well-known figure: young, tall, with an arrogant smile, with kingdoms and nations in the palm of one hand—and a whip in the other. If gold is the world’s life blood, then Bjorn Faulkner, holding all its dark, hidden arteries, regulating its ebb and flow, its every pulsation, was the heart of the world. Well, ladies and gentlemen, the world has just had a heart attack.

I hasten to add that Faulkner was based on Ivar Kreugar, the Swedish “Match King” who lost his fortune in a Ponzi scheme of his own devising and committed suicide. Rand objected to the public’s denounciation of Kreugar for his ambition and thought his mistake was getting involved in “mixed-economy politics” when he used loans, that were not paid back, to bribe European governments into giving his match business monopoly status. But what does it matter anyway, because:

Bjorn Faulkner never thought of things as right or wrong. To him it was only: you can or you can’t. He always could. To me it was only: he wants or he doesn’t.

Later on, Karen Andre describes a different matter of the heart, her first day as his secretary:

KAREN: He got up and didn’t say a word. Just stood and looked at me. His mouth was insulting even when silent; you couldn’t stand his gaze very long; I didn’t know whether I wanted to kneel or slap his face. I didn’t do either....

He seemed to take a delight in giving me orders. He acted as if he were cracking a whip over an animal he wanted to break. And I was afraid.

STEVENS: Because you didn’t like that?

KAREN: Because I liked it... So when I finished my eight hours, I told him I was quitting. He looked at me and didn’t answer. Then he asked me suddenly if I had ever slept with a man. I said, No, I hadn’t. He said he’d give me a thousand kroner if I would go into the inner office and take my skirt off. I said I wouldn’t. He said if I didn’t, he’d take me. I said, try it. He did….After awhile, I picked up my clothes; but I didn’t go. I stayed. I kept the job.

Yet it isn’t Rand’s brave new worldview, and its notion that the ideal women wants to be brutalized and exploited by her man, that doom the play; it is its series of plot revelations of escalating outlandishness. We learn that Mrs. Faulkner hired a private eye to protect her husband from a gangster, “Guts” Regan, who actually provided a dead body to throw off Faulkner’s building in order to fake his death and spirit him away in his plane to Buenos Ares under the name Ragnar Hedin, except that the plane was found crashed with a body inside, and so maybe....

Basically, the jury has to decide whether it’s more believable that Faulkner faked his death but then was murdered for real by his petty philanthropist father-in-law, or that “Guts” (god, that name) lied about Faulkner faking his death and then dying for real—thereby faking a faked death—in order to cover for the woman he loves who killed him. It’s positively batty, but Rand has tipped the scales, in her own unique fashion:

FLINT: You were raped by a man the first day you saw him. You lived with him for ten years in a brazenly illicit relationship. You defrauded thousands of investors the world over. You cultivated a friendship with a notorious gangster. You helped in a twenty-five million dollar forgery. You told us all this proudly, flaunting your defiance of all decency. And you don’t expect us to believe you capable of murder?

KAREN: [Very calmly] You’re wrong, Mr. Flint. I am capable of murder--for Bjorn Faulkner’s sake.

It’s the Michael Jackson defense: Andre is so freakishly out there, so weird, that there’s no way she could have done it. That's what a normal person would have done.

Final proof of Andre’s completely alien character comes in the play’s two endings. If the audience jury acquits her, they receive a curt, “Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you—in the name of Bjorn Faulkner.” If they find her guilty, the defense lawyer demands an appeal, to which Andre coldly replies, “There will be no appeal. Ladies and gentlemen, I will not be here to serve the sentence. I have nothing to seek in your world.” It’s not at all realistic, it isn’t even intended to be, but one still cannot but reel at the emotional void at the center of the play.

This would all be an awful lot for an audience to swallow, but the thing is, most of them didn’t. The play was produced as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Theater, where it did modestly well, enough to elicit an offer from Broadway producer A.H. Woods, whose offer to produce it before Rand had turned down out of suspicion that he would neuter it. His new offer, which she accepted, was more to her liking, but in the end her worst fears prevailed. He gave the play the name it goes by today, and added numerous bits—a “funny” southern accent for one character (who becomes the original character’s wife), some business with a gun, a new floozy girlfriend character—while editing out the play’s more philosophical content. The changes don’t improve the play, only convolute the story further and muddy the tone. As vexing as Rand’s version is, it is at least assured of what it wants to be.

Rand disowned the eventual product, though not the revenue it generated. Royalties from the Broadway production, which ran from September 16, 1935 to April 4, 1936, along with stagings both around the world and around the country (as part of a theater project of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, no less), generated anywhere between $200 and $1200 a week in the midst of the Depression, and its long afterlife as a community theater and summer stock mainstay would supplement Rand’s income for the rest of her life. The bowdlerized version remained the only one in circulation until 1968, when she published a restored edition of the play, which was mounted with some additional modernizing tweaks in 1973.

One can’t help but imagine that the wounds inflicted in the compromised production of Night of January 16th never fully healed. For, now freed from having to work a steady job, Rand set about working on a new novel, about a creative loner who would rather destroy his own creation than see his vision compromised. That her full-time writing would be made possible by just such a compromise seemed otherwise to have escaped her notice. Ayn Rand’s life was rich in such irony, though as her next book would show, she never seemed to notice.