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.

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