Anyone attending Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead at BAM this week, in the hope that the Belgian director would throw some shade on those in our government who espouse the Russian-American philosopher’s ethic of self-interest and political libertarianism, will be disappointed. Van Hove presents The Fountainhead in the spirit in which Rand wrote it: as the fictional exploration of her ideas in action. Fortunately, those ideas don’t need much help to discount themselves as morally bankrupt, although, even with van Hove’s sure hand, it takes over four hours to do so.
The Fountainhead, written in 1943, is not Rand’s subsequent magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (which Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has boasted he gives as Christmas presents), but it is a more approachable introduction to her philosophy, expressed here as the conflict between individualism and collectivism. These opposites are embodied, on the one hand, by Howard Roark, a visionary architect and an uncompromising modernist who would rather accept commercial failure than cow-tow to the reigning classicism. Roark is the first of Rand’s fictional portraits of an “ideal man”: an independent, rational, creative nonconformist who views the individual as rightly self-interested, motivated by his own life and happiness, and unhindered by slavish notions of responsibility or care for others. His foil is the mediocre Peter Keating, his former architecture classmate who uses flashes of Roark’s brilliance to win commissions and become a partner in New York’s leading architecture firm. Roark may be Rand’s hero and focus, but he cannot achieve greatness without the toadying Keatings of the world against which he must do constant battle. As the unoriginal, unscrupulous, and often nearly hysterical Keating, Aus Greidanus jr. ably delivers the embarrassing conformist that Rand intended. In contrast, Ramsey Nasr’s stoic, emotionless Roark doesn’t have to work very hard to prove himself to be Keating’s better in every way, but his disinterest in society and the remove at which he keeps himself – a brooding genius unto himself often seated at a drafting table during the performance – keeps us at a similar remove from his struggle.
Another pair of complementary opposites is formed by Gail Wynand (played with gruff brutality by Hans Kesting), the city’s most powerful individual, a tabloid publisher of secret integrity whose pandering to public taste eventually destroys him, and the much more dangerous Ellsworth Toohey, one of Wynand’s journalists with a particular flair for demagoguery and the ambitions of a dictator (Bart Slegers delivers the show’s most chilling performance, possibly because Toohey’s rhetoric and posturing might remind us of Steve Bannon). As movers and shakers in NYC, all of the men are on trajectories that intersect in their quest to possess the beautiful Dominique (Halina Reijn), the daughter of Keating’s employer and an architecture journalist for Wynand’s paper, “The Banner.” Except for some excisions for narrative economy and some blurring of the novel’s resolution, van Hove lets Rand’s philosophy speak for itself.
Watching this Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, which concludes with Roark’s testimony in defense of his rational egoism, is to appreciate, over and over, the so-bad-it’s-good cruelty of Rand’s “virtue of selfishness,” pitting “creators” of ideas against everyone else (generously summed up as “second-handers” and “parasites”). “No man can live for another,” Roark declaims matter of factly when he is put on trial for blowing up one of his architectural creations. “He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body. But the second-hander has used altruism as a weapon of exploitation and reversed the base of mankind’s moral principles.” Or again: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” Van Hove reserves this speech for the show’s epilogue, perhaps as a challenge to Rand’s ideas to stand on their own. A couple seated directly ahead of me laughed audibly throughout his speech.
Unlike many in the audience at the Howard Gilman Opera House this week who may have encountered Rand in high school (her polarizing ideas lend themselves to compare/contrast essay prompts, like “discuss the values of conformity vs nonconformity in society”), van Hove explained in interviews in advance of the show’s US premiere that he discovered the novel comparatively more recently as a story about the artist in society. That theme does appear to be his focus here. Several times during the performance, Roark/Nasr sketches at his drafting table the outlines of his architectural creations. These moments when the pure black lines form the contours of graceful structures that materialize Roark’s architectural vision are allowed to linger on the set’s video screens, as if asking us to separate the visionary who can draw these works from Rand’s self-interested superhero (on the other hand, Keating is never seen drawing; his cookie-cutter classicism is already on the pages he “draws” because he has borrowed it from others).
Keeping true to Rand, van Hove also allows her ideas about women to stand, and this creates some of the more uncomfortable moments in the production. Dominique is an example of Rand’s belief that a woman’s best function is to admire, even worship the Randian male hero, and Dominique obliges in The Fountainhead by marrying successively Keating and Wynan, Roark’s opposites, to debase herself to the point that she will no longer mind living in a society that refuses to recognize Roark’s genius. While this 2014 production can’t be blamed for seeming tone deaf to the #MeToo movement, the men’s literal buying and selling of Dominique and her rape by Roark felt more exploitative in this context than van Hove might have intended, as merely illustrative of the steps by which she proves herself worthy of Roark’s attention.
Van Hove collaborates here again with Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden for set/lighting design and video design, respectively. They give us a vast warehouse that functions as architecture offices, “The Banner”’s newsroom and printing floor and Wynand’s penthouse, and create smaller islands within it as Rand’s 700-page novel dictates (a table of bricks stands in for the quarry where Roark works briefly: a rumpled sheet on the floor is where the men bed Dominique). All of the spaces – which include Dominique’s naked body, the locus of male desire – are magnified by real-time video, condensing the broad sweep of Rand’s novel into isolated parts. This minimal and flexible set allows the action to move like quicksilver, scenes blending into the next as soon as an actor takes a single stride across the set. Yarden makes wry nods to advertising and newsreel cliches in his video designs, and the Toneelgroep ensemble, which includes Hélène Devos as another greatly abused female, both by Toohey’s false prophet and Keating’s false lover, is every bit fine. I won’t reveal how but van Hove muddies the waters of Rand’s conclusion as if trying to distance himself, finally, from her message. Still, the show is only as powerful and convincing as Rand’s convictions.
I left wondering about the unsuppressed giggling in the row ahead of me. Was it prompted by a perceived interpretation of irony in Rand? Rand didn’t have an ironic bone in her body. You might scoff in disbelief at Roark’s blunt disdain for any kind of social compact, and then be overcome by a wave of horror, when you stop to consider that Rand has been the Tea Party’s Jim Jones for years now and that her shadow falls long and dark on the results of the last presidential election (not so long ago, respondents to a Library of Congress/Book of the Month Club poll stated that Atlas Shrugged was their favorite book after the Bible). Toohey snarls at one point, and it sounded to me like the perfect encapsulation of the House’s proposed health care plan: “If lightening strikes a tree and it falls, is it the lightening’s fault?” When Roark opines that “The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing,” he sums up the premise behind the Republican’s proposed tax cut to the wealthy. The 1949 movie version of The Fountainhead that starred Gary Cooper was a popular success but was panned by critics. Some of their objections (“its characters are downright weird and there is no feeling of self-identification”, “cold, unemotional, loquacious and completely devoted to hammering home the theme,” according to The Hollywood Reporter and Variety) could apply here too – such is the risk of letting Rand command the stage – if it weren’t for our faith in van Hove as a maker of theater that often examines humanity under pressure to get at, not what makes some better than others, but what makes us all human. His attempt to ask, through the story of Howard Roark, “by whom and what do we let our identity be determined” (according to the playbill) may have been lost in Rand’s posturing, but if this Fountainhead helps anyone understand how and why society and democracy are in grave danger of unraveling in this country, we can applaud that.