The Right Come to Light? Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” Off-Broadway

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Matthew Lieff Christan in Ayn Rand's Anthem. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.
Matthew Lieff Christan in Jeff Britting’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

It’s certainly darker than 867-5309 Jenny.

In Anthem, Jeff Britting’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s same-name novella, a young man, Equality 7-2521, exists a dim and distorted dystopia devoid of individuality: the word “I,” among other pronouns, is strictly verboten. It’s a world illuminated by candlelight; technology is feared, fought and rationed. Unfortunately for him, Equality suffers from a threatening impulse called curiosity. Like so much else in this dystopia, curiosity is a crime.

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Still, Equality capitulates to his impulse, stoking a sensation of wonder and discovery inside himself while inside an abandoned subway — a remainder of the Unmentioned Times that persisted before his own. There, Equality stumbles upon a relic known as electricity and is, well, electrified. Back above ground, he falls for Liberty 5-3000, a woman with whom he commits the “sin of preference.” The sin of love.

Written originally as a play, Anthem took a long route to prominence — nearly a quarter-century between the summer of 1937, when Rand was a Soviet university student in the U.S. and pausing work on her breakthrough The Fountainhead, to 1961, when it was published in full on these freedom-loving shores.

But Britting knows more about Anthem and Rand than most people: from 1997 to 2011, he managed the Ayn Rand archives at the Ayn Rand Institute and, by dint of some interesting personal and professional relationships, became one of the more controversial figures in the clubby and muscular intellectual universe of all things Rand. Certainly he is not, in conversation, what you might expect. Quiz him on current politics — say, the ultra-libertarian philosophy of Sen. Rand Paul, whose given name is a deliberate salute to Rand’s theory of Objectivism — and Britting surprises, arguing that right-wingers don’t so much exemplify Rand’s hero-worship of the individual as fecklessly cherry-pick her philosophy to burnish their conservative credentials, thereby making her a mockery. He even asserts that Rand’s philosophy has elements in common with the left as much as the right. Though Britting is author of the biography Ayn Rand, published in 2005, and associate produced Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, a 1997 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, one emerges from a conversation with him feeling that Rand’s worldview was anything but partisan — that she ultimately favored Your Wing, a philosophical catamaran on which man might sail on a placid sea of individualism.

Anthem runs through Dec. 1 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (450 W. 37th St.). Get your tickets here.

And now, 5 questions — and then a few more — that Jeff Britting has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“You really mean this, don’t you?”

Ayn Rand
Rand: founder of Objectivism and 20th century cipher?

I’ve heard this from two sorts of people. At one end of the spectrum is the person who, quite sincerely, is totally perplexed at the idea that something as “spiritual” and personal as “art” would have anything whatsoever to do with real life. And at the other end is the person who gets that connection between them — let’s say they understand idealization in art — but they are utterly surprised that anyone would attempt such a hopeless quest in today’s world.

Both types are perplexed and wistful. Some, especially those ancient souls in their twenties, who seem ready to give up, say idealism died with the bomb or AIDS or some other human catastrophe. And they are surprised that someone is expecting them to get up off their knees and take a step in a better direction.

When I hear such a question, I imagine the questioner has an ember burning somewhere, ready to reignite. I believe certain types of art can achieve that end.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
It’s the questions I haven’t been asked about my work that I find idiotic. But that’s not a reaction to a question, per se, but rather, it’s my reaction to a certain attitude toward my genre of art, which I consider romantic but realistic — “elevated,” but real. As to questions about my work, I’ve never been asked a question that didn’t deserve a thoughtful reply.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“How can you stand doing what you do — and for as long as you have — without receiving any recognition?”

As to the type of person asking this, I have in mind someone galvanized by outward signs of “success.” And let me emphasize: this is not restricted to someone with money. (Some of the most pretentious, social-climbing types I’ve ever encountered were self-described “bohemians.”) Besides, making money is a virtue. I’m talking about people who let the public recognition of their wealth rule their lives.

As for recognition: I would say I feel plenty of recognition when I sit in my studio and begin working. To be an artist, you must “enjoy the doing,” to quote Roark in The Fountainhead. And I do. But that is not the answer such people asking the question above are seeking. Do I want to have an audience? Of course, and if I can find one person outside my studio who gets it, who really gets my work, then I’m satisfied. Fortunately, I’ve had such people in my life, and I’ve known them for decades. And they’ve made me spiritually wealthy beyond compare.

Which aspects of Rand’s writing style lend most and least easily to dramatization?
In my opinion, Rand’s novels are cinemagraphic in style. As a child, her first stories were silent film scenarios. And this required depicting a story in purely visual terms.

Happily, I dissent from the view, prevalent in some contemporary literary quarters, that Rand’s novels are propaganda vehicles for her ideas — that her ideas are like runaway trains, which destroy the novel structure. Quite the contrary: first, there is so much about reality worth observing, digesting and processing intellectually. And that’s where she got her ideas, from observation. Given Rand’s literary perceptiveness — her ability to set-up a physical landscape and then populate that landscape with well-drawn characters — there is no end to what you can do dramatically.

Rand’s descriptions of physical nature are some of the most intense and lyrical that I have read. And when you put in human characters to play against this background, when the world is not just what is but also contains the uniquely human perspective of what it ought to be, that’s where drama happens. The only limits are your imagination and the form in which you are working.

Tina Johnson in Anthem.
Tina Johnson in Anthem.

Is Anthem a cautionary tale? A not-so-fictional dystopia? A cudgel for right-wingers to bash left-wingers? If someone replied “yes” to any or all of these questions, would you agree or disagree?
Is Anthem cautionary? In the sense of a traditional tale foretelling some bad end? Actually, no — and in two senses, no. First, the story of Anthem is not traditional. Yes, many stories depict rebellions against a society but only to end up recreating the oppressive conditions that were overthrown. What makes Anthem new is its moral philosophy: rational egoism based on earthly life as the standard. And that has political implications. Politically, the individual is the basic unit of society. Men are neither criminals nor rogues. And a society of cooperation is good — such a society encourages life. Such a society works only when the right of its members to think and act on their thinking occurs without violating the rights of others. What happens when all individuality is suppressed by the state or tribe or race? Well, Anthem depicts such a society. But its victims have a choice: they can either remain victims or become victimizers; they can say no! No, I won’t abide by this mob mentality. But passionate rebellion is not enough. You need the proper ideas to hold on to your rebellion and make it stick. Anthem is Rand’s most poetic sketch of the moral ideas needed to ground that rebellion.

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Is Anthem a dystopia? Well, the opening world of Anthem is dystopian. In my adaptation, five characters play out their reactions to this world: the main character, Equality 7-2521, is capable of rebellion against that dystopia and of discovering the ideas enabling a better future. There is Liberty 5-3000, a young girl with whom Equality falls in love. She is capable of recognizing Equality’s discovery and, due to her own integrity, accepting it as true. There is Equality’s friend, International 4-8818, who is emotionally committed to individualism, but is intellectually helpless against society. There is a new character, an older woman, Democracy 2-5799, who understood individualism in her youth but betrayed it. Finally, there is an older man, Harmony 5-8287, who understood individuality from the beginning and hated it.

Is Anthem a “cudgel for right-wingers to bash the left-wingers”? Not in my play. Nor is the book a cudgel. Bashing is a term reserved for certain decades oozing out of the 20th century. This is not Germany in 1933. And if we want to avoid such occurrences, we need a theatre of ideas that respects theatre audiences. The world is perishing from some horrible ideas – and people are confused. Many people today are both victim and victimizer. But sometimes art can be very clarifying. I hope Anthem concretizes the issues we are facing. Let people discuss what they see — peacefully — and then take the discussion to the streets and the culture.

What are three misconceptions about Rand and her work and why do they persist?
Well, I would put it this way. Let’s make it five misconceptions and relate them to the five branches of philosophy: in metaphysics, she is called a materialist. In epistemology, she is considered a dogmatist. In ethics, it’s egoism misinterpreted as solipsism. In politics, it’s social Darwinism. In esthetics, it’s propaganda — or the Wall Street equivalent of Prolecult literature or some weird blood and soil, “steel romantic” fusion of the Nazis. In my experience, these are common misconceptions. And they are deeply mistaken.

What accounts for these misconceptions? Well, her philosophy is new and her methodology is new, too. But there are also dishonest critics. And they should know better.

Christian as conservative?
Christian as conservative?

Does current right-wing philosophy illustrate fidelity to Rand’s worldview or do right-wingers indeed hijack it for their purposes?
I’ve reflected on this a lot over the years, especially since the rise of Ronald Reagan. And the intellectual roots of his “revolution” are very interesting to trace. I’ve had the benefit of time with young scholars working on “intellectual critiques” of the New Deal. And Rand fits into this critique, as American intellectual historians are discovering.

Rand saw Reagan as responsible for the explicit infusion of religion into politics. Rand advocated the separation of church and state. And, for the same reason, Rand advocated the separation of economics and state, which is almost incomprehensible to people these days, so accustomed are they to the mixed economy. Rand’s view was that Reagan was not an advocate of capitalism. He compromised. He betrayed his earlier, better period from the time of the 1964 Goldwater election; a decade and a half later, he was courting the Moral Majority. He opposed a woman’s right to abortion, the right of a woman to control the function of her own body. And because of the right-wing intellectual vacuum, Reagan appears as a crusader for individualism and individual rights. She thought, not so:

And there is evidence of a conflict between the religionists and the secularists within the Reagan administration, a conflict drawn in terms of the conservative and Objectivist factions with his administrations. This divide presages the intellectual state of today’s political right-wing.

If you read Rand’s four novels — We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged — there are dozens of negative characters, characters representing the essence of a failed politics, one virtually lifted from the Republican Party of the past several elections, let alone in the decades since Eisenhower. Rand thought that if anything would destroy this country, it would be conservative philosophy. She thought conservatives shared the basic moral premises of the left: the common good before the individual good. And conservatives have ceaselessly mangled their case for capitalism, which is based on a contrary foundation: the selfish right to exist without being anyone’s keeper. The American people sense a contradiction — and smell a rat. The tragedy of this country is that America defined the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but without the combined philosophical foundations of Aristotle, the data of the Industrial Revolution, and moral theory of rational egoism. At America’s birth, the Founding Fathers turned to the moral theories of 18th century Europe sliding out of Kant, the arch advocate of selflessness and duty. And the practical impact today is horrific.

That’s why, personally, I’m cautious when people on the right hold up Atlas Shrugged and say “See?” What I’m seeing is a superficial identification with some aspects of the book — the right to produce and keep what you earn — but at the same time, and contrary to the book, running to the welfare state to bail out your sinking, corrupt businesses, as occurred in the recent financial crisis. Now, I am not economist. But it struck me as monstrously unfair — not only to me, who’s been a broke artist for most of his life — but to the principled wealth makers who do not run to the state for handouts. These virtuous, brilliant entrepreneurs were smeared by implication. Those holding up the book might reread it more carefully a second time. Even some on the left are seeing this.

Paul Krugman is a writer for The New York Times. And I read him regularly. And I disagree with him regularly. However, recently he pointed out in a column that often those identifying with Rand’s businessmen in Atlas Shrugged are not out of Ayn Rand. Rather, they are elitists from the ancient regime. I would go further: such figures are enacting the premises of Rand’s mixed-economy villains.

Rand comes back from the dead and runs for the Senate and wins. What is the first thing she does as a U.S. Senator? And speaking of which, why did she never want to run for office?
Politics is very important. And good people should enter it. And we need such people desperately. But Rand running for office? Never! She had no interest in such activity. Rand thought it was too early for a political movement. You need a moral revolution first. And that is what Rand seeded with her philosophy.

As curator of the Ayn Rand Archives, what is the one thing you absolutely still do not understand about her?
Is this omniscience by association? But Rand wasn’t all-knowing. Rand did define a full philosophic system. Actually, Rand thought of herself as simply honest and hardworking. She once said in an interview that the task of elaborating her philosophy would require more than a single lifetime and, further, that a lot of work remained to be done. The same certainly applies to my understanding of Rand’s ideas and their impact. There is always something new to learn!

Bonus question:

Ayn Rand, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley walk into a bar. What do they drink and why?
First of all, Ayn Rand personally disliked drinking alcohol. And, since this is my fantasy, I think that bar would have been in the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd., where she dined in the 1940s. And rather than conversing in the hotel bar, I think she would have invited any serious, non-Communist Party writer back to her ranch in the Valley for discussion. I could imagine her inviting such guests into the living room of her Neutra-designed Von Sternberg house. And there, amidst the fragrance of freshly cut alfalfa and cut flowers (her husband ran the ranch), she might turn to “Mr. Orwell” and “Mr. Huxley,” asking them why they made their futuristic, totalitarian worlds so technologically advanced. For collectivism kills thought, she held. And thought is responsible for technology. And the world of absolute collectivism is totally primitive. And then, in anticipation of the hours of conversation ahead, she would have most likely served coffee, with sandwiches and Godiva chocolates. And after her guests had settled, she would have asked with a bright curiosity: “Gentleman, have you heard of Anthem…?”

  • James Sullivan

    I’m not much of an advocate of the Objectivist philosophy but this is pretty intriguing about how the New Right identify with Ayn Rand. The fact that she was a staunch atheist alone would probably turn off the Tea Party, were she alive today.

  • Greg Wasserson

    Nice interview!

  • Ed Thompson

    I saw it! See it!

  • Henry Solomon

    A very interesting, enjoyable, and provocative interview.

  • Jack Crawford

    “Rand’s philosophy has elements in common with the left as much as the right.” Hmmm, that’s not commonly thought. Seems as though the left only sees her advocacy of Capitalism and then dismisses her. They don’t see that she advocates abortion, free immigration, no censorship, and that her idea of Capitalism is not what we have today where some of the richest men are getting welfare payments.

    • I’m sorry, which rich men get welfare payments? I didn’t know Warren Buffett was on food stamps.

  • Anthem was written originally as a play? This is the first time I’ve ever heard that. And if it was a play, what is it that was adapted for this play, and why?

  • Ayn Rand believed that no persons life belonged to another. When Nathanial Branden tried to end their `relationship` because she tried to censor his thoughts over certain books he wanted to read and of which she disapproved , they argued . And when he finally decided to end things , she was angry and astounded saying Quote :” Get him down here, I OWN HIM ‘. This was testified as fact by Barbara Brandon , who was witness to it . finally, Ayn Rand collected SOCIAL SECURITY ;without any hesitancy .

  • Phillip Schearer

    In response to Mr. Esterly: First, I would put no credence in anything either Branden said. The split occurred because Ayn Rand discovered their respective dishonesties. As for the frequently parroted accusation regarding Social Security, Rand addressed the relevant principles in an article on the morality of accepting government scholarships: It was your money to begin with, and you should not sacrifice yourself because others have committed wrongs. You can look it up.