By Bob Shuman
Part of the reason why Ivan van Hove’s living-book adaptation of The Fountainhead is so formidable (the last showing of the four-hour long Toneelgroep Amsterdam production at BAM was December 2, performed in Dutch with English titles) is because no American theatrical company would have crossed the political divide to mount it—and, more frighteningly, Americans would not have seen its potential, despite the fact that the work has been in print since 1943. Grudgingly called a classic (the stage translation is by Erica van Rijsewijk and Jan van Rheenen; the dramaturgy is by Peter Van Kraaij), the novel, commercial and virtually a setup for Jacqueline Susann to come, contains a philosophy, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin does, or even in a more literary way, The Stranger by Camus. Sales of Rand’s work have reached well over six million copies, and the book has been translated into dozens of languages—there was even a movie made of The Fountainhead in 1949 (here, the author, also a dramatist, wrote the shooting script).
Despite her appeal to traders on Wall Street, however, Rand has become a pariah, approaching popular art from the wrong side of the culture wars–the entertainment industry, at least in America, the compromised, left-wing, “give ‘em what they want” escapism industry, too readily exhibits the kind of thinking this author warns against in her novel. Originally entitled Second-Hand Lives, she is referring to the pleasers and incompetent hanger-ons of the workaday world. Not that the writing is great literature, except, perhaps, in its plot: it’s uneconomically penned, inflated trash—a blunt, teeming, tawdry projection onto Americans of European ideas, such as ones by Freud, Marx, and von Mises—and now van Hove. These distill into cinematic character types—the Dutch actors can have fun enunciating the melodramatic-sounding Hollywoodized names like Howard Roark (Ramsey Nasr) and Ellsworth Toohey (Bart Slegers) because they are fake, a step away from being allegorical, encased in polarizing thought—“Ayn Rand” is also a made-up name: her surname comes from a popular typewriter of the day, and an anachronistic typewriter figures in van Hove’s version).
The director and the adapter Koen Tachelet, however, have not changed Rand’s words for the stage, but they have added, reordered, and emphasized so that The Fountainhead now focuses on two characters of the many; men who have known each other since college and become architects in New York City: one, a rugged individualist and wild creative and the other, a born bureaucrat and lesser talent. Of course, they both fall for the same woman—the writer can be an abuser of her women and actually one, the masochist, Dominique Francon (the beautiful and mature young actress Halina Reijn), is a character Rand has said is herself “in a bad mood.” The director may not even have understood the reactions he would elicit, by choosing the theatrical property, although the Netherlands was faced with a populist far-right political candidate, Geert Wilders, making international headlines, at about the time of the play’s inception—Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s later work, took years to find financing in Hollywood and when it opened, in 2011, was panned; dead on arrival.
The author is so heavily associated with the American right, libertarianism, and then the Tea Party that some can’t believe that she was once considered a popular writer, albeit one with ideas idiosyncratic enough to attract former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Allen Greenspan and psychoanalyst and writer Nathaniel Branden into her circle—nevertheless, a theatre friend this reviewer invited to see the play, refused on hearing the title. To believe that Rand is foremost among conservative writers of fiction is an overstatement, however, despite the notoriety (in that area look toward Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy—not that there aren’t others, but mainstream publishers dismiss them, overall). In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, van Hove describes how he came to the text, in 2007, and couldn’t put it down: “I read the whole novel in two or three days. For me, it was like a page-turner.” Inevitably criticism arose regarding his choice of project, in Holland—although he does not “idolize them,” he also does not avoid “right-wing thoughts” in his production. The Fountainhead is logical for a director to want to undertake, though, because Rand’s philosophical theme, according to her biographer Barbara Branden, is “the rights of the individual versus the claims of the collective. . . . the crucial role of the creator, the thinker, the initiator. . .”
Van Hove’s stage is a flexible workshop (set and lighting design are by Jan Versweyveld), at once the offices of the architects in the story, as well as stage technicians, one wearing a headset. Musicians man the stage and talk, joke, and drink coffee—they, as well as the cast, may simply stare into the audience. Toward the rear an artist is playing the marimba—throughout the evening, onstage music, composed for The Fountainhead by Eric Sleichim, will be played on gongs, hanging metal sheets, and pianos, among other instruments. Recordings by Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and the Timo Lassy Band are also heard—poignantly, one selection recalls John Cage’s “In a Landscape”; other music is classical, ambient or even reminiscent of Owl City. Those who have seen van Hove’s work previously will notice the large, segmented video screens placed first at the front, stage left, and later, deep in the back, on the right, which, recalling Erwin Pistcator, can be used as a way to provide real-time close-ups or pre-recorded footage and still photographs of the dramatic or mundane—including the Chrysler Building and the New York skyline, beckoning the ‘40s (the video design is by Tal Yarden). At the edge of the proscenium—BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House is cavernous, with a surprising slope toward the orchestra–is an architect’s mechanical table, where the story begins.
As an artist, van Hove says in the Forward, “in a way I’m Howard Roark. I’m not going to give in.” However, to Rand, he probably already has, by advocating for a character she never liked: In The Brooklyn Rail, Van Hove states: “I tried to balance Howard Roark and Peter Keating the two antagonists in the novel—and give them equal importance . . . I call The Fountainhead always a war of ideas. The two opposite arguments, of course, are between Howard Roark, who’s an idealist who doesn’t want to give in to his clients—he wants to the make the building the way he thinks it should be made . . . . and on the other side there’s Peter Keating, his friend, who thinks that architecture is there to serve the people.”
Of course, they’re very different characters. . . . For Ayn Rand, Peter Keating (Aus Greidanus Jr.)—was “despicable.” Specifically, he’s a “self-created mediocrity,” the conformist, a follower, a rising star who believes that someone must “always be what people want you to be.” He a plagiarist, in fact–and he believes in the wisdom of the crowd—art, for him, would be propaganda, not debate. Greidanus sees him as affable, helpless, and nonthreatening—and for too long the audience is sympathetic toward him. For Out, Van Hove has said, “As an artist I want to be an idealist—not pleasing but challenging the audience. As a citizen, I’m not on Rand’s side,” although he acknowledges the deep thinking in the novel to the Forward: “[Rand’s view is that] people should take care of themselves; if you cannot take care of yourself, that’s a pity; you should work a little bit harder. . . . [The Fountainhead is] very complicated . . . intellectually challenging, but also challenging on an emotional level. Do we want a social society, or do we want a society of individuals. . . .? Van Hove says, “In Europe we are born to be aware that we have to pay also for the people that don’t have so much money.” The director believes he has a bit of Keating in him.
Symbols are used by both artists, even if they do not both agree on meaning. According to Barbara Branden, “Roark, Keating, Wynand, and Toohey, the major male protagonists, are symbols, they represent four distinct psychologies and ways of dealing with good and evil; but they may also be taken as realistically possible individuals engaged in realistically possible courses of action. Only Dominique stands solely as a symbol—the symbol of idealism frozen in contempt.” Perhaps this is why the characters seem remote, whether reading or watching them. Rand sees Americans in terms of movie parts and characters in bestsellers and van Hove sees them as alternatives for people in a welfare state; for Rand, there are no alternatives—and she fought for her vision in her screenplay in Hollywood, nearly always successful. According to Branden: “The final courtroom scene began—and suddenly, like a knife cutting through her body, [Rand] saw that Roark’s most important line, the line that names the theme of the book and the total of its meaning—the line ‘I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others’—had been cut.” The real antagonists of van Hove’s production may finally be the writer and director—Rand , unapologetic ally, did not believe in taxation, much less funding for the arts. For those who cannot provide for themselves, she, like former Texas Representative Ron Paul, would endorse charities. Ayn Rand is not an aberration, though—all the way back to the Boston Tea Party there is a tradition in the United States regarding financial resistance. Walt Whitman wrote of the U.S. worker in “I Hear America Singing”: “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else/The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly.”
Van Hove’s symbolism includes dressing Peter Keating’s abandoned fiancé, Katie (Helene Devos) in black and blue—a subliminal way to think about her emotional bruises (the costume design is by An D’Huys). At another point, in an encounter between the weak Keating and Roark, the latter wears a belt that hangs like a phallus. Blood will cover the mechanical table, a wedding dress is see-through, and mist prefigures cataclysm. Van Hove does not seem kind to sexuality, and admittedly this is also true for Rand. One of the lines reads, “I want you like an animal”—in fact, Rand thought workers in a welfare state were sacrificial. Van Hove’s nudity is intentionally boring, unarousing, graphic, cold, even painful. Dominique is apparently raped by Roark, but when asked about it, Rand answered, “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” Obviously, van Hove’s cast is not playing Americans. They’re low-key and intellectual–they can’t find the drive for characters in a survival-of-the-fittest America, although van Hove once found them for O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions —in the 1997 production, there was a humiliating scene where a man had lost his job and had no idea how to support his family.
Nasr, despite being surrounded by rock and clay–he’s asked to be a non-hero by van Hove and worthy of worship by Rand–seems more fetishistic than a diamond-in-the-rough entrepreneur or heart-throb (like Gary Cooper, who played Roark in the film. Rand was actually disappointed in his performance, although she wanted him for the part long before movie rights were sold). Ultimately, the issue may be generational: Rand wrote her book in the age of Modernism—she writes about quarries and skyscrapers; industry, steel, weight, and strength. Van Hove is a Post-modernist working with highly intricate technology and digital cues; minimalist settings, open space, and streaming video. To the Modernist, his work can seem geeky, arty, decadent, and fatalistic. He wants his audience to think about the rise of the contemporary European right with the U.S. as a setting, but theatremakers in The Fountainhead barely register the pressure of Capitalism—the only time when the show feels like the U.S. is when it’s stopped and the audience must make a confused choice to go or remain—that’s Capitalism. The director uses New York as a stand-in, in The Fountainhead, like Brecht used Chicago in Arturo Ui, although with nothing cartoonish, and his work seems overly communal, with theatremakers in white and khaki operating in efficient lean teams, changing sets and working productively. Rand herself was deeply fearful of Socialism and the Welfare State, having been raised in St. Petersburg: In the 1930s, she thought that Americans “were not sufficiently aware of the menace and evil of communism . . . [She] took it for granted that no one could advocate altruism [but did not realize] the enormity of what had to be fought.”
Despite Rand’s contentiousness, her best message may be that “striving for excellence is important.” Van Hove’s achievement is to have bravely re-asserted the ever-present dangers of the left before the artistic community of New York.
The 2017 Richard B. Fisher Next Wave Award at BAM has honored Ivo van Hover and the production of The Fountainhead.
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© 2017 by Bob Shuman. Additional information: Pam Green. All rights reserved.
Photos: Richard Termine, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, BAM