Opening this week at the Baryshnikov Arts Center's Jerome Robbins Theater is the Austin Shakespeare Theatre Company's performance of Ayn Rand's novella, Anthem, which maybe you read in high school. The play was adapted and composed by Jeff Britting, the curator of the Ayn Rand Archives at the Ayn Rand Institute in
Ayn Rand Irvine, California.
This press release summary will get you up to speed:
"Anthem is the story of a young man, EQUALITY 7-2521, who is born into a future world that has banished all individuality. Not satisfied with a world lighted by candles, EQUALITY fosters his love of discovery in an abandoned subway, a relic of the past. In solitude, EQUALITY rediscovers electricity and a new source of light. Above ground he meets and falls in love with LIBERTY 5-3000, committing a further 'sin of preference.'"
The story is written from EQUALITY 7-2521's perspective and shown in the play through a series of vignettes. Only plural pronouns like "we" are used and the Unspeakable Word is punishable by death. (Can you guess what it is?) He is assigned to work as a street sweeper. He hangs with his street sweeping pal and talented artist friend, INTERNATIONAL 4-8818. Striving for something more, EQUALITY 7-2521 tries to present his light bulb to the World Council of Scholars convening in his town. They are not pleased and reject his act as treasonous. He eventually escapes, runs into LIBERTY 5-3000, who also ran away, finds shelter and books, learns the the Unspeakable Word ("I"), and (in the book) renames himself Prometheus.
Some background on Rand: Rand was born in 1905 and emigrated into the States in 1926. She was raised in St. Petersburg, coming of age during the the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and despised Communism. Her father's pharmacy was put under government control, causing her family to leave the city. They bounced around the country and she studied at a couple universities before coming to America where she began working as a screenwriter.
Rand's bourgeois status was her birthright and her burden. Born into the aristocracy about to be thrown out, Rand took issue with that which would threaten it. She went on to write, among other things, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and continued to develop her "philosophy" called Objectivism. Rand believed that collectivism killed entrepreneurial creativity through disingenuous ethical/moral justifications, and that the pursuit of individual happiness/wealth/whatever was the supreme moral purpose of life. Rand proclaimed that the only system that protects the rights of the individual is "full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire" capitalism. Emphasis added for effect. After all, Rand was born into a wealthy, successful upper-middle class family. If she could make it, why can't you?
And so that is the context for the play. It's all framed by the considerable force of Rand's beliefs, pedantically bludgeoning the audience with a fictional world meant to appear stunningly prescient —Oh my god she was right...I can see it all around me! Absolutely nothing is lost is translation; everything is by design loaded with meaning. He names himself Prometheus at the end because he invented light. Do you understand?
School was too easy for EQUALITY 7-2521. He wasn't challenged and wasn't allowed to be challenged. "It's not good to be different from your brothers," a Council elder tells him, "But it is evil to be superior." Broad strokes. The society is oppressive and total, ruled in secret, with standardized and efficient biological reproduction. Women are brought to the House of Mating, raped, impregnated, and then separated from their children. LIBERTY 5-3000 was brought to the House and managed to escape. Upon reuniting with EQUALITY 7-2521, she reassures him they didn't defile her. EQUALITY 7-2521 is relieved. It's a weird moment that leaves you uncomfortably wondering what would have happened had she been raped. Would she be ruined, a tainted good, for EQUALITY 7-2521?
There is talk of the Unmentionable Times, filled with evils like "wagons that moved without horses," and light without fire. This repressive society is anti-technological, afraid of development. When EQUALITY 7-2521 presents his light to the Council, he hopes that it will lighten the toils of man. His justification for technological innovation is that it will make work easier. There's a joke about how it took 20 years to implement and standardize the production and operation of candles in society. I guess it's an indictment of bureaucracy.
Ultimately [SPOILER ALERT?] [LOL], LIBERTY 5-3000 AND EQUALITY 7-2521 escape the city and find a home. "We can kill more birds, more than we need," EQUALITY says. Unrestrained, interminable consumption. Everyone can take more than they need, always, endlessly, without regard. What's a few more dead birds?
The staging was nice, if only because it distracted you from the diatribe. A large video screen played clips and served as a shifting set as actors traversed the open area dotted with spotlights. The actors did what they could with the dialogue adapted from the story, but couldn't shake the clunkiness. If EQUALITY 7-2521 and LIBERTY 5-3000 seem a little stilted to you, just imagine how they sound read aloud. Earnestly.
Anthem is the subject of one of the most popular high-school essay contests for a reason. Nonexistent nuance, simple themes, conventional tropes and devices, a straight-forward epistolary plot. I would agree that you should judge it as a straight-up work of fiction.
But it's nearly impossible to approach the work itself, or a theatrical adaptation, as an object of critique in itself because Rand chose to unsubtly perpetuate her beliefs through bad fiction. Not a particularly astounding writer, the result is just ham-fisted propaganda for capitalism. There are more than just passing similarities between her and L. Ron Hubbard. It makes sense that conservative zealots like Paul Ryan were inspired to be a politician by her work.
Britting believes that "the principle ethical-political issue in Anthem—and of our time—is individualism versus collectivism. Is the individual the primary element of society, or is the group the basis of society? The play poses the questions: Do individuals have the right to think and choose their own goals in life and pursue their own happiness? Or do the wishes of society determine the goals of individual lives, and is service to others the primary moral obligation among men?"
The above question has the double distinction of being a false equivalency and a purely vacuous ideological question. Yes, individuals have the right to think, for Christ's sake, and choose their own goals.
In that spirit, here's a good thought exercise: If you had to choose between the world of Anthem and a just-as-dystopic opposite (let's say, instead of government there's a system of rule based on pure capitalist economics), what would you pick? And why?
Britting said that he wants the play to be provocative because he believes (like Paul Ryan does) that "the world is going to end up at some point in the future like the world of Anthem, and that's a very real practical problem."
Well, the Soviet Union fell and big scary Cold War Communism mostly disappeared. Capitalism "won," but where has it led us? To the largest socio-economic gap in recent history; to widespread unemployment; to a weak economy recovering from a financial collapse orchestrated in part by speculative derivative risk trading and predatory loan practices; to a couple decades of extreme deregulation, a massive taxpayer-funded bailout for those same institutions; and to a global economic system of exploitation, beset regularly by instability, dotted with conflicts on nearly every continent.
Our arms ache and the skies are empty: We are really good at killing birds.
If Rand's opinions didn't pretend to operate as legitimate philosophy, her work is immediately rendered more fun and insignificant. She was no writer, but she was even less of a philosopher. If Objectivism couldn't gain traction beyond small circles of self-serving elites and earnest frat boys during the Reagan-era, why should we pay any attention to it now?
Anthem is running until December 1st at the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street. Tickets actually will cost you $69.00-$89.00. I repeat, they are charging $70 dollars for this production. More information can be found here.