On How Not to Adapt a Complicated Book

Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Going into BAM last night for Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which plays through Dec. 2, I was already somewhat ambivalent. While I’ve always enjoyed van Hove’s work, I’ve never quite understood the rapturous praise it seems to enjoy. While his work dispenses a variety of postdramatic theatrical tricks like Batman deploying gadgets from his utility belt, van Hove’s work has always struck me as more stylish than substantive, pretty but vacant, like there’s no “there” there. Which isn’t to say he’s a bad director – in addition to the consistently clever and compelling scenography, courtesy of his long-time partner and collaborator Jan Versweyveld, van Hove also seems to be an excellent actor’s director. He can coax compelling, multifaceted performances from artists onstage. But to what end? I’ve often felt like part of his appeal is in the perceived novelty of Continental theater practices for New York audiences, who rarely see such work, at the same time that van Hove’s rejection of the radical critique artists like Frank Castorf or Romeo Castellucci bring to their work makes his own an easy pill to swallow. It’s sort of like theatrical raclette: beautiful, European, and nothing but empty calories. And in this case, I was doubly ambivalent given the source material. Whatever the controversies over her oft-derided (by leftists) work, Rand is one of the few modern philosophers you’re likely to hear regularly invoked in our nation’s capitol (Paul Ryan is a noted fan), where the name “Marx” is all but verboten. Her influence, like it or not, is such that Rand isn’t someone that can be dismissed off-hand, which makes the treatment of one of her most famous novels onstage a real challenge. How can you honor the source material without grappling with its legacy, with the work it does in the world, exactly the sort of thing I’ve come not to expect from Ivo van Hove?

All of which is to say that, going in, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what Ivo van Hove was serving. It’s not just that the production was bad. Which it was. Surprisingly, even shockingly so. Anyone who saw Kings of War last year, which deftly wove together no less than five Shakespeare histories into one five-hour epic, would be shocked at how incompetently a simpler plot and cast is handled here, let alone how wooden the actors’ performances are. It felt as though all van Hove’s strengths as a director were missing from the production, while all his weaknesses (or perhaps “shallowness” is a better word) were present, which made it all the worse. In this moment of national reckoning over sexual violence, the era of #MeToo and grappling with the work of monstrous artists, a definition the central character certainly meets, van Hove’s inept handling of Rand’s already problematic text feels like a PR disaster in the works. While I found it occasionally laughably bad, as tedious cliches piled up as each scene staggered drunkenly into the next, my guest – one of the few people I know who seriously engages with Rand’s work while not sharing the politics of most of her libertarian-conservative followers – was mortified not just at its tone-deaf handling of rape, but its failure to deal with Rand’s own work seriously. It was so bad that I did something I can’t even remember the last time I’ve done, and left at intermission. Which is to say, I can only account for the first half of this four-hour show, and anyone who feels that the ending somehow justifies the first half should feel free to share why.

As for the play itself, it’s both immensely complicated and highly simplistic, depending on how one looks at it. And by simplistic, I don’t mean that as an insult: Rand’s novel is a “novel of ideas,” an attempt to distill some of her core philosophical concepts, and as a result, her characters are less attempts to create fully-developed people than they are archetypical, even mythical, caricatures. They’re conceptual stand-ins representing bigger ideas, and the conflict that moves the story forward is primarily demonstrative of these clashing ideas, which would be muddied if the characters were seen as motivated more by the particularities of experience and psychology than archetypical purpose.

The story centers on Howard Roark, an artist whose practice is architecture, a vocation indulged in for the sole purpose of challenging and pleasing himself as a maker. He’s the Randian superman, avatar of the ideal human motivated to fulfill his own promise and unwilling to be bound by self-defeating moral rules or obligations to others. As played by Ramsey Nasr, Roark mostly sits around, clearly feeling superior to others, and rarely deigning to speak except to show the mostly mediocre people surrounding him just how few fucks he has to give about them. Otherwise, he rarely rouses himself to action except to enact his role as artist, which in Rand’s depiction is in essence the human ability to transform the world around them. An act of domination, conceptualized as artistic impulse, which is essentially why he rapes one of the other main characters: Not out of desire for sex itself, but in order to dominate. But more on that in a minute.

Despite possessing such affable qualities, Roark manages to have a friend, Peter Keating (Aus Greidanus Jr.). Keating is also an architect, but otherwise is Roark’s complete opposite. While Roark is the avatar of the Übermensch, Keating is the embodiment of mediocrity. He’s a sycophant willing to do anything to get ahead, and far more successful with his middle-brow designs that the courageously Modern Roark. Otherwise, Keating’s primary character trait is a bottomless well of self-pity at his awareness of being the embodiment of all that’s mediocre in the world. He has a girlfriend, Catherine Halsey (Hélène Devos), who’s basically a stock character from a 19th century pedagogical novel: Aside from her innate feminine desire for marriage, she’s otherwise an empty vessel to be filled by the ideas of whatever educator comes her way – in this case, it’s mostly Ellsworth Toohey (Bart Slegers), the “creepy socialist uncle” (in my guest’s description) who’s always offering up some sort of specious lefty reasoning. Like when she confesses that her job as a social worker helping others doesn’t make her happy, and he tells her that, quite frankly, she’s not important enough for her happiness to be a matter of consideration in the face of working towards the greater good.

Halsey’s opposite is Dominique Francon (Halina Reijn). Whereas Halsey is tradition-bound and discouraged from pursuing her own fulfillment, Francon, an architecture columnist for the newspaper, is a thoroughly modern woman interested in ideas and little else. Particularly sex and marriage, which she feels lead to subjugation – at least until Roark rapes her (she herself calls it “rape”), which nevertheless opens up the possibility of enjoying sex as enforced submission, which doesn’t otherwise require her to, exactly, subjugate herself, and instead makes her a fuller, freer person. Or something.

That’s the simple explanation of the story: Each of these characters (and several others) is going to represent what they represent in order to make a point. However, the process of making that point consists of a convoluted plot that, even in the first half of the play, is too complicated to summarize (and that’s excluding the outright confusion the production invites). Roark goes through, I believe, four jobs at three different employers and is involved in at least three architecture design competitions, each of which exists exclusively for different forms of the broad social mediocrity to stand in the way of him realizing his true potential. There’s also a couple engagements, one marriage, a retirement or two, three sex scenes (only one of them ostensibly a rape) and a court case. And that’s all just the first half, and the last one of those really threw me. I initially assumed that van Hove, in an artful twist, was staging something as a sort of public trial to grant the characters a simple opportunity to express their long-winded monologues. It was only after it was over that I realized that, no, Roark was actually being sued by someone for something, though exactly what and why is a mystery to me, since I couldn’t figure out whether the building in question had been built, built and destroyed, or re-designed as something entirely different. Mostly because the trial consisted exclusively of Francon giving an ironic testimony against Roark (his work was too brilliant, too good, and we don’t deserve it, so he is at fault) and otherwise Roark displaying photos of the building as his only piece of exculpatory evidence. (Perhaps the suit was brought by Louis Kahn, since the model Roark produced and Francon erotically masturbated for part of a scene was clearly his design for the Trenton Bath House.)

I wondered if part of the problem was the supertitles (the show is in Dutch), which could make it hard to follow quick scene changes, double-casting, and lots of dialogue all at once. But I had no such experience with Kings of War, which featured a much larger cast of characters and more complicated plots. No, I think the problem lies in van Hove’s failure to deal with Rand’s text (adapted here by Koen Tachelet). Since Rand’s story is mainly an opportunity to dramatize conflicting ideas, most of the plot points are little more than writer’s conveniences, and with so little emphasis placed on “why” they occur at all, the production essentially races through them as a series of barely distinguishable moments that occasion someone talking about why Roark is so damned or deservedly arrogant and brilliant.

What van Hove does bring to the table in this production is the usual arty theatrical bits that have served him well in the past. While Versweyveld’s sets have been duly celebrated (at Chance magazine, where I served as an editor, we did two separate full feature spreads on Versweyveld, and a third on Tal Yarden’s video designs with van Hove), they are essentially minimalist. Versweyveld works wonders building a world onstage that transforms the space, but in many ways it’s physically static, with changes defined through lighting and sound and music (here performed live by four musicians). Van Hove’s actors perform with minimal set pieces and props, allowing for very fluid movement between scenes, which often overlap in the large empty space up front, with the majority of the scenic elements pushed to the periphery. There’s a projection screen stage-left, for interstitial texts and live-feed video, of both Roark at work at his design table (so we can see his brilliant buildings!) as well as to artfully turn the sex scenes into erotic artsy cinema. The entire stage-right wall is an interior office glass wall, allowing the vague setting of an architecture studio to project out into the wings. The band is situated upstage, under a large digital numeric counter that I presume gets used for the climactic elevator scene.

Francon’s rape has always been noted as problematic in the story, and I believe was completely excised from the 1949 film (not the sort of thing Gary Cooper was known for on screen). And particularly at this moment in time in the US, with ongoing national reckoning over sexual assault, considerations of representations of sexual violence are intense. Alexis Soloski just wrote a thoughtful consideration of rape narratives onstage in the New York Times, following up Siobhan Burke’s criticisms earlier this year with regard to the ballet. And of course, the case of The Fountainhead is doubly complicated by the fact its author was a cis-female. As troubling as it is on its face that Francon falls in love with a man who raped her, it’s nevertheless the case that Rand is hardly alone among writers of her time in tackling ideas of domination, submission, and the embrace of female sexuality. As my guest noted, there’s definitely cross-over with the work of Anaïs Nin and others besides. So the point isn’t just to condemn the fact that it happens in the story. But the problem, as I’ve suggested throughout this piece, is that van Hove just doesn’t seem to have any idea how to treat this event. Whereas previous performances he’s directed have dealt with sex and violence in compelling ways (my guest spoke highly of The Little Foxes at NYTW, which I missed), here, in keeping with the rest of his treatment of the text, the violence and Francon’s response is merely treated as a fait accompli. It just is the way it is, and whatever Halina Reijn could have done with a more considered approach to a problematic character development is a moot point. Van Hove doesn’t give her the material to work with. Which is odd because some of the major changes in adapting the book was moving Francon’s character toward the center of the narrative. So Roark’s violence, itself hardly commented upon let alone challenged, is read as little more than a positive step on Francon’s road to liberation and discovery through the pop-psychologized lens of S&M, in which she discovers that her rapist is the only man who can satisfy her.

What van Hove does add, though, makes this lack of attention or considered approach even more problematic. In putting the story onstage, van Hove realizes these scenes from the book visually, creating an image from text. The rape, while not performed with particular performative aggression or attempts at verisimilitude, nevertheless checks off all the boxes from what you expect from a filmed rape scene (since it’s also projected as live-stream video). You get the gory details: Roark forcing Francon down, pulling up her skirt, physically tearing off her pantyhose (always with the pantyhose with the rape scenes; Reijn doesn’t replace it after this scene, making it easier and quicker for her to get fully naked for the next, more consensual, sex scene), and then mounting her from behind and on top with his pants barely pulled down so he can quickly buckle up and leave when he silently comes. You have to wait for the climax of the first half, sex scene number three, for Nasr to go the full monty. The live-feed video of it is projected like a night-vision camera, what one critic likened to a wildlife documentary, “rutting rhinos filmed by David Attenborough.”

It’s impossible to consider van Hove’s approach to the sex scenes, translated into filmic medium, without all the issues of the “male gaze” coming up. But this would appear to be the extent of van Hove’s interest in grappling with problematic moments (making them more problematic). The Guardian reviewed the production back in 2014 when it premiered at Avignon, with Andrew Todd writing: “[Francon’s] complicity in Roark’s final act of terrorism, dynamiting his compromised Cortland housing project, becomes their biggest S&M exploit, leaving her writhing postcoitally in a pool of her own blood, Nasr’s exquisite real-time drawings shredded around her in a deafening, apocalyptic orgasm.”

While Todd’s review is adulatory, I have to say that, having seen no small amount of European art theater myself, far from being original, a woman orgasmically writhing naked in a pool of her own blood is near the top of my check-list of hackneyed clichés. Far from compelling, it’s the most de rigueur move of a director trying to seem edgy while having nothing to say, and I have to admit I’m glad I didn’t bother sticking around for the second half, since at the very least I thought van Hove was a little more sophisticated than that.

However ambivalent I was about the show going in, the last thing I expected was to leave halfway through feeling that Ayn Rand had been mis-served by the production. Like many leftists, I suspect, I’ve generally been dismissive of Rand’s legacy without ever really reading her novels or engaging with her work. (More than once I’ve repeated a quip I got from a Paul Krugman article: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”) But for all that being said, her influence – most directly on Alan Greenspan, the long-time fed chairman who was a member of her inner circle as a young man, as well as countless other mostly Republican cheerleaders in government – is extensive, and not something that one could connect to van Hove’s production. Instead of wondering why that might be, what the link between these ideas and the political forces that affect our world might be, van Hove seems to have sufficed to concentrate on the aspects of the story closest to himself: That is, the freedom of the artist to make work. In the process, Rand’s story gets reduced to a burlesque of almost every cliché about artists that get recycled in biopics, where their personal failings stand in contrast with the power of their work, the accomplishment of which would seem to necessitate their transgressions, an ambivalence we’re meant to presume is deep rather than facile. I don’t know if Ayn Rand would have approved of van Hove’s production or not. She certainly knew a bit more about art forms than his production would suggest, having worked in Hollywood and written a couple Broadway plays herself. As an artist, she had clear ideas of the relationship of form to content, and I suspect she would have been skeptical at such a blunt and unsophisticated approach to putting her novel-of-ideas onstage in dramatic form. At the very least, I think she would have recoiled at cliché.

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