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The Fountainhead on Stage

    If I had been following the theatre more consistently, I would have known some weeks ago, when I was writing the previous blog, that Ivo van Hove’s theatrical realisation of Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ was about to hit Manchester. Ten days ago it was on stage at The Lowry, as part of the city’s International Festival. It has been widely remarked that the book of the play is said to be one of Donald Trump’s favourites, while at least one English politician is also a fan. Perhaps that politician, Sajid Javid, took time out from his campaign to become the next Chancellor of the Exchequer to see his hero, the modernist architect Howard Roark, in the flesh. One suspects that Roark would have survived only very briefly in either the White House as described by Kim Darroch or in a Tory party in thrall to Boris Johnson.

The critics were not uncritical. Dominic Cavendish, for the Telegraph, noted that the play ran for ‘a bum-numbing four hours’ and described it as ‘a monument to directorial hubris’. Michael Billington in the  Guardian was a little kinder, praising the facts that the director displayed ‘his characteristic virtuosity’ and that the staging was ‘constantly inventive’, but concluded that it was ‘a shame that all this energy wasn’t devoted to something more profound than Rand’s overheated polemic’. Robert Beale provided the longest and most thoughtful review but admitted that every so often he had the feeling of being locked in a windowless room with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Adrian Mole. Whether the experience would have been more or less enjoyable had the actors not been speaking in Dutch (there were English surtitles) is something none of the critics considered. It is possible that, for English-speaking audiences, a dialogue in a language that was, to most of them, incomprehensible would have given an illusion of depth to the two-dimensional Randian world.

On the face of it, the architect as hero was a strange choice for Rand, since architects must please their clients if they are to get anything built, but she loved modernist buildings. It is said that she wept for joy when, in 1926, she first saw the New York skyline, which for her was a vision of a free-market capitalist utopia. Her Roark was an architect dedicated to pleasing nobody but himself, in exactly the way that she believed heroes should behave, and in consequence he struggled with clients. One employed him only on a project he wanted to fail. Meanwhile his contemporaries, content to be unimaginative, conventional and traditional, basked in commercial success. Eventually, in something approaching desperation, Roark agreed to provide a former classmate who was also facing a declining business with the design for a new public housing complex.

This really was a strange thing for Rand to have her hero do, because to her (and him) the very idea of social housing was anathema.* Roark compromised, and agreed to work anonymously and for nothing, but on one condition. It was that his design should be followed exactly, without deviation or hesitation. With that in the contract, he designed a complex of ‘six buildings, fifteen stories high, each made in the shape of an irregular star with arms extending from a central shaft’. Having done that, he left town on a sailing holiday with a friendly millionaire.

This is, perhaps, the least likely twist in the whole silly story. Is it plausible that so obsessive an architect as would take time off, just as his greatest project was about to be built? No, but it had to happen to make the whole daft plot work. Roark returned to find that lesser men had altered his design, and he used dynamite to destroy the first, almost completed, building. To do this single-handed would have been less easy than Rand seems to have imagined, but she never did allow the laws of physics to interfere with her fantasies. Taken to court for criminal damage, Roark defended himself so brilliantly that the jury acquitted him, the public acclaimed him and he was contracted to rebuild the complex in his own name, with his own stipulation that it should no longer be social housing at all. And, of course, he got the girl (the millionaire’s wife), whom he had wooed by first raping her and then almost managing to kill her in the explosion. All this nonsense, the critics suggest, van Hove has brought quite brilliantly to stage.

Meanwhile, back in London, the battle lines are being drawn for a truly Randian conflict. In the Howard Roark corner are Norman Foster and his architectural partnership, contracted by Lebanese/Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra. Opposing them is Sadiq Khan, mayor of London. At issue is “The Tulip”, designed to be the tallest building in London and one of the tallest in the world. Foster and his client want to see it built; Khan is denying them permission to do so.

This is not the place to argue the case for or against the building. The aim of this series of commentaries is to point out the contradictions in Randian philosophy, which is embraced by so many libertarians. Again and again in her books Rand claimed that between ’rational men’ there could be no conflict, because rational men would inevitably agree.  But, in dealing with The Tulip, this is a position that can be maintained only if either Norman Foster or Sadiq Khan is irrational. Who is to decide between them, and how can we know that the deciders, in their turn, are rational?

  • * This is not, of course, to say that real architects should consider the designing of social housing beneath them. Some recent projects look fantastic, although the real test is, of course, whether people will like living in them. One suspects that very few people would have enjoyed living in Roark’s creation, as described by Rand.