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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Me First

Photo: Jan Verweysveld
By David Cote

By his own admission, Ivo van Hove had never heard of Ayn Rand or The Fountainhead. But on opening night of Roman Tragedies at the 2008 Avignon Festival, an assistant heaved the 700-page tome onto his lap, with the inscription “This is for you and you have to read this now,” he recalls via Skype from Amsterdam. “So on a holiday, I opened the book and thought, Well, I’ll read 20 pages and then say, ‘Thank you. It’s not my thing,’ and get on with my life. But I started to read it and I didn’t stop. It was really like the classic page-turner for me.” Like countless readers since The Fountainhead published in 1943, van Hove was irresistably drawn into Rand’s Manichean struggle between rugged invividualists and craven compromisers against a bustling backdrop of American industry and capitalism.

The Fountainhead is about the repeated rise and fall of the arrogant, idealistic architect Howard Roark, who fiercely believes his vision should never be influenced by public approval—or even those who commission his blueprints. Roark’s nemesis is rival architect Peter Keating, who joins a prestigious firm and is only too eager to flatter clients and pander to conventional taste. Roark and Keating’s paths intersect over business and romantic interests—in a climactic plot twist, Roark dynamites a housing complex he designed for Keating, altered against his wishes. Replete with feeble-minded businessmen, corrupt journalists, and rape victims who become lovers (Rand’s sexual politics are not exactly feminist), the book is a mélange of pulp fiction and anti-socialist political soapbox. In the end, it trumpets the moral superiority of selfishness.

How does van Hove square his admiration for Rand’s Great Man fanaticism with being a good socialist European? “For myself, my position is actually very clear,” he states. “As an artist, I would hope to be Howard Roark. Not to give in to the taste of whoever, just follow what I think I should do onstage and do that in as extreme a way as possible. But as a citizen in a society, I probably wouldn’t want to be Howard Roark.”

Photo: Jan Verweysveld
Many American right-wing politicians would not agree. Rand has practically become a byline for reactionary politics. Through her handmade philosophy, Objectivism, she fashioned a world view in which rational self-interest should be prized above collective needs. Translated into late-20th-century libertarian policy that means tax cuts for the wealthy, and fewer social services for the poor, criminal, and ill. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan says Rand’s work propelled him into politics. Ex-Fed chairman Alan Greenspan credits her with his intellectual awakening. The list of Rand fanboys goes right up to our current president, who told USA Today how much he admired The Fountainhead.

The queasiness with adapting such material extended to van Hove’s Holland-based company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t do that. This will be totally misunderstood,’” he says. “I read the novel, didn’t know anything about the author, didn’t know anything about the political context. I consider this a clash of ideas onstage.”

The Fountainhead was adapted into a 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper as Roark (Rand insisted director King Vidor retain Roark’s five-minute courtroom rant). But van Hove’s adaptation is more characteristic of his cerebral, minimalist mise-en-scène, which New York theatergoers have seen for the past 20 years. As always, the sleek design is by Jan Versweyveld—an environment of large video screens above a sprawling, loft-like space of offices, sliding windows, and drafting tables. Still, the production retains a sense of Randian excess: like the book, it’s divided into four parts, and runs four hours. And for all the production’s restraint and modern coolness, there’s always chaos and animal passion breaking through.

As a prolific and successful theater director, with nonstop global gigs and collaborators you would assume van Hove is a dictator in rehearsals. “Mine is an art of collaboration,” he admits. “I’m not a painter. A painter is alone and he paints whatever he wants. I have to do this together with collaborators, so I know it’s like a contradiction, but within that context, pure democracy does not exist.”

Since democracy—its glories and flaws—is on everyone’s mind these days, does van Hove think that his Fountainhead will please or outrage Rand fans? Will it sneakily soften the hearts of doctrinaire Obectivists? “I think that theater should present us with sharp choices that you have to make for yourself,” van Hove counters. “I’m not there to say this is good and this is evil because, as we have experienced over the last month and last year, it changes every day. You don’t know. We don’t live in a world anymore where good and evil is so easy to distinguish. I’m deeply convinced of that.”

The Fountainhead comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Nov 28—Dec 2.

David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright and opera librettist. He was the longest serving theater editor of Time Out New York (2003—17) and now writes for The Village Voice and others.

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