When Mitt Romney chose the Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate in last year’s presidential election, Ayn Rand, the atheist Jewish author whom Ryan credited with inspiring him to seek public service, was also suddenly vaulted to public attention. Rand, a political philosopher and best-selling novelist, glorified individualism and capitalism over governmental power and collective responsibility.
Now Rand’s 1937 novel, “Anthem,” has been adapted for the stage; it opened Off Broadway this week at the Jerome Robbins Theatre (450 W. 37th St., $50-$89, www.anthemtheplay.com) in a production directed by Anne Ciccolella.
Adapted by Jeff Britting, who curates the Ayn Rand Archives in Irvine, Calif., “Anthem” is set in a dystopian future in which a totalitarian government has enslaved its citizens, forcing them to work and to mate under its control. But when Equality-7521 (Matthew Lieff Christian) falls in love with a female fellow worker, Liberty 5-3000 (Sofia Lauwers), the word “I” enters the couple’s vocabulary and enables them to rebel against the hated regime.
Rand, born Alyssa Rosenbaum in 1905 to a bourgeois Jewish family in St. Petersburg, Russia, witnessed the confiscation of her father’s pharmacy after the October Revolution in 1916. She migrated to America in 1925, and started penning Hollywood screenplays, but soon turned to writing novels, including “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” While her closest friends were other secular Jews, Rand disdained religion and ethnicity, and took special aim against Christianity for its altruistic morality. Her intense ambivalence about Judaism showed in her championing of Henry Ford and in her anti-interventionist stance against the Third Reich. She died in 1982.
Britting, 55, was born in Berkeley and educated at Stanford, where he studied music and philosophy; he discovered Rand’s work while looking for arguments to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Britting scored and co-produced “Ideal,” based on a book by Rand, which was performed in Los Angeles in 1989; he later co-produced the first film documentary about her, “Ayn Rand: Signs of Life,” which was nominated for an Oscar. For “Anthem,” which was first produced in Austin, Texas, in 2011, Britting wrote both the text and the music, including chanting and choral hymns.
“Rand is an artistic touchstone for me,” Britting told The Jewish Week. He called Rand a “subterranean presence” in world culture, noting references to her in episodes of “Mad Men” and “The Simpsons.” He views her apotheosis of the ego as possibly deriving from her traumatic experience under the Bolsheviks, in which her family was “ripped out of the upper middle class.
Rand’s main complaint about American society, Britting said, was that “a free mind and a free market” were not necessarily seen as corollary. Or as Britting told The Wall Street Journal in an interview about the play, Rand saw the United States as a country with a “politics of individualism ” but without “a deep and clear understanding of the morality of individualism.”