Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: Ideal – The Novel and The Play

I am taking a break from writing about all the rotten news, such as the murder of Kate Steinle and the jihadist attack on the Marines in Chattanooga. To preserve my own sanity occasionally I need to write about something that it is a pleasure to write about. So, please, do not mistake my silence on these events as my indifference or having nothing to say about them.

I left this customer review on Amazon Books for Ayn Rand’s Ideal – The Novel and The Play:

This is a fascinating double bill – a novel coupled with the later play version of the novel.  And a compelling novel it is. Having read the play Ideal many times, I was familiar with the plot and the characters. Reading a stage play, however, isn’t as rewarding as reading a novel of the play; concretes are absent and the dialogue may be dry and abstract. The next best thing is to see a staging of the play. But as a novelist I can “fill in the blanks” that usually exist in the script of a stage play. The novel Ideal does that job for me. The novel creates a broader context and offers more than enough details about reach of the characters and their unique circumstances and contexts.

This as a consequence makes re-reading the play all that more rewarding. We get to see what she intended in the play.  It is also fascinating to see in so many scenes in the novel rough premonitions of events that will ultimately reappear in other forms and contexts in The Fountainhead. I would even go so far as to say that the Johnnie Dawes' spartan garret anticipates John Galt's austere room in Atlas Shrugged, as well as the riveting drama that occurs in it. In his two Introductions – one for the novel and one for the play – Leonard Peikoff offers salient insights into Ayn Rand’s thinking and her literary style. For anyone wishing to see how the mind of a great writer works, this is the book to read.

Concretes are absent in a playscript, which would make reading one for most people an arid, unrewarding chore. A novel, however, must supply vivid enough descriptions of characters and scenes for a reader to be able to concretize them in his mind. And the reader must have a capacity for imagination to make the task rewarding. Many people have an arrested capacity, or lack one altogether, which is why they might rely on what Leonard Peikoff refers to as percepts to derive any value from a dramatized version of a playscript or a novel.

So, it’s a double-edged sword in terms of answering the question of which form is more desirable for a reader and that conforms to an author’s purposes: a novel or a play. Years ago I wrote a play called First Prize, which I later turned into a novel. The playscript is locked away in a Dramatists Guild safe deposit box in New York City; I don’t even have a copy of it in my “trunk.” The play bears little resemblance to the published novel, in terms of characterization, plot and action. I know that the play version dissatisfied me because of the paucity of scope and the amount of information I wished to convey. I don’t think now that the play version would even lend itself to a worthy dramatization on stage or in a movie.

Ideal, both the novel and the play, is about Kay Gonda, a famous actress whose spiritual presence on screen affects millions, regardless of the quality of the movies she appears in. but while her screen presence inspires others, she is in search of that quality in others, in terms of what Ayn Rand called “emotional fuel.”  

In his Introduction to the novel, Peikoff writes about Rand’s decision:

Why did AR turn Ideal into a play? She never spoke to me about this but, to the best of my knowledge, the basic answer lies in the epistemological difference between the two literary forms. A novel uses concepts and only concepts to present its events, characters, and universe. A play (or a movie) uses concepts and percepts; the latter are the audience’s observations of the physical actors, their movements, their speeches, et al.

As an example, take novels made into movies, even if faithfully adapted. In the novel, the experience is complete simply through reading; now and then you may wish to see a character or event, but the desire is peripheral and transient. In the movie – while some form of dialogue, a conceptual element, is indispensable – seeing and continuing to see are required by the essence of the medium. You can be absorbed in a novel and wonder idly what a given scene would look like; but you do not watch the scene on-screen and wonder what it would read like.

This is generally true for most readers and movie-goers. However, some of my favorite movies have caused me to search for the novels on which they were based. The novels have invariably been disappointing. For example, A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (1902), while a competently written story, was one of the dullest reads I have ever had, while the 1939 Alexander Korda version of the story is exciting and compelling. And, it is true; I could never imagine how the best scenes in the film would read.    

Rand wrote the screenplay for Christopher Massie’s 1944 novel Love Letters. The novel is a disaster and ends malevolently. There is virtually no reference to the novel to be found anywhere. Massie was noted for his horror stories, and that would explain the character and ending of the novel. (Information on Massie himself is scarce.) In an August 1945 letter to Gerald Loeb, a fan and correspondent of hers, Rand explained why she worked on Love Letters.

….The truth about Love Letters, as I see it, is this: it is essentially a very silly and meaningless story -- by the mere fact that it revolves around so unnatural a thing as somebody's amnesia. No, it has no moral lesson to teach, nor any kind of lesson whatever. So, if you look at it from the standpoint of content -- it has none. But it has one valuable point as a story -- a dramatic situation involving a conflict. This permits the creation of suspense. If the basic premise -- amnesia -- doesn't interest you, then of course the rest of the story won't interest you. A basic premise in a story is always like an axiom -- you take it or you don't. If you accept the premise, the rest will hold your interest. As for me, I accept the premise out of sheer curiosity -- nothing more deep or important than that. That is, granting such a setup -- let's see what can be made of it.

My only interest in that picture was purely technical -- how to create a good construction that would be dramatic and suspenseful, out of practically nothing. The novel on which the picture was based was a holy mess. Whatever story interest and unity it has, I had to invent. But we picked this particular novel because it had elements of a possible situation. That is very rare in picture stories.*

In short, via a screenplay, it was Rand’s task to  create the vehicle for the percepts that were not possible in Massie’s novel, neither technically nor in Massie’s style. I don’t think she would have put it that way in 1945, but had she been able to, it would have been over the heads of Paramount’s studio bosses.

Peikoff writes about reading a novel vs. reading a playscript:

Every artistic form possesses certain unique potentialities and thereby lacks certain others. A play or a movie made from a novel is always inferior to it because it cannot approach the complexity of the original work. By the same token, a relatively simple novel may be superior onstage, because of the power the story gets from the perceptual elements. Novel and play, therefore, each within its own form, are equal – i.e., each fulfills AR’s definition of art: “a recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments.” It is the prerogative of the author to choose the genre of his work. AR, as we know, chose to put Ideal on the stage.

True enough. I couldn’t write a play worthy of my attention or that was worth producing in grade school. So I chose the novel genre. Peikoff underscores what I noted above about reading a novel vs. reading a playscript:

Although novel and play are equal in the above sense, a play’s script by itself it not the equal of either. By itself, a script is not a work of art or a genre of literature. Novel and play alike, being complete, enable you fully to enter and experience the world they create. But the script by itself does not: it omits the essence in this context of literary art; it is written for perception (to be heard from a cast of actors seen on a stage), yet by itself it is detached from any such perception. To read ideologue by itself can certainly have value, but it is not the value of an artwork, merely one of its attributes. This difference, I believe, is a major reason why novels are vastly more popular among readers than playscripts.

I can vouch for that. However, from a novelist’s craft-learning perspective, reading the playscripts of Terence Rattigan, Edmond Rostand,  and even of Shakespeare gave me not a few pointers on how to write dialogue that is integrated with action.

Peikoff writes in his Introduction to the play that the focus of the play “is men’s lack of integrity,  their failure to act according to the ideals they espouse. The them4 is the evil of divorcing ideals from life.” Rand got the idea for the story (for the novel and then later the play) from a woman who claimed that “she worshipped a certain famous actress and would give her life to meet her.”

Miss Rand was dubious about the authenticity of the woman’s emotion, and this suggested a dramatic idea: a story in which a famous actress, so beautiful that she comes to represent to men the embodiment of their deepest ideals, actually enters the lives of her admirers. She comes in a context suggesting that she is in grave danger. Until this point, her worshippers have professed their reverence for her – in words, which cost them nothing. Now, however, she is no longer a distant dream, but a reality demanding action on their par, or betrayal.

                “What do you dream of?” Kay Gonda, the actress, asks one of the characters in the play’s thematic statement.
                “Nothing,” he answers. “Of what account are dreams?’
                “Of what account is life?”
                “None. But who made it so?”
                “Those who cannot dream.”
                “No. Those who can only dream.”

Peikoff describes how some of the characters react to Kay Gonda’s sudden actual appearance in their lives. The most startling vignette for me was the one in which Gonda appears before an artist who has painted every important facet of her face, yet does not recognize her when she appears. He laughs in her face, and throws her out. Peikoff writes that the artist “is, in effect, the spokesman for Platonism, who explicitly preaches that beauty is unreachable in this world and perfection is unattainable.

Since he insists that ideals are impossible on each, he cannot, logically enough, believe in the reality of any ideal, even when it actually confronts him….This philosophically induced blindness, which motivates his betrayal of her, is a particularly brilliant concretization of the play’s theme, and make a dramatic Act I curtain."

(Parenthetically, I might add that this particular mentality – the artist’s – can act as key insight to understanding why politicians, intellectuals, and the news media will defend collectivism in all its forms – the Soviet, Nazi, and Islamic forms especially – even in the face of the facts of the death and destruction they wreak on the world, in claiming that they are good ideas corrupted by bad men, that such death and destruction are anomalies and not the “ideals” in their purest form or application. Communism, Nazism, and Islam, in the hands of their “idealists,” in their purest forms, can only bring death and destruction.)

Discussing the sense of life and loneliness of Rand at the time (the 1930’s) she shared with Kay Gonda, Peikoff quotes Kay Gonda’s cry as Rand’s own:

I want to see, real, living, and in the hours of my own days, that glory I create as an illusion! I want it real! I want to know that there is someone, somewhere, who wants it, too! Or else what is the use of seeing it, and working, and burning oneself for an impossible vision? A spirit, too, needs fuel. It can run dry.

Rand’s sense of life never changed. It was with her from the beginning of her life to the very end. It shows in all her fiction. Ideal: The Novel and The Play is a fine place to start to understand her and her work.


Ideal – The Novel and The Play, by Ayn Rand. Introductions by Leonard Peikoff; A Note on the Manuscript of the novel Ideal by Richard Ralston.  New York: New American Library, 2015.  246 pp.

No comments: