Sunday, February 24, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Anthem

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made it happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

That’s what Barack Obama said in a speech in July, 2012.  But those words might just as well have been spoken by a character straight out of Ayn Rand’s novella “Anthem.”

“Anthem” is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic dystopia in which much of the world’s knowledge has been lost (torches and candles, for example, are required to provide light and power since all knowledge of electricity is gone). The society is so collectivist and anti-individualist that even personal pronouns have been banned in human discourse (individuals refer to themselves as “we,” never as “I”).  Individual initiative is not merely discouraged but is prohibited and punished.  Inventions and discoveries are deemed to be less than valueless – they are outright evil – unless they are created collectively.

But one man, Equality 7-2521, somehow manages to break free of the collectivist society’s bonds.  He comes to see the light – both figuratively and literally – as he re-discovers electricity, finds a kindred spirit in his lover, Liberty 5-3000, and, with her, sets out to re-make the world into a free utopian individualist paradise where “ego” is no longer a dirty word but the most sacred word of all.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am something of an Ayn Rand fan myself.  I enjoyed both “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” and I find myself very much in sympathy with her Objectivist philosophy.  Indeed, my reading of “Atlas Shrugged” (one of the most influential books of the Twentieth Century and still going strong) was a major factor in the development of my own libertarian philosophy (as it was for so many others, such as Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan).  And yet, despite my admiration for Ms Rand, the pleasure I’ve derived from reading her two best known works, and the debt I owe her for the huge contribution her works have made in the development of my own libertarian thinking, still I must say that I really don’t think much of her earlier fictional works:  “We the Living,” “The Night of January 16,” and “Anthem.”  All three, in my opinion, are shallow books with flimsy story lines, populated by cardboard characters.  And that is especially true of “Anthem.”

“Anthem” falls into the literary genre of dystopic science fiction, as does George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”  But from a literary standpoint, it is clearly not in a class with either of those works.  The world depicted in “Anthem” is preposterous, its characters two-dimensional, and although I am personally more than sympathetic to the book’s message, it is delivered in such sophomoric fashion as to make it difficult to take seriously.  All of which means that I wouldn’t recommend reading “Anthem” for its literary value.

On the other hand, “Anthem” is worth reading for its historical value in providing Ayn Rand fans and students of her work with a window into the evolution of both her literary style and her Objectivist philosophy.  In “Anthem” one will find the seeds that eventually blossomed into Ms Rand’s magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged”: Equality 7-2521 (subsequently renamed “The Unconquered” and “Prometheus”) is clearly the precursor to “Atlas Shrugged’s” John Galt; Equality 7-2521 is a street sweeper who discovers an abandoned subway tunnel whereas Galt is a railroad track walker; Equality’s rediscovery of electricity foreshadows Galt’s invention of a machine that will change the world; Equality’s retreat to a sanctuary in the Uncharted Forest, whence he will embark on the creation of a new individualistic world, presages the creation of Galt’s Gulch in “Atlas Shrugged”; and on and on.  And “Atlas Shrugged” is such an important book in its own right, that that fact alone makes “Anthem” worth reading.

So far, however, I have written only of “Anthem,” the novella, and not of the play of the same name now being staged by Random Access Theatre at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex on West 36th Street.  But what of the play itself?

Well, considering all the reservations I’ve already expressed regarding the literary worth of the novella, I must say that I thought that Anthem, the play, turned out surprisingly well.  The play was adapted from the novella by Jennifer Sandella (who also directed) and she did just about as good a job as anyone might have expected in focusing on the book’s strengths and glossing over its inadequacies while remaining true to its underlying message.

Anthem is staged – one might almost say choreographed - modernistically on a bare stage with no props, underscoring the fantastical nature of the production and demanding a suspension of disbelief from the audience right from the get-go.  The play has a small cast of five, four of whom play a wide variety of roles ranging from Liberty 5-3000 (Equality’s lover) to International 4-8818 (Equality’s friend) to various members of the World Council of Scholars to other downtrodden members of the dystopic society, but the heavy lifting all falls on the shoulders of Tom Carman who plays the lead role of Equlity 7-2521.  Since Anthem is based on the work of Ayn Rand, that “heavy lifting” takes the form of exposition much more than physical action but Carman is not to be faulted for that: given the novella’s limitations and the style of Ms Sandella’s adaptation, he has delivered as fine a performance as anyone might have asked for.

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