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Shoshana Milgram on Ayn Rand’s Plays

New Romanticist: Who is Shoshana Milgram?
Shoshana Milgram: I’m a teacher-scholar in the field of literature, based at Virginia Tech since 1978.  In my courses and publications—on such writers as Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, E. L. Voynich, and Ayn Rand—I’ve tried to be like Austen Heller in The Fountainhead, a man who “sees greatness and says so.”

I’ve presented talks on Ayn Rand at the major national professional conferences and at the Smithsonian (an eight-lecture series on “Ayn Rand’s Fiction and the Human Ideal”).  Back at the university, I’ve taught all of Ayn Rand’s novels, two of the plays, and Philosophy: Who Needs It. At Objectivist conferences, I’ve offered courses on several of Hugo’s novels (Les Miserables, The Man Who Laughs, and Ninety-Three) and on the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.  My recent publications include an article on E. L. Voynich for Late-Victorian and Edwardian Novelists, a two-part article on Ayn Rand’s drafts for TIA, and the introduction and afterword for an edition of The Man Who Laughs; I’m a cheerleader for values.

New Romanticist: When did you become interested in Ayn Rand?
Shoshana Milgram:During the winter break of my freshman year of college, I read, and admired, The Fountainhead. I loved not only the story, but the style; without even trying, I memorized some of my favorite passages. That year, I also met some Objectivists and learned more about Ayn Rand and her ideas. As soon as spring semester was over, I opened Atlas Shrugged. Two days later, I reached the last page.  I immediately began rereading the novel, taking breaks only to find, read, and consider Ayn Rand’s other books. I’ve been rereading Atlas Shrugged ever since.

New Romanticist: What is a play?
Shoshana Milgram:A play is a dramatic composition or performance—but an Ayn Rand play is a tight, intense, elegant structure built on the foundation of life-and-death issues. No one but Ayn Rand could have written her plays.

New Romanticist: Can you tell me about your Summer 2002 course “Ayn Rand’s Plays”?
Shoshana Milgram:I’ll be looking mainly at Ayn Rand’s three published plays: The Night of January 16th (originally entitled Penthouse Legend), Ideal, and Think Twice. I’ll begin by examining the importance of theatre throughout Ayn Rand’s writing. When she adopted for her own purposes Aristotle’s statement about art (“things not as they are, but as they could and should be”), she was drawing on his Poetics, which deals specifically with plays. (This was no accident.) We will then study the plays individually, studying the elements—structure, theme, dialogue, etc.—in isolation and in integration. Finally, I will point to the specific situations and ideas that Ayn Rand introduced in these plays, and developed more fully in The Fountainhead.

New Romanticist: Which of Ayn Rand’s plays is your favorite (and why)?
Shoshana Milgram:That’s a hard question! Think Twice, in my experience, is the easiest to teach to college students.  When students understand what one character means when he tells another, “This is the only humanitarian act I’ve ever committed—the only one any man can ever commit,” they grasp the whole play; then they need to think about what they’ve grasped. The Night of January 16th is clever, colorful, and suspenseful.  Ayn Rand said that her opinion of the play’s merit was “very high—as high, relative to its scale, as my opinion of any other work of mine.” I agree.  But Ideal is the play that most haunts me.  Ayn Rand once wrote in her journal that “the worst curse on mankind is the ability to consider ideals as something quite abstract and detached from one’s everyday life.”  The play Ideal struggles valiantly against the worst curse on mankind—and wins.

New Romanticist: What is the value of your course to Objectivists?  (Why should they take your course?)
Shoshana Milgram:In my courses, I try to do what Ayn Rand called “giving full conscious value” to the wonderful works we are studying: to understand the whole by paying attention to the integration of the parts.  Howard Roark told his former Dean that an architect gives a building its soul, and every wall, window, and stairway to express it. Everything Ayn Rand ever wrote has that sort of integration. We can, and should, see it. Where Ayn Rand’s art is concerned, the closer we get, the better it looks.  By observing and cherishing all aspects of Ayn Rand’s achievement, we become active readers, on whom nothing is lost.

New Romanticist: Any final insights that you would like to share with our readers?
Shoshana Milgram:The last time I was at Lincoln Center, I visited a newly enhanced research division of the New York Public Library (the Billy Rose Theatre Collection). When I checked the card catalogue for books by Ayn Rand, I noticed that the library had a copy of The Night of January 16th, available for viewing only in a restricted area.  I ordered the book.  When it arrived,, I was initially disappointed at what appeared to be the standard 1971 Signet.  Why would the standard paperback be treated as if it were a rare book?  But this was no ordinary paperback. The book was identified as a “gift of the author.” Inside, I found revisions–some in Ayn Rand’s hand, some typed and taped in. For a production in 1973, Ayn Rand had made some minor changes (reflected in the version now in print); although she did not, at the time, plan to re-issue the play with the revisions, she wanted the library to have the definitive version.

Forty years after writing the play, Ayn Rand turned her attention, yet again, to its details. We can do likewise—for this play, and for them all.

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