Ayn Rand is one of the most misunderstood and polarizing writers of the 20th century, and today is a date that will forever live in Randian infamy; the eve upon which her infamous stage play The Night of the 16th January was set.
If Echoba.se had an office, a sure-fire way to get people throwing chairs around in it would be to bring up the name “Ayn Rand.” There are few writers who are quite so polarizing, and I know a few Rebels who visibly shudder when her name is mentioned.
To my mind, however, she’s a remarkable writer from a remarkable period in literary history – who became famous during a period in which the world was trying to make sense of the utter madness following the Second World War.
Her seminal work, 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, made her a peer of other post-war literary greats, such as George Orwell (Animal Farm, 1945), Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea, 1952) and Ian Fleming (Casino Royale, 1955.) Each of them wrote fascinating books about how to reconcile the madness of the second world war with the struggles of modern humanity.
But The Night of the 16th January predates all that – and to ignore it based on the infamy of her later works is to dismiss a truly remarkable theatrical stunt.
The Night of the 16th January is a stage play first produced in 1934 – long before Ayn Rand’s rise to infamy. It’s gimmick – and the whole play was undeniably a gimmick – was that the play followed the course of a trial, and the audience themselves played the jury.
During the first act, twelve members of the audience are selected to play ‘the jury’, and take a place on stage as they hear the Defense and Prosecution argue the case of Karen Andre, a secretary accused of murdering her employer; a wealthy businessman who’d tried to make a fortune in the gold trade by gambling his company’s fortune.
Karen was revealed to have been having an affair with the victim, and his ‘murder’ was revealed as a plot to fake a suicide, that went tragically wrong. At the end of the three-act play, the audience members serving as the jury have to decide if Karen is guilty of murder or not; and one of two different endings is staged depending on their verdict.
The play itself was moderately successful – with the initial four-week run being followed by a stint on Broadway, a Hollywood movie adaptation and numerous other adaptions and performances. You might have heard it performed under different titles, such as Woman On Trial or Penthouse Legend. Although it’s fallen from the public eye – especially in the wake of Ayn Rand’s infamous novels – it did carve its place in theatrical history.
In fact many others have attempted to mimic the formula – perhaps most success of them being British author Jeffery Archer, who played The Accused in his own audience-as-jury play in 2000.
Decades later, it’s an interesting nugget of literary history to peer back at. During the 1930s, Ayn Rand was a struggling Hollywood screenwriter, and few people thought much of her work. Yet some of the themes she’d explore more heavily in We The Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were nodded at in The Night of the 16th January; specifically how humanity has a subversive desire to conform with the majority opinion; and that many injustices can be perpetrated as a result.
In our current age, things like video games, virtual reality and user-generated content are changing the very nature of storytelling; but it’s interesting to see that this is just a continuation of a trend, not the beginning of something new. Even in the 1930s, writers like Ayn Rand were challenging the concept of ‘consuming’ narrative; and in that regard The Night of the 16th November earns its place in storytelling’s forgotten hall of fame.