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We the Living on Broadway: The Story of The Unconquered

Two versions of Ayn Rand’s stage adaptation of We the Living can be accessed in print thanks to the efforts of Robert Mayhew.

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Soon after Ayn Rand published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936, she was approached by writer-producer Jerome Mayer to adapt her book into a stage play. Despite being deeply engrossed in planning her second novel, The Fountainhead, Rand diverted her attention, hoping to boost sales of We the Living.1 Rand completed her play by January 1937, but bringing We the Living to the stage would prove to be a significant challenge.

Mayer’s production was delayed by lack of funding, but also because many actors declined to star in it. The play’s strong anti-Soviet themes were simply too controversial for the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, when pro-communist sympathy was common among intellectuals and artists. Eventually, the play was picked up by another producer and opened on Christmas Day 1939 in Baltimore under the title The Unconquered, eventually making its way to Broadway for six performances in February 1940.

Although the play had only a brief run in theaters and has largely been forgotten, philosophy professor Robert Mayhew’s edited volume titled The Unconquered allows readers to explore Rand’s thought at a crucial moment in her intellectual and professional development.

The Unconquered includes two iterations of Rand’s stage play with notes and commentary by Mayhew, as well as an essay by Jeff Britting, physical archivist at the Ayn Rand Institute, about the play’s production history and Rand’s process of adaptation. Included are additional materials, such as Rand’s notes and excerpts of alternate scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Readers are offered a glimpse into Rand’s writing process as she drafted alternate endings and scenes, some of which differ significantly from the novel. This applies not only to plot and character details but to the story’s themes well. According to Mayhew, the change in title from We the Living to The Unconquered possibly reflected a subtle shift in thematic focus from novel to play, “less on the evil of the state and the masses, and relatively more on the intransigence of a heroic human being (Kira) in the face of totalitarianism.”

One can also see hints of Rand’s intellectual development. In a cut scene, Rand included a line of dialogue that foreshadowed her later work on the connection between egoism and capitalism. During an argument between the characters Andrei Taganov and Pavel Syerov, Syerov accuses Andrei of “Self-respect, self-pride, self-admiration.” Syerov then asks, “Do you realize how much you think of your precious self? You’re worse than a capitalist. You’re a capitalist of the spirit. A hoarder of your own soul.”  

In his preface, Mayhew writes that Rand herself was “not entirely satisfied” with the adaptations, but the material illuminates her development as an artist and philosopher. Moreover, “as works of fiction . . . these plays will be of interest to legions of fans of her fiction, and I expect they will be satisfied.”  This compilation of material, previously housed only in the Ayn Rand Archives, is now accessible in book form. It allows fans to read We the Living from a new perspective, while offering a rare window into the literary method of Ayn Rand.

Image cropped from a Biltmore Theatre playbill for The Unconquered, February 13, 1940. Biltmore Theatre (Ayn Rand Archives)


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  1. The initial print run of We the Living was a mere three thousand copies, and it went out of print by the fall of 1937. It wouldn’t be republished in America until more than twenty years later.
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Brandon Lisi

Brandon Lisi, MA in history, is an assistant archivist and researcher at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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