Michael Crowley (as Beethoven) and Michael Rau (photo by Rick Ngoc Ho)

The elaborately named Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode) is a play constructed of twenty-four comic skits, self-consciously styled “variations,” that aspire to something like fugue structure. This is not a happy accident of “negative capability”: the show’s writer, Michael Yates Crowley, constructs the analogy between musical formalism and dramatic form explicitly and self-consciously throughout the performance. That analogy is, in fact, the grounds for the argument of the play, which is that Romantic art only gains transcendence when tempered by philosophical Stoicism.

Mr. Crowley chose “The Migraine In Fact and Myth” as the theme of his argument. Crowley has suffered from migraines since adolescence, and like many sufferers of chronic migraines he keeps a migraine diary to see what environmental factors might be triggering his headaches. Because Mr. Crowley is an artist and a poet, these diaries turn sharply between profoundly rational and viscerally emotive reactions to his condition. The artifact of his suffering, in turn, becomes the foundation of the play.

In order to unfold his argument about the need to temper creative will with humility, Mr Crowley takes two great artists, Ayn Rand and Ludwig van Beethoven, and compares them. At first glance they appear very similar. Both are Romantics (though Rand called herself a “Romantic realist”); both were nasty people in their personal lives; and both had outsized visions of what their art was and should do. From another perspective, the two couldn’t be more different. Beethoven’s art, however much reviled by Adrienne Rich, was not purely masculine aural rape. And Ayn Rand, however much she is loved by the fifty-three percent, was a terrible bore and an awful writer.

The play starts with some exposition of Mr. Crowley’s history by himself and his partner Michael Rau. In variation one we are introduced to Tinky Holloway, a drag performer with a philosophical bent who is MC-ing amateur night at The Apollo strip club in small-town Illinois. She tells us that “when it’s real, I mean when someone is really singing to you about real pain, that they are feeling, in that moment — to me that is art, that is what art is.” In subsequent variations we meet a doctor who quotes Oliver Sacks, dramatic incarnations of Ayn Rand and Beethoven, a Postmodern and politically conservative literary critic who “reads” Rand, and a boy from Alberta, Canada who has visions during his migraines. The play ends with Tinky Holloway singing a dirge for lost time, a mix of carpe diem melancholy and Nietzschean ressentiment.

Michael Yates Crowley as Tinky Holloway (photo by Rick Ngoc Ho)

The Romantic link between pain and art is ancient and venerable. From the pining troubadours of Medieval País d’Òc to Lena Dunham’s existential angst in Girls, the idea that pain is a necessary condition for the creation of art, or inversely that art is a rational response to pain that breaks one’s quotidian frame of reference is taken for granted in the Western tradition. In the twenty-first century we have seen this idea take a decidedly materialist turn. From Howard Roark to Steve Jobs, our idea of the Romantic genius now includes the makers of technologies that literally change our world in the most fundamental and material ways. Ayn Rand’s definition of art in her objectivist epistemology follows this logic: reality exists outside of human experience in the realm of molecules and physical forces, and the only genuine feeling one experiences when one comes into contact with that reality is pain.

That is why Ayn Rand’s heroes are flinty-hearted architects. Mr Crowley’s critique of Rand’s philosophy cuts to the quick when he dramatizes the rape / love scene in The Fountainhead. Crowley’s narration of the scene reminds us that Rand fetishized Roark’s brute technologico-mechanical power (in much the same way market analysts fetishize Steve Jobs autocratic rule at Apple). He is the spirit; stone, steel, and female flesh are the materials he shapes to fit his desire. Dominique’s pain, her rape and her reaction to it, is her art. Her rape makes her real, which is very close to the sentiment expressed by Tinky Holloway.

But what about Beethoven? What about the migraines? Mr Crowley insists that Rand’s response to pain — that it is for losers and non-hackers who deserve to be dominated by Randian overmen like Roark — lacks something that is supplied by Beethoven, particularly his unorthodox string quartet number 15 in A minor. The third movement of the quartet was called by Beethoven “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). It is, according to Crowley, an extended meditation on the Romantic will’s losing confrontation with mortality. But what does that mean for our understanding of Ayn Rand, or migraines for that matter?

Mr. Crowley never sufficiently connects the dots, which is the one disappointment in this otherwise well-crafted and ambitious play. But if I may be given critical licence, I would like to supply the missing link. Romanticism’s main tenet posits the supremacy of the individual, and according to Rand, identity creates and guarantees that individual. In order to access to identity you must endure pain. But identity is an aspect of pain that partakes of theater; that is, identity is your response to pain on the world stage. Rand’s brand of identity-based individualism is comedy: the only rational response to pain is to laugh at it. By overcoming pain we master ourselves and our environment. Adopting this response produces a negative side effect in the individual. She becomes cruel. Rand’s individualism advocates the cultivation of the cruel punisher, the Sadist who administers the pain that constitutes them and laughs at the weak. Beethoven’s Romantic individualism, on the other hand, is tragedy: the individual wants to lose all identity in a self-obliterating love (what the religious might call God); but tragically, identity is irreducible in this life, so we must soldier on until we are finally called back to the bosom of our creator.

Of course, in Rand’s materialist philosophy, as well as the naturalism of today’s technophilic liberals, there is no afterlife, no God, and no Love (with a capital L). Tinky seems to intuit this, which makes her Beethovenian laments all the more tragic.