In 1934, Rand wrote Ideal twice. It was first conceived and drafted as a novel, but Rand was dissatisfied with her draft and did not edit the work into a final, polished form. She then rewrote it as a polished stage play.
Ideal grew out of a conversation with a movie fan who gushed that she would give her life to meet a certain famous actress. Dubious, Rand conceived of a story in which the integrity of those who profess to embrace ideals would be tested. What if their idol suddenly appears in their lives, seemingly desperately in need of help, so that their ideals now demand real action?
— Leonard Peikoff, “Introduction to Ideal: The Novel,” Ideal
In Ideal, actress Kay Gonda unexpectedly enters the lives of six of her most ardent admirers, finding them from the addresses on their fan letters. One by one, over a single night and early morning, she visits an upright family man, a social activist, an artist, an evangelist, a wealthy playboy and a lost soul named Johnnie Dawes. To each she pleads for help: she is wanted by police for a murder, and she needs a hiding place. By night’s end, she has tested the integrity of those who claim she is their ideal.
From Ideal: The Play:
Kay Gonda: [Raising her head] . . . If all of you who look at me on the screen hear the things I say and worship me for them — where do I hear them? Where can I hear them, so that I might go on? I want to see, real, living, and in the hours of my own days, that glory I create as an illusion! I want it real! I want to know that there is someone, somewhere, who wants it, too! Or else what is the use of seeing it, and working, and burning oneself for an impossible vision? A spirit, too, needs fuel. It can run dry.
Kay Gonda is a screen actress idolized by millions. In fan letters, they pledge gratitude and loyalty to her for showing them the best within themselves. But Gonda grows weary of inspiring others — she seeks inspiration of her own.
Then the unexpected happens: a man is murdered, and Gonda is rumored to be a suspect. In a dizzying whirl of confrontations over the course of one long night, Gonda visits six of her most ardent fans, pleading for a hiding place from the police, challenging each of them, one by one, to pay more than the cost of a movie ticket to protect their ideal.
Will Gonda find in her audience the same integrity that she brings to her acting — or will they betray her, and themselves? Does one who kills illusions in others deserve to be called a murderer? Only Ayn Rand could create a character like Kay Gonda.
— Kay Gonda, Ideal: The Play by Ayn Rand
Mick Watts is Kay Gonda’s hard-bitten, fiercely loyal press agent. When we meet him in the Prologue, he’s drunk and angry at a world that hides its own failings in a cloud of admiration for the great actress. “I went to confession once, long ago,” he muses, “and they talked about the redemption of all sins. It’s useless to yell ‘Kay Gonda’ and to think that all your sins are washed away. Just pay two bits in the balcony — and come out pure as snow.”
When Gonda fails to appear for an important contract signing, Watts acts strangely and seems to know more than he’s saying. Does he know her whereabouts? How far will he go to protect her? And why on earth would he implicate her in an unsolved murder?
— Mick Watts, Ideal: The Play by Ayn Rand
Johnnie Dawes is a tortured soul who’s alienated from the world of the conventional and commonplace. Daring to hope that Gonda could be an exception, he writes a fan letter giving voice to his yearning for a “woman who does not assume a glory of greatness for a few hours, then return to the children-dinner-friends-football-and-God reality. A woman who seeks that glory in her every minute and her every step. A woman in whom life is not a curse, nor a bargain, but a hymn. . . . I want nothing except to know that such a woman exists.”
When Dawes returns home to find Gonda in his apartment, desperately needing his protection, his sincerity is put to the test. What price will he pay to preserve his most cherished ideal?
The theme of Ideal, according to Ayn Rand’s literary executor, Leonard Peikoff, is “the evil of divorcing ideals from life.” In Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy, the ideal is achievable and the virtue of integrity is therefore practical as well as moral. But this is not the conventional viewpoint.
In Ideal, actress Kay Gonda confronts several of her devoted fans with the unreality of their ideals in a series of encounters which, in Peikoff’s words, comprise a “philosophical guide to hypocrisy, a dramatized inventory of the kinds of ideas and attitudes that lead to the impotence of ideals — that is, to their detachment from life.”
Yet some of the characters remain true to their ideals. The drama resides in seeing which ones, and what form their loyalty will take.
Ideal dramatizes the value of independence, the virtue of relying solely on one’s own judgment rather than substituting the judgments of other people.
In Ideal, the fans of actress Kay Gonda express their intense admiration in private letters to her. But when Gonda appears at their homes seeking help, these fans become aware of conflicts between their professed ideals and the opinions of others — a nagging wife, a grasping partner, a ruthless competitor — and of the need to choose.
In The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon thinks to herself that men have “been so mistaken about the shapes of their Devil . . . .” One reason for this, on Rand’s view, is that mankind has been radically mistaken about the ideal.
Ideal challenges the idea that ideals are to be longed for but never realized in this life. “What do you dream of?” Kay Gonda asks another character in Ideal, in what Rand’s literary executor, Leonard Peikoff, calls the play’s thematic statement. “Nothing,” he answers; “Of what account are dreams?” “Of what account is life?” she asks. “None. But who made it so?” “Those who cannot dream,” she answers. He replies: “No. Those who can only dream.”