Ayn Rand was born in 1905 in Saint Petersburg, then capital of the Russian Empire, to a bourgeois family whose property was expropriated by the Bolshevik government after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Concerned about her safety due to her strong anti-Communist views, Rand's family helped her emigrate to the United States in 1926. She moved to Hollywood, where she obtained a job as a junior screenwriter and also worked on other writing projects. Her play Night of January 16th opened on Broadway in September 1935 and ran until early April 1936. Later that month, her debut novel, We the Living, was published by Macmillan. She drew on her experiences to depict life in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and expressed her criticisms of the Soviet government and Communist ideology.
Shortly after We the Living was published, Rand began negotiations with Broadway producer Jerome Mayer to do a theatrical adaptation. They reached an agreement by July 1936. By January 1937, Rand had completed a script, but Mayer had difficulty casting the production because of the story's anti-Communist content. Without a recognized star in the cast, Mayer's financing fell through.
In 1939, Russian-born actress Eugenie Leontovich, who had read We the Living and heard that an adaptation had been written, approached Rand. Like Rand, Leontovich came from a family that suffered after the revolution; the Bolsheviks tortured and killed her three brothers, who served in the anti-Communist White Army. Leontovich asked for a copy of the script, which she sent to her friend George Abbott, a successful Broadway producer. Abbott decided to produce and direct the adaptation; he hired scenic designer Boris Aronson, who was also a Russian immigrant, to create the sets. Rand hoped the theatrical adaptation of her novel would create interest among Hollywood producers in doing a film version. This hope was bolstered when Warner Bros. studio invested in the stage production, which was retitled The Unconquered.
Rand had a bad experience with the Broadway production of Night of January 16th because of script changes mandated by the producer, so she insisted on having final approval of any revisions to The Unconquered. The production was quickly troubled as Abbott requested many changes that Rand refused. To facilitate rewrites, Abbott asked experienced playwright S. N. Behrman to work with Rand as a script doctor. Abbott also decided to replace actor John Davis Lodge, who was hired to play Andrei.
Although she was much older,[b] Leontovich planned to star as college-aged Kira. Abbott and Rand developed concerns about Leontovich's approach to the role during rehearsals. Rand later described Leontovich's performance as "ham all over the place", which Rand attributed to Leontovich's background with the Moscow Art Theatre. A preview production opened in Baltimore on December 25, 1939, with Leontovich playing Kira alongside Onslow Stevens as Leo and Dean Jagger as Andrei. Rand's husband, Frank O'Connor, was cast in a minor role as a GPU officer. The opening night was complicated by a last-minute accident when Howard Freeman, who was playing Morozov, fell from the theatre's upper tier and fractured his pelvis. No replacement was ready, so his part was read from the script rather than performed.[c] The Baltimore production closed on December 30.
After negative reviews for the preview, Abbott cancelled a Broadway debut planned for January 3, 1940, so he could recast and Rand could make script changes. Rand and Abbott agreed to fire Leontovich. Rand delivered the news so that Abbott did not have to confront his longtime friend. Abbott made several other cast changes, including replacing Stevens with John Emery and replacing Doro Merande with Ellen Hall as Bitiuk.
For the Broadway production, Helen Craig took the lead role as Kira. Rand made the updates to the script that Abbott requested, but she had lost confidence in the production. She did not usually drink, but got drunk before the dress rehearsal to "cut off any emotional reaction" to the "disaster". A final preview performance was staged on February 12, 1940, as a benefit for the Home for Hebrew Infants, a New York orphanage. The play opened on Broadway the next day at the Biltmore Theatre, but closed after five days following scathing reviews and just six performances.
For more than 70 years after its production, the play was unpublished and available only as a typescript stored at the New York Public Library. In 2014, Palgrave Macmillan published a volume with both the final script and an earlier version, edited by Robert Mayhew.