I initially started to write a review of Gatz, a mammoth six-hour staging of The Great Gatsby with the intention of weaving in my thoughts on the novel. Too distracted to mention the play before I was nearly six-hundred words in, I give my thoughts on the book first, followed by a short note on the play. Beware of spoilers; they’re everywhere.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote presciently that “the wise writer writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” He aimed to influence his contemporaries but would have taken some comfort from knowing that of all his works, The Great Gatsby rebounded from its initially disappointing performance to become a classic of both the stage and classroom (let alone the screen).
Gatsby somehow seems to fit these times particularly well. Despite having been written and published during the Roaring Twenties, the book (as does much of that era) seems much more closely associated with the Crash that followed. Implicit in the extravagance is a sense of foreboding made clear by two alternative names for the novel discarded by the publisher.
As Christopher Hitchens noted in his review on the book’s seventy-fifth anniversary, On The Road To West Egg much more directly focuses the attention of the reader on the downward trajectory both of its lead character and of the age of innocence, shattered amongst other things by the War, Mafioso and the fixing of the 1919 World Series (an event referenced in the text). This view of the book as a contest between old and new money (the older, more exclusive starlets inhabit East Egg, across the Long Island bay) takes its cue from the Buchanans, who escape relatively unscathed from the bloody climax of the novel. The Wilsons and Gatsby himself, who seek to rise above their class, find that longing has a heavy price.
If Fitzgerald had been less of a bon vivant himself, he might have insisted on another of his titles; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. Clearly, if there is a moral to take from Gatsby, it is that all that glitters is not gold. The characters, to their detriment, fail to realise this – Daisy Buchanan is described as having a voice that sounded like money. Why this should be appealing, I struggle to explain. However, I suspect that something like this might:
Tom Buchanan, scion of old money, comes off worst as an individual. He outs himself as a racist in the first chapter and breaks a woman’s nose in the next, after being described as the sort of man whose greatest achievement came easily at twenty-one and for whom life was one long downhill vista;
“something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”
As a description of all that is contemptuous about declinist bandwagons, that is pretty near the mark.
Fitzgerald, who took himself off to Paris to avoid the America he was starting to despise by the time Gatsby was published, was nonetheless brilliantly evocative in his descriptions of a landscape like no other. From the festival of light at Gatsby’s mansion, to the ever present eyes looking down from an advertising billboard, the physical landscape of the novel is, in a thrilling turn of phrase, something that brings the audience “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to [man’s] capacity for wonder.” Fascination with America is at least one reason why the novel has maintained its vaunted position amongst Hollywood studios, although the staging of Gatz is a handy reminder that even the most attractive skyscrapers have ugly basements.
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Deciding to ‘perform’ a book in its entirety is not such a radical idea, once you think of it. The idea of having a whole book read to you is not totally unheard of – if it sounds onerous then not only have you clearly not had a parent read to you for far too long but you are also not much of an audiobook buyer. Nonetheless, I must admit a peculiar sense of respect for the cast of the Elevator Repair Service and the bravery of attendees of the London International Festival of Theatre (coincidentally shortened to LIFT).
Giving the play a premise was a wise move – in case you don’t know it, an office worker suffering from a crippling IT disability picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby and immerses himself in it, imagining his colleagues as characters in the play. It provides plenty of humour with which to break the audience’s concentration and thus dispels the risk of boredom, but in truth, this backstory is not really deep enough to be involving in any respect and the pretense of it is dropped by the end of the performance – the reading of the novel has become the play and its (famous) final sentence means curtains.
On the other hand, the setting is an excuse for slightly odd casting and for a limited set of props. Although the office furniture is used to good effect (shrinking the size of the stage for tense scenes), there is undoubtedly an urge to visualise New York to which the imagination can and should only go so far at the theatre.
Far be it for me to be wholly critical of Gatz, however, because in many ways it really is remarkable to hear every last word. Fitzgerald’s prose has a way of leading the reader deeper into the story and an ambiguity that makes you feel as if each paragraph is a drag race swooshing by. Narrator Scott Shepherd does the book justice both with his inflection and his apparent knowledge of all forty-nine thousand words (showily, the last hour sees him lose his place in the book before putting the prop down and continuing without the slightest hesitation).
Perhaps most importantly, the book itself is host to a rich seam of content that is easily lost in any adaptation. Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitism comes into play (Meyer Wolfsheim, shady fixer of the World Series and general outsider to the society at the centre of the play does not even get the Shylock treatment in 1920s America), and reminds us that even cynics can be false prophets (and consumers of ‘stale ideas’).
While the forthcoming film will not be so keen on this aspect of the book, perhaps it will make greater comparisons with the men and women of our own time who fail to see themselves as part of a web through which collateral damage is easily done. Either way, it sure does make you think.