Name the most significant American novel of the Jazz Age. Go on, right off the top of your head.
Chances are “The Great Gatsby” springs effortlessly to mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most compelling novel evokes the period more than any other. In fact, it was Fitzgerald who coined the terms “Jazz Age” and “flapper” for the post-WW I decade and the young women who bobbed their hair and donned a devil-may-care attitude along with their short skirts. The ’20s endlessly fascinate; the period that ushered in modernity.
“The Great Gatsby” will be given the experimental theater treatment by the Elevator Repair Service (ERS) at McCarter Theater’s Berlind Theater, Thursday through Sunday, December 15 to 18. A cast of 13 acts out the entire text, cover to cover, in a performance lasting six-and-a-half hours. Yes. Six-and-a-half hours. With two 15-minute intermissions and a one hour dinner break, “Gatz” is a marathon eight-hour session. But by all accounts, it will be worth it. Sold-out performances last fall in New York City elicited rave reviews. Scott Brown of New York Magazine called it “spellbinding.” New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley called it “the most remarkable achievement in theater not only of this year but also of this decade.”
“Gatz” is not only a tribute to the power of Fitzgerald’s writing, it is a tribute to the very act of reading — “a kind of fantastical dramatization of the experience of getting lost in a good book,” says director and ERS founder John Collins. “When Scott [Shepherd, who plays the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway] and I started to work on it, we were rehearsing in a little office space. I wanted the book to be physically present, so we sort of stumbled on the idea of reading the entire book in this setting.”
On Tuesday, December 13, Erica Nagel, McCarter Theater’s artistic programs associate, will talk with Shepherd and Collins, for an insider’s look at “Gatz.”
Putting an innovative spin on the play-within-a-play, office worker Nick enters his shabby workplace, discovers his desktop computer on the blink, and a copy of “The Great Gatsby” on his desk. He picks it up and reads aloud. And reads. Nick reads from the opening lines: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. `Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,’” to the famously evocative closer: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
As Nick’s coworkers arrive they too are drawn into the book. “Fitzgerald’s writing is so visual and so evocative that the book lends itself beautifully to the Elevator Repair Service treatment,” says Ariana Smart Truman, the show’s producer and company manager. “The drab office lights up with his poetic descriptions, and the audience becomes as rapt as the readers; all without flapper outfits or a mansion set,” she says.
“I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they had intended to leave at the dinner break and then felt compelled to come back,” says Truman. “In the early days, we thought it was too much to ask an audience to stay put for so long so we split the performance over two nights but this turned out to be even more challenging; people had to get babysitters for two nights instead of one. But the real value of doing it this way is that the audience gets immersed in the play just as they would when reading. That’s the wonder of it. The actors on stage play ordinary people who come to ‘live’ within the novel as they read it. This mirrors the act of reading in which the imagination transports you to another time and place.”
“Gatz” takes its title from Jay Gatsby’s real name, James Gatz, as we are told in chapter six of the novel, a slim volume of just nine chapters and around 180 pages. A deceptively easy read, the story is told in retrospect by Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbor and witness to the revelries of the Manhattan socialites who drive out to Gatsby’s sprawling mansion on one side of a Long Island bay for weekend parties. Gatsby hopes to rekindle the romance he once had with Nick’s cousin, Daisy, before she married upper crust boor Tom Buchanan.
Gatz has fallen for Daisy. She’s wealthy. He’s not. She marries old money while he makes a fast fortune by dubious means. Nick observes the nouveau riche vulgarities on one side of the bay and the wealth and hypocrisy on the other: class, privilege, sex, adultery, social climbing, decadence, and murder. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Published in 1925, “The Great Gatsby” received mixed reviews. It was decades before it was recognized as a masterpiece of brevity, symbolism, wit, and insight. A 1974 film version starred Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. In 1991 composer John Harbison was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to write an opera based on the novel. Harbison, incidentally, graduated from Princeton High School in 1959, the same year McCarter Theater’s longtime director of special programming, Bill Lockwood, graduated from Princeton University. Currently a 3-D film version is in production, due for release next year starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.
The Elevator Repair Service was founded in New York City 20 years ago by Collins and a group of actors. It is now one of New York’s most acclaimed companies and creates new work through collaborative brainstorming sessions in which novels, non-fiction, films, plays, television programs, and other media are developed and honed over a performance season before an extended run. Since 1997 ERS has toured the United States, Europe, Singapore, and Australia.
“Gatz” is part of a trilogy of ERS stagings of modernist American literature that includes Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and “Select,” based on Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” staged at the Berlind this past spring (U.S. 1, March 30). “Gatz” is the only play in which the original text is read in its entirety.
In these days of the “1 percent” and “99 percent,” “Gatz” seems a timely choice but, according to Collins, the project began in 1999 when Steve Bodow, ERS associate director, suggested the book. “We began tossing ideas around,” Collins says. “We had no idea of reading the entire text on stage. Originally we thought we would try to stage some scenes but when we had to decide what should stay and what should go, we had endless trouble. Fitzgerald wrote long well-constructed sentences that are packed with meaning. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is airtight. We couldn’t cut a thing.”
The problem of staging the book became moot, however, when Collins discovered that the rights couldn’t be acquired at that time. It was 2004 before they could move ahead with their plans, by which time they were committed to the idea of including the entire book. “It was a bit terrifying at first but audiences loved it,” says Collins. “We knew we were on to something, and it’s our most performed piece even though it is so demanding of the cast.
“There’s a degree of athleticism to Scott’s performance,” says Collins of the actor who has memorized the entire book from cover to cover. Not a single word of Fitzgerald’s original text is cut, including “he said” and “she said.” To keep up his stamina, Shepherd has a real cup of coffee at the start and a bite or two of energy bar after the first intermission. Then there’s the dinner break and another cup of coffee in the third quarter. The alcohol that the actors seem to be imbibing is a prop.
Money and alcohol are integral elements of the story. Fitzgerald was paid enormous sums for his writing, much of which is based on his own life. He spent lavishly and drank heavily. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1896, he went to Princeton in 1913 but left to take up a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the United States Army and didn’t graduate with his class of 1917. At Princeton, the Midwesterner came face to face with the deep religious, social, economic, and regional divisions that characterized American society. In his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” published in 1920, he writes of the novel’s lead character, Amory Blaine: “From the first he loved Princeton — its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds, and under it all the air of struggle that pervaded his class.”
Of the university’s famed Triangle Club, Fitzgerald drew upon his own three-year association with the club: “The boy who writes the lyrics stands in a corner, biting a pencil, with 20 minutes to think of an encore; the business manager argues with the secretary as to how much money can be spent on ‘those damn milkmaid costumes’; the old graduate, president in ’98, perches on a box and thinks how much simpler it was in his day.”
Fitzgerald wrote all the lyrics for three Triangle productions. Bill Lockwood cites his Triangle Club song “My Idea of Love” as demonstrative of the author’s “developing wry, satirical sense, and awareness of word play and subtlety, as well as his later concerns with status and social hierarchy. Fitzgerald’s legacy remains an indelible part of Triangle’s 121-year-old history and tradition,” says Lockwood.
“This Side of Paradise” was followed by a collection of short stories, “Flappers and Philosophers,” also in 1920, and “The Beautiful and the Damned” and “Tales of the Jazz Age” in 1922. That same year, with his wife, Zelda (whom he’d met at a party in Montgomery, Alabama), Fitzgerald settled in what would become the inspiration for the location of “The Great Gatsby,” Great Neck, Long Island. Gatsby’s parties are only slight exaggerations of parties given by the Fitzgeralds. Daisy, it is said, owes much to Zelda.
By 1927, Fitzgerald was working for the movie industry in Hollywood which he did on and off for the next decade (working briefly on the script of “Gone with the Wind”). Zelda was in and out of clinics because of her deteriorating mental condition and died in 1948. Fitzgerald died in 1940.
In case you’re wondering, the Elevator Repair Service uses the 1995 Scribner Paperback edition of the novel, ISBN 0-684-80152-3. And as for the theater company’s curious name, the Elevator Repair Service is an inside joke, of sorts. “I was about 11 or 12 when my uncle was working on creating a job placement survey for the unemployed with questions such as ‘do you like working with other people’ and ‘do you like working with technology?’” Collins says. “I took the test and after the answers had gone through a very rudimentary computer out popped several suggestions for my future. One was elevator repair man and that became a sort of running gag among my friends who suggested that if ever I founded a theater company that’s what I should call it.”
“Gatz,” McCarter Theater (Berlind), 91 University Place, Princeton. Thursday through Sunday, December 15 to 18, 2 p.m. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” performed word-for-word by the 13-member cast of Elevator Repair Service. The six-hour marathon is not a retelling of the Gatsby story — but an enactment of the novel itself. The theater lobby will feature an exhibit of facsimiles relating to Fitzgerald based on materials housed at Firestone Library. $150. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
Also, McCarter Live, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Tuesday, December 13, 7 p.m. Erica Nagel, McCarter Theater’s artistic programs associate, talks with actor Scott Shepherd and director John Collins of the theater company the Elevator Repair Service, for an insider’s look at ERS’s production of “Gatz” at McCarter Theater. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.