The curtain rises on a dingy office. It could be the 1980’s: a man sits silently at an ancient computer screen and pushes buttons but nothing happens. In frustration, he rifles through a box next to the computer, and finds there a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He begins reading aloud – and gradually, without undue artifice, other co-workers come and go and assume various roles. Our original Office Man becomes Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, while his colleagues provide other dialogue. Thus adapted to the stage, the short novel unfolds over six hours like a brilliant origami of the layered contradictions in American life.
Prompted by friends’ word of mouth, I recently caught one of the final performances of “Gatz” at the Public Theater in New York. “Gatz,” by the theater company Elevator Repair Service and directed by John Collins, is a marathon performance (with two brief intermissions and a dinner break) of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It left me immersed in Fitzgerald’s bittersweet vision of 1920’s America, a blend of enchantment and repulsion, and moved once again by the sheer elegance of his prose and novelistic architecture.
The storyline of Gatsby is violent but otherwise unspectacular, even dreary – and that may be part of the point. A tawdry tale of reckless wealth and dashed hopes, it almost recedes from view at times, like a low raft propelled along by the soft lulling swells of Fitzgerald’s prose. But the underlying themes are forceful and interfused: wealth, dreams both shallow and deep, and social class in 1920s America; the power of the past and the lure of the future, men and women, city and suburb, Midwest and East.
Carraway, as the narrator, observes his neighbor, Jay Gatsby (née Gatz, hence the title of this production) pursuing the American dream at his mansion on the ritzy north shore of Long Island. Gatsby has money – he’s a bootlegger with unsavory connections – and a “restrained counterfeit of perfect ease”; but he fails to regain the ultimate prize: former heart-throb Daisy Buchanan, who is now married to Tom, a vulgar aristocrat. Tom has a lover, there are trips back and forth to New York City, things go wrong and then terribly wrong. But in the end, surveying the wreckage (Gatsby is now dead along with his killer, the jilted husband, and the man’s wife) Carraway retains a certain awe and respect for the poseur Gatsby.
The last few pages of Gatsby (which the actor-narrator of “Gatz” – having tossed his copy of the book aside – recites from memory) contain some of the most lyrical passages in American literature. They comprise a coda to the story, as Fitzgerald steps back from the Gatsby saga.
Carraway decides to leave his own girlfriend and return to the Midwest, and he ruminates on what it is like to be a Midwesterner (Fitzgerald, Carraway, Gatsby) in New York. Then he focuses on where he is: in front of Gatsby’s empty house, as autumn comes over the North Shore. The green light still burns at the end of Daisy’s dock across the way, still beyond Gatsby’s reach.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly an lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last of the greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
The final paragraphs are there for all to read and re-read, reminding us that dreams of the future are conditioned by our past and our destinies:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I left the theater at 11:15 p.m. in a daze, subdued by the story but also deeply contented. How lucky we are, I thought, to have mirrors like this to hold up to ourselves and our culture. What a miracle a work of art can be, speaking across generations, as Huck Finn and Moby-Dick and Gatsby do, as do so many lesser but still great works. They have the power to possess us – I felt possessed as I left the Public Theater – and also to give us a reciprocal sense of possession and place.
How lucky to be in New York on this cool May night, just for the chance to see Gatsby so brilliantly adapted to the stage. Because possessing and being possessed by works of art is something that binds us together, amid much that does not, invites us to grow, and helps to explain who we are, which is about as good as it gets.