By Keith Gandal
Want a quick, but apparently reliable measure of how elitist you are? Go see the 7-hour production of Gatz, in which all 47,000 words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are, in the course of the play, enunciated on stage. (If you dare and can afford to.) If you love every minute of it and find time flying by, you’re probably, well, an arts snob; if you find your reaction mixed, your mind drifting in and out, and your body just plain giving out, well, you’re likely more of a populist.
Consider the following small, statistically meaningless, but provocative sample of reviews you instantly encounter on the web: the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Theatremania all give the play rave reviews, while the New York Post and the New York Daily News both give it 2½ stars (out of 4 and 5 respectively). Ben Brantley of the New York Times describes the play as “work of singular imagination and intelligence.” Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg calls it “remarkable,” “as powerful a piece of stagecraft as you may ever see.” David Finkle of Theatremania finds the play “mesmerizing” and declares, “the lengthy production goes by in what seems like a blink of an eye.” Meanwhile, Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post gives it a mixed review, asserting that the director “has come up with an inspired concept” and that Gatz is “great, but [it] also grates.” “There are the deadly boring stretches. Very long ones.” She concludes: “It’s as maddeningly tedious as it is brilliant. By the end, my mind was as numb as my butt.” And Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News recommends the play, but also calls it a “fanny-numbing readathon.”
In other words, this small sample of reviews breaks down across class lines. Higher-brow papers or websites are raving, and the lower-brow papers have mixed feelings, including uncomfortable feelings in their behinds.
But is this breakdown really surprising? A 7-hour production at a cost of $140 seems to demand of its audience members that they have a lot of time and money to spare. This is at the Public by the way, which was presumably once more public than it is now. In fact, one thing the play Gatz does quite effectively is to restore Fitzgerald’s now very accessible novel to the inaccessibility, along class lines, that it would have had back in the 1920s.
I want to make clear that I haven’t seen the play and, thus, that my perceptions of its length, its cost, and its reviews are not colored by my having sat through it. I’m actually quite curious to see it – I’m teaching the novel this term at City College, and I’ve written a recent book that devotes the longest chapter to Fitzgerald’s novel. Well-meaning colleagues and friends have even suggested I take my class to see the play, given that some reviewers are calling it a major theatrical event, but with regular tickets starting at $140, who can afford to go? Not me (ravaged as I am by the recession), and certainly not my students, some of whom are reading a library edition of Gatsby because they find the paperback book expensive. (Maybe I could apply for a grant to take my class of 28 – a grant of just under $4000 would cover the ticket price.)
I’ve just finished trying to get my students to see that The Great Gatsby, despite its reification by mostly rich, male Anglo critics as “perhaps the finest [novel] written by an American” and a “tale of pursuing the unattainable in the Jazz Age” (to quote from Brantley’s New York Times review), is actually a story of the class, ethnic, and gender conflict created when poor and ethnic-American men suddenly started to attain what had been previously attainable only by well-born Anglo-American men: namely, money, position, and rich Anglo women. And that it’s written by an American man with a particular class and ethnic pedigree.
What is so often overlooked by readers of the novel, thanks to critics of the novel – and might want to be remembered at this moment in American history when we are once again at war, and many of our soldiers are poor and non-Anglo – is that Gatsby, born poor to a family named Gatz, is a returning serviceman who got his big break from an Army that, quite out of step with the rest of the nation, had just extended equal opportunity to ethnic Americans and thus promoted him to captain. That’s how he was able to meet well-born Daisy, as an officer at Camp Taylor.
Fitzgerald knew all about the Army’s then-radical egalitarianism (which was still quite limited because it discriminated against blacks), and he had mixed feelings about it: because he was an officer himself at Camp Taylor who never got shipped out to Europe and never made captain, the very rank that upstart ethnic-American Gatsby makes, as Nick pointedly points out, while still at training camp. And these mixed feelings come out in his portrayal of Gatsby.
It’s interesting for a literary-historian of Gatsby the 1925 novel to read the wildly varied reviews of the 2010 play Gatz. The variation suggests some of the class and ethnic tensions that the novel dramatizes. I can agree with the last line of the novel that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” – if you’re referring to the American past of class and ethnic and racial conflict.
Keith Gandal is Professor of English at City College of New York and author of The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the Fiction of Mobilization.