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“Gatz” at the Public: A Great Gatsby or Just an Elitist One?

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.

Recent Comments

  1. rachel

    Sure. What’s frustrating about this post though, at the risk of reducing its (valid!) points to a hand-wringing discussion about arts funding in America is…well, that it doesn’t acknowledge the gross lack of public funding for this kind of project. There’s uncomfortable irony in the fact that Gatsby (and Gatz) is ABOUT race, class, and pedigree and yet is totally inaccessible to a huge portion of the city, that’s true. But it’s an irony that exists in (almost) all large-scale-but-socially-aware theater. I have trouble finding Gatz particularly egregious (and, for what it’s worth, the price of the ticket broken down into dollars/hr makes the show cheaper than most of what’s off broadway).

  2. Wallard

    For those taking issue with the ticket price of Gatz, be advised that the Public has a standing Rush ticket policy. Given the fact that there are weekday shows (Wednesday and Friday starting at 3pm), it would seem that students and lecturers alike should be able to find a seat at a reasonable price.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melissa Allen, Lauren. Lauren said: Your weekend theater review: Gatz http://bit.ly/ajyrX6 […]

  4. Aaron

    I would love for you and your students to see Gatz. I’m in it, so I have a vested interest. There are rush tickets available before the show, and, for future reference the Public has cheaper student tickets available for everything they do before the run starts (though those were sold out quickly).

    But it’s important to acknowledge what Rachel points out in her comment above, and perhaps to elaborate on it. That $140 ticket price, while high, is due to the fact that there is barely any public funding for the arts in the US, when compared to other first world countries. There is actually barely any PUBLIC SECTOR in the US, as compared to other first world countries.

    So that admittedly ticket price, while admittedly inaccessible ironically reflects the real cost of producing a piece like Gatz. Those dollars pay the salaries of actors, designers, stage hands, maintenance people, administrators, and others. Most of the people working on the show do not have advanced degrees, many are union members, most are working or middle-class.

    Perhaps a blog post on the inequities of the current marginal tax rates and how it keeps people like you from seeing good theater would be more provocative than yet another finger-pointing at an institution like The Public, which offers weeks of highly-produced theater for free each year to anyone in NY via Shakespeare in the Park, or a company like ERS, who struggles to make ends meet each month just as you and your students do.

  5. John

    What Aaron says is such an important and necessary part of this interesting conversation.

    If you are satisfied with the current system for publicly funding the arts AND you expect your ticket price to be comfortably low, then you must also expect your theater to be produced and performed by the destitute.

    And for what it’s worth, GATZ, though completely sold out, is not making The Public any money.

  6. Robin Dann

    I’m an art snob, I could afford the ticket price, I love the novel, I’ve read it 5 times. Yet I was shocked to find this a very poor play. It worked for me only until the end of the 1st act. I felt that Gatsby was miscast as creepy and Tom as cartoonish, for whatever reason, laughs perhaps, and that that was a mistake. The most important scene in the book is when Daisy says to Gatsby “You always looks so cool” and Tom suddenly realizes they are having an affair. The moment on the stage has no tension (for me) and has to be explained. From then on the play just felt awkward to me. I fell asleep twice during the third act, and I have chronic severe insomnia. (Maybe I should be listening to books on tape). I have sat through five-hour operas, even a six-hour opera (War and Peace) and an eight-hour film (the same) without being bored. I just thought Gatz didn’t work and I wish I had saved the money or spent it on an opera at the Metropolitan. I can’t believe this is getting rave reviews. Is it from people too lazy to read the book? I just don’t get it. It’s like the emperor’s clothes…If the production were as good as the hype, I think it’s worth the ticket price, although I paid for my friend because she can’t afford it, and most people can’t. We’re practically in a depression! By the way, your essay ends just as it’s getting interesting. I wanted to read more of what you have to say!

  7. Robin Dann

    (Continued from above).
    I must point out I’m talking about the 2012 run, with a different cast, and higher prices. Its’s not that the actors and staff don’t deserve to be paid. Of course they do. It’s that I feel the production itself is not worth the money I spent. (That is why I often prefer cinema to stage. I don’t feel bad for the actors when a movie doesn’t cut it. They’re not actually up there night after night in the flesh pouring their heart out into something that doesn’t fall together right. They’ve already been paid and moved on, and the movie is already an object with a life its own. Not so with a play. I feel for the actors who are pouring their vitality into the the play for the audience, in a vehicle they can’t alter much).

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