The hottest ticket in New York this month, surprisingly, is not a musical or comedy on Broadway but an adaptation of a thoroughly familiar eighty-five-year-old novel at the Public Theater. It is an idiosyncratic piece of theater, not so much an adaptation as an illustrated reading of the whole text of The Great Gatsby – more than six and a half hours of theater spread over some eight hours. Gatz has been performed around the world for five years, and the whole New York run has long been sold out.
At a recent performance the audience seemed riveted by this spectacle. A man in a ramshackle office, rather bored, with time on his hands, reads aloud from a battered paperback, with some of his coworkers gradually chiming in as they take up roles in the book he is reading. With its antiquated computers, the office looks like a scene from the 1980s, yet, as the book kicks in, this venue shifts effortlessly to the settings in the novel – a commuter train from Long Island, Myrtle Wilson’s love nest, Gatsby’s garish parties. As he grows more engaged, the speaker morphs from a contemporary bond trader into Fitzgerald’s rueful and eloquent narrator, Nick Carraway, through whom all the shadowy turns of the story are filtered, along with its central figure, Gatsby himself.
Carraway conjures up Fitzgerald’s scenes and characters in a fashion that has little precedent in modern theater. Long-form adaptation has a lineage going back mainly to the 1980s, with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s marathon version of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, the landmark TV dramatization of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and Steppenwolf’s epic recreation of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which held its own beside John Ford’s classic film version. Each of these productions was the watchword in fidelity, capturing and bringing to life virtually every page of a long fictional text.
Gatz is a different matter, as its title suggests, for The Great Gatsby fiercely resists translation into another medium. As a narrated work, with so much of its plot impressionistically recalled rather than enacted, it violates the first commandment of all writing programs – show, don’t tell – along with the Jamesian imperatives of the scenic art. We hear about the enigmatic Gatsby long before we actually see him, and key elements of his backstory – his courtship of Daisy, his apprenticeship to Dan Cody and assumption of a new identity, his Midwestern childhood – trickle out much later, each of them reaching further back into the past, not as flashbacks but as luminous summaries, an infinite regress of stories within stories. Even some of the “present” action, like Myrtle’s death and Gatsby’s murder, are imparted to us second hand, by report, like masticated rumor; here too, Carraway is said to be writing two years after the events he reports. This kind of narration can sometimes be found in movies, from the flashbacks of Citizen Kane and film noir to the voiceover, taken straight from the original book, in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, but almost it’s almost never seen on the stage. It demands a novel kind of theater, here supplied by the director John Collins and his wonderfully named company, the Elevator Repair Service, and especially by the indefatigable Scott Shepherd, who plays Nick Carraway and reads the text with a fluency and stamina that are almost indescribable.
Nothing is more central to the novel than Nick’s bittersweet ruminations. Everything that happens passes through his consciousness, and Gatz, to a remarkable extent, manages to put consciousness on the stage. One might compare his role to that of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, except that Nick, far from being an omniscient voice, is very much part of the action. But the challenge posed by Fitzgerald’s work is not simply in Carraway’s narration, with its mixed tones of scorn and admiration for Gatsby, his satiric contempt for those around him and awed wonder at the foolish grandiosity of his vision. The greatest difficulty lies is in the prose itself, which is often so impalpable and poetic that it matches Gatsby’s own soaring ambitions: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees – he could climb it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” How do you transmit this except by reading it aloud, not too fervently but with empathetic feeling and yet a reserved detachment, a trace of ironic distance? It can’t be staged; it can only be evoked as a mysterious spectacle of human longing, a half-benighted dream of the absolute.
Fitzgerald’s descriptions of his characters and the places they live and work pose a similar problem, for Fitzgerald puts his own spin on every phrase. Of Gatsby’s old father, who stumbles onto the scene after his death, impressed by what his son became, we’re told that “his eyes leaked continuously with excitement.” Gatsby’s rented mansion is described as “that huge incoherent failure of a house.” These are not the descriptions we expect from realistic fiction but attitudes, metaphoric glosses. Gatz rises to this challenge simply by retaining Fitzgerald’s prose, every word of it, and leaving the visual detail to the imagination, as Fitzgerald himself largely does. Astonishingly, it works. After eight hours, not a single member of the audience had left the theater, weary as they may have been.
Embedded in this narration were plenty of scenes that worked well for the stage. When Gatsby and Daisy, Gatsby and the brutish Tom, Gatsby and Carraway directly confronted each other’s hopes and illusions, the company found ingenious ways of putting them across. Gatsby’s absurd parties, for example, were evoked by a stage littered with office paper. Tom Buchanan, a racist and nascent fascist, has never seemed so casually coarse, or Daisy so flighty and ambivalent, so trapped, or Gatsby so opaque, so high-minded yet self-deceived. But they were all framed by Nick’s (and Scott Shepherd’s) enfolding narration. In the end the audience was less mesmerized by these fragments of straightforward drama than caught up in the rapture of language that beats at the poetic heart of the novel. The stage and the page have rarely seemed so well matched.