The Great Gatz: A Novel Approach for the Stage

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08 Oct 2010

Scott Shepherd in <i>Gatz</i>
Scott Shepherd in Gatz
Photo by Joan Marcus

Our senior correspondent's favorite novel is "The Great Gatsby," so we sent him to soak up Elevator Repair Service's almost seven-hour word-for-word adaptation, Gatz. Did he return fresh as a Daisy?


Andy Kaufman, the perverse comic genius, used to do a comic bit where he would step on stage with a copy of "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald in hand. After a few words with the audience, he opened it and began to read, sentence after sentence, page after page. He famously performed this act on "Saturday Night Live" once in the late 1970s. The crowd laughed nervously at first, Kaufman's behavior was so absurd. Then everyone grew quiet and confused, as it dawned on them that Kaufman wasn't going to shift into some other routine, but just keep on reading. Soon, the boos began. Eventually, an irate Kaufman offered the audience an alternative: if they liked, he would stop reading and instead play an album on a nearby turntable. The crowd cheered their approval of the latter choice. Anything but more Fitzgerald! Kaufman placed the needle on the LP. It was a recording of someone reading "The Great Gatsby."

Recently, I attended a performance of Gatz, the name of the six-and-a-half hour adaptation of the 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby," created by the quixotic downtown theatre troup Elevator Repair Service, and now playing at the Public Theater. Unlike the Kaufman act, there's no punchline, and the company reads the entire book, every "and," "the" and "said." Still, when I tell people about the production, the common reaction is that I must be joking.

During the dinner break between the first and second halves of the show, I went to an restaurant in the East Village. There I ran into a friend. I told him what I was doing. A fan of Fitzgerald, he showed interest until I told him how long the thing was. "A six-hour stage production of 'The Great Gatsby'?," he asked. Yes. "You mean a play of the novel?" Well, not exactly. They read from the book. "The entire book?" Yes. It takes place in an office, and the workers begin to play the characters. "They read the entire book?," my friend asked again. Yes.

People have a hard time getting past that part.

I first heard of Gatz three years ago, when ERS began presenting it in cities across the nation. (The show didn't play New York for the longest time due to difficulties getting permission from the Fitzgerald estate.) I longed to see it. You see, the prospect of having "The Great Gatsby" read to me actually seemed a pleasurable thing. It's my favorite novel and has been for years, and one of the few books I've read multiple times. So biased am I in favor of its literary charms, that I am incapable of understanding how anyone wouldn't like the work. Luckily, I have a met such a creature only once. I remember the occasion well. We were speaking of favorite books and Fitzgerald came up. She said quite freely, and in a disturbingly offhand manner, "I don't like 'The Great Gatsby.' I tried. I just don't like it." The conversation stopped dead at that. I didn't know what to say. And I have to admit that, at that moment, I rather unfairly decided I didn't need to know her any more.

"The Great Gatsby" was Fitzgerald's third novel, and remains his most celebarated. In order to complete it, he took his wife Zelda to the south of France in 1924 for the summer. It's amazing to think today that among his reasons for this move was that the French Riviera was unfashionable, and therefore unpopulated and less expensive than living in New York. Fitzgerald knew his reputation rested on his novels. He resented having to churn out short stories for the magazines in order to pay the bills, but knew it couldn't be avoided. He and Zelda had a high standard of living which they couldn't seem to shake.

His first novel, "This Side of Paradise," had made his reputation as a spokesman of his generation, and set down a template for the Jazz Age flapper from which many young women drafted their personalties. His second, "The Beautiful and the Damned," was more naturalistic and mature, but sold poorly and was seen as a transitional novel. Much depended on book No. 3, which was variously titled "Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires," "Trimalchio," "Gold-Hatted Gatsby" and "The High-Bouncing Lover," before Fitzgerald's wise editor Maxwell Perkins insisted on "The Great Gatsby" being the strongest suggestion.


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