The Jazz Age, it seems, returns to haunt us. In the wake of the removal of copyright restrictions from the works of Scott Fitzgerald, 2012 is set fair to become the year we immerse ourselves thoroughly in his most completely satisfying novel, The Great Gatsby – this time in a series of widely differing stage and screen offerings.
This comprehensive master class in The Great Gatsby began in May with Peter Joucla’s musical version of Fitzgerald’s celebration of the American Twenties at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London. Next, in June the New York experimental ensemble, Elevator Repair Service, brought its enthralling, eight-hour dramatised reading, entitled simply Gatz, to the Noël Coward Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, under the aegis of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). After a pause for the Olympics another musical treatment from Ruby in the Dust, adapted and directed by Linnie Reedman, opens at the King’s Head, Islington, in August. From Boxing Day we will be able to see Baz Luhrmann’s film version of the book, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. The Anglo-American pairing have stepped intrepidly into the shoes famously occupied by Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the lavishly produced, Jack Clayton-directed film of 1974. A 1949 version featuring Alan Ladd and Betty Field succeeded the first, silent screen, adaptation of the book, starring Warner Baxter and Lois Wilson, which followed hot on Gatsby’s publication, in 1926.
With this unprecedented exposure to the novel, it seems difficult to disagree with the verdict of LIFT’s artistic director, Mark Ball, that The Great Gatsby is very much of the contemporary zeitgeist. Why should this be so? Is there something in the febrile atmosphere of Fitzgerald’s story, set in the affluent Long Island society of 1922 between the darkness of a recent Great War and the not-so-distant clouds of the Wall Street crashof 1929, that strikes a chord with our own society, teetering precariously, as it seems to be, between its economic crises and unfathomable political uncertainties?
And how can stage and screen representations of a tale which is told in the carefully crafted prose of its narrator, Nick Carraway, succeed in conveying the essence of the novel? The genius of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz was that it recognised the fundamental importance of preserving the precise tone of Fitzgerald’s writing as the vehicle of its narrator’s perceptions. Within less than half an hour it had completely dispelled our doubts about the audacity of its project. This began at 2.30pm in a dreary office. A bored employee picks up and begins to read the novel aloud to dispel the ennui of the working day. It continued until 10.45pm, gradually drawing in all the office workers as characters and giving us in the process the entire text of the book. Scott Shepherd (Nick) brilliantly sustained much of this narrative burden.
It was an approach which, in returning us to the ruminative opening of the novel, in fact demonstrated the newness, in his own mind, of what Fitzgerald was trying to do when he sat down to write Gatsby. For between the popular success of This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922) and the composition of Gatsby which appeared in 1925, there had been a sea change in Fitzgerald’s idea of what fiction – and particularly American fiction – should be. He was turning his back on such American realists as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, and thinking in terms of technique and philosophical ideas, as exemplified by Henry James. Therefore, his new novel would be as different as he could make it from the youthful outpourings of This Side of Paradise. Nor would it be a ‘loose baggy monster’ – as James had characterised the large, dramatic European novels of the nineteenth century.
It is not that Fitzgerald was not ‘thinking big’ as he came to construct Gatsby. He was attempting to confront the idea of what constituted the nature of America and how it should be handled in American fiction. As he was later to write:
France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder tutter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.
It is precisely this quality that the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, describes to us in his eponymous hero almost at the outset of the novel. For, like these ‘country boys’, Gatsby too has served in the Argonne, performing absurd heroics in charge of his battalion’s machine-guns, repeatedly defying death, all to make himself worthy of the beloved object he has left at home. To other characters in the novel Gatsby is variously a crook and a bootlegger, a man nursing a presumptuous attachment to a woman above his station in life. To Nick, however, who has himself traversed a mental landscape of doubt and scepticism in respect of this neighbour whose friendship he has never sought, Gatsby remains at the end, long after all other hangers on have fallen away, the possessor of an ‘extraordinary gift of hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person’.
Perhaps it is futile, therefore, to argue that Gatsby is implausible, that the facts of his life as they are gradually leaked to us are wildly improbable. Certainly we come nowhere near to penetrating to the core of whatever attraction it is that he and Daisy have for each other. Gatsby’s pedestrian account to Nick, ‘I can’t describe how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport’, thuds on to the page.
Yet at that moment this does not seem to matter. It is Nick’s vision of Gatsby that exalts his passion for Daisy. One of the most subtle – and moving – episodes in the book is Gatsby’s confession to Daisy that the green light at the end of her dock has always been a talisman to him. At this, she impulsively puts her arm through his. But, at that very moment, as Nick observes,
… he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the significance of that light had now vanished forever … It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
Love’s consummation here is also, we are under no illusion, the affair’s apogee. On stage that last short sentence carried a dim but sickening foreboding of disaster that was more potent than any line of dialogue might have been. From that moment it is downhill all the way for Gatsby. Daisy simply cannot sustain her intended role in the ‘colossal vitality of his illusion’.
The book, too, is on the downward slope from this point. It was only in the final act, as the marvellously sustained effort of Gatz at last began to falter, that we realised this was a fault not of the production but something germane to the novel itself.
The sheer craft of Fitzgerald’s writing goes a long way to papering over the cracks. But he – and Nick – have asked too much of Gatsby as a symbol of the American dream. Nick doggedly continues to take inspiration from Gatsby’s memory as a cleansing inspiration amid the tawdriness of human behaviour. Yet Fitzgerald’s attempt, in his closing pages, to link Gatsby’s dream with the wonder that those first Dutch sailors felt when they set eyes on Long Island and encountered the ‘fresh green breast of the new world’ and its endless potential for a young American republic, is an idea too far. It is too obvious an attempt to stamp the imprimatur of ‘big’ novel on his performance. In the end Fitzgerald was not a philosophical thinker but an incurable romantic. That said, The Great Gatsby will always stand as a consummately wrought tour de force, and a brilliant portrait of its era.
Focus on The Great Gatsby, by Peter Davies, is published by Greenwich Exchange