While the New York Times made a fairly big deal about the fact that two national-scale versions of The Great Gatsby are premiering in Minneapolis, the differences between the Simon Levy-written production at the Guthrie Theater and Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ, making its US premiere at the Walker in September couldn’t be more pronounced–from a setting that’s anything but Roaring Twenties (a run-down Scranton-esque office) to an adaptation which, well, doesn’t adapt anything (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s every word is read aloud). In a recent interview to be excerpted in the September/October issue of Walker, curator Philip Bither discussed the 6.5-hour readathon with lead actor Scott Shepherd and director John Collins. While you can read the entire thing here, two sections suggest potential differences between this and the Guthrie’s version–difficult sections about race that might be edited out for sensitive ears and, if theirs is at all like movie adaptations, sections where the narrator, Nick, wasn’t present. As they suggest, Fitzgerald is the ultimate editor, making choices so anyone who’s adapting it won’t have to–and in the case of Tom Buchanan’s oafish prejudices, even that’s intended:
John Collins: …In this case, so much of Fitzgerald’s art is in two things: what […] he chooses artfully to leave out or leave in, and also how the entire thing is told from this one character’s perspective. It just has to do with what that character’s experience is. The combination of those two things make the theater that is inherent in the book so complete, because it’s as much how a certain person relates his experience as it is about the things he’s describing. So as soon as you start to adapt, as soon as you take Nick’s story away from him and show it, it’s already a completely different story. It’s no longer the story of Nick’s very particular perspective and the beautiful and complete way that Fitzgerald represents that in the writing.
Scott Shepherd: I think the most glaring thing about that Robert Redford movie, for example, is all those scenes between Redford and Mia Farrow where they try to depict the relationship that Nick never saw. Whenever you have those scenes where Nick wasn’t present, it really sticks out like a sore thumb.
Philip Bither: What about those jarring sections of racism, the attitudes of the ’20s that jump out of the book and slap you in the face? What’s your sense of where that comes from in Fitzgerald? Or how does it feel in the midst of what to me sounds like very contemporary attitudes?
JC: Part of the project of delivering a novel of a certain period and status is that you have to experience it in its entirety, because you have to experience the way that it transcends those things. If we were to go in and try to clean that stuff up or try to avoid it somehow, I think we’d be saying, at everyone’s expense, “Well, this thing is flawed, but we can fix it.” Its flaws have to be part of its greatness.
SS: We also couldn’t clean it up. It’d be a huge violation of the social contract we’ve set up for the whole show. But I think that’s very interesting, that thing. The two things I can think of are: “The negroes who roll the yolks of their eyeballs” from the limousine next to Gatsby’s car–
PB: And Gatsby, in that scene, saying, “Isn’t it amazing that even they can enjoy the fruits of–”
SS: That’s Nick’s thought. He says, “Wow, anything can happen in New York.”
JC: “Black people can have a white chauffeur! This place must be the land of possibility!”
SS: You know, it’s not just ignorance, because in the same book you’ve got Tom Buchanan talking about that racist book at the beginning. So it’s not like Fitzgerald is insensitive to that.
PB: That’s true. In fact he makes Tom look like a complete buffoon by having these attitudes.
JC: Exactly. At a couple of critical points, where Tom is considered anyway–when he blows up in Chapter 7, he thinks that “things have gone so insane with people’s morals that they might one day accept intermarriage between black and white!” And those things are absolutely clearly identified with Tom’s ignorance.
SS: It shouldn’t surprise us that it’d be a remarkable thing in 1922 to see a limousine with black passengers and a white driver. It’d at least be remarkable. It’s really just the yolks where I get uncomfortable–the “yolks of the eyeballs.” And they’re also described as “two bucks” and a girl. And Wolfsheim is introduced as a Jew and every description of him includes his nose. His nose takes over his whole presence. I recently saw a picture of Arnold Rothstein, who Wolfsheim is supposed to be based on, and his nose wasn’t that big.
Collins calls this kind of unabashed verbatim reading an example of “radical commitment,” and Shepherd, whose job it is to read the entire novel aloud, sums up: “I feel more of a collusion with the audience in this show than any other show I can think of. Because of the book. We’re all going to go into this book together. Something makes me feel like I’m on their side, because I’m going on the same ride they are.”
Earlier: The Gatsby Marathon