I’d never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby before. I have no excuse for why I hadn’t read it. I’m actually embarrassed by that fact now – after my experience Tuesday – as I consider myself a fairly well-read bloke. But I’m a Steinbeck guy, always have been; East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, they just don’t get much better than that. Hemingway’s okay. Faulkner is cool. But Steinbeck, he just nailed that era for me. And I was never there. So he was the guy. But now…
Go see Gatz if you can, folks. I think there are maybe four shows left, closes December 9th, at REDCAT. Rarely, if ever, do theatrical events of this magnitude occur in one’s lifetime. I have never, nor probably will ever see anything like it ever again. And that is always the best estimate of great theatre, the singular moment. Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the company that has accomplished this “impossible” task should be honored with communal sainthood. And I do have a couple of criticisms, well, I’m ashamed to even call them “criticisms” really, they were more like observations, just a couple of passing comments from a guy who got a free ticket. The first is directed towards ERS. Kinda. The second is directed towards the writer. Kinda. Yep, F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s right I said it and I’ll say it again in a few minutes.
For me the purest writers are playwrights and novelists. Novelists first, playwrights a very, very close second.
What I saw last night was the ultimate melding of the two mediums: an ensemble of performers reading the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece of literature The Great Gatsby to an audience of 250 for six and a half hours. Word for word. All nine chapters. All 180 pages. For almost four hours I witnessed some of the most thrilling theater I’ve ever seen. The creativity and craft were extraordinary. And it is easily the greatest marriage of literature and theater I’ve ever seen. Hands down. Probably the greatest anyone will ever see. The party scenes alone, especially in the first act, were astonishing leaps of theatricality and imagination.
But after dinner things changed a little bit. The thrilling perfection of the evening slipped slightly. Ever so slightly.
They never succeeded in sustaining the office. That office. So well imagined. I loved that office, the people, the place, the grind. So subtle, so essential, so familiar. They almost did it, and when those two worlds were alive in the play, balanced and taut, it was simply stunning. But for me it got stretched and then it just went away. I liked that at the end we were simply left with a man, in a chair, at a table, reading a book, stripped down to the bone, but I missed that office.
But the fault wasn’t all ERS’s. Fitzgerald has to bear some of the blame. Yup, I said it again. In the latter half of the book the novel itself loses some of its dramatic power and its theatrical potential. It is meant to be literature after all, no matter how much we want it to be something else, no matter how hard this incredible troupe of players tried to bend it to their will, it remained literature and literature is something to be experienced privately, in the intimacy of one’s personal imagination and in the lonely corners of one’s own heart, no matter how desperately your writer’s group wants it to be so, ultimately the experience of a novel is between you and the writer. Gatsby, the novel, simply becomes more expository and less character driven as the story progresses. Our narrator, our host, Mr. Carraway, this belovedly decent confidante, played effortlessly by Scott Shepherd Tuesday night, like some gentle, knowing, loving uncle reading a bedtime story, Carraway/Shepherd, the man, simply loses some of his own dramatic steam in the explaining of Gatsby, he begins to recede, his journey becomes less important, and because of that the theatricality gets diffused. The prose never wavers of course, the language is exquisite, like a symphony of phrases, but the theatrical potential simply isn’t there like it is in the first third of the novel. At least not from what I heard. Or read. Or…damnit.
Of course it was all new to me. Not for most, however, most people Tuesday seemed as if they’d read the novel already, they were leaning forward during the performance, buzzing conspiratorially at the breaks, as if challenging ERS, “Just try to match my imagination, ya bastards!” We became neighbors for a day, these people around me. You had to really. I still remember the names of everyone sitting next to me, of all ages as well, college kids, silver-haired academics, working mothers and father. I think it became apparent after the dinner break that dramatizing those later pages was simply going to be an impossible task, so for the most part and to their credit, ERS didn’t try. They never pushed, never tried to fit anything into something that could not hold it. And because of this trust in the language they were still able to find moments of genius in the latter stages of the book. The Hotel Room. The Gatsby Palace. The Death Scene. But nothing like those first four hours. It was literature alive. And such literature. On stage. On fire. Cracked. Crackling. Dreamlike. And funny, so funny. Even one of the seasoned Great Gatsbians confided to me during one of the breaks, shaking his head, “Never knew it was so funny.”
I know all this now because thanks to the members of Elevator Repair Service and the folks at REDCAT, on Tuesday night, for the first time in my life I finally read The Great Gatsby. Or they read it, or we read it. Or…I dunno. Like I said, dreamlike. Ultimately that was the true genius of the day, immersing ourselves in one of the greatest novels every written, and living it, together.
And most of the thanks must go to you, Mr. Shepherd, for taking the time out of your busy day on Tuesday to read us this great book. To read me this great book. So man to man I’d like to say, what a wonderfully wonderful thing for you to have done. I am the better for it. You are a storyteller incarnate, sir, you should be given a medal. Being a storyteller by nature I can only bow and rise and applaud as I did on Tuesday night. You deserved another five curtain calls. I think we were all just a little tired. Spent. Thanks to you. When, near the end, you suddenly closed the book for the first time yet continued telling the story, for at least another thirty minutes, we all had to catch ourselves from audibly gasping, realizing then something we already knew, that more than likely you had the entirety of that great novel, all those words and phrases, at your disposal all along, and always will, stored away in the great library of your mind, well, sir, let’s just say, Hamlet has nothing on you.
Literature. Theater. Yum.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.