Why Gatz is so great

“No more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that” wrote HL Mencken, doyen of 1920s literary critics, in his slightly sniffy 1925 review of The Great Gatsby. True, he liked the book’s “careful and brilliant finish”; but his assessment was pretty typical of the reception for the novel. F Scott Fitzgerald earned just $2,000 from publication and died 15 years later believing himself a failure.

Today The Great Gatsby is widely revered as a classic, one of the great American novels. Which might be an argument for you to read it – at fewer than 60,000 words, it’s not the longest novel on the bookshelves, after all.

But how about sitting through six and half hours of someone reading it out to you? Is that the basis for a good theatrical experience? Does any play really need to be that long?

Little is known about the designer of the excellent original book jacket, Francis Cugat – except that he was paid $100 for it, never designed another book cover, and apparently created the cover art was designed before the manuscript was finished

And so many theatrical adaptations of novels struggle to do justice to he source material: you’d be better off staying at home and reading the book. So the Elevator Repair Company’s production of Gatz at The Arts Center at NYUAD has a lot of work to do to convince.

But if the critics are anything to go by, it does that in spades. Ben Brantley in The New York Times called it “one of the most exciting and improbable accomplishments in theatre in recent years”. Michael Billington’s Guardian piece says “it preserves the haunting rhythms of Fitzgerald’s prose and sustains his narrative dynamic … A great American classic has been captured with total, transfixing fidelity by this dedicated ensemble”.

And it’s been convincing for 12 years, in performances across the States and Europe. Now it’s coming to Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Franzen, whp knows something about big, beefy novels, called The Great Gatsby “the central fable of America. And that is such a ponderous, heavy, enormous undertaking, and yet, you feel like you are eating whipped cream.”

It’s a story about the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who makes it – the American Dream, the American can-do attitude, the will to reinvent oneself.

Gatsby lives a life of luxury with his grand Long Island estate and his lavish parties. But at the same time, it’s not real; Gatsby’s persona is fabricated, his wealth comes from dubious sources, even his name is fake.

And yet his love for Daisy is pure and authentic, a love for which he’s prepared to risk everything. So above all Gatsby is a tragic figure, brought down by the lies and misdeeds of others. The fraudster’s authentic love leads to his terrible end.

Why Gatz? Because it’s Jay Gatsby’s original name, of course – he changed it at the age of 17 when he decided to reinvent himself as a man of wealth. You remembered that, didn’t you?
That’s why Gatsby is ‘great’ – no one else could love Daisy as much as he did. And it’s an ironic title too: Gatsby can’t shift the shadow of being somebody ‘ordinary’, someone who can’t commit to the feckless drinking and partying.

You can see much of America in that – socially, politically, solicologically: the best and the worse of land of the free, where freedom is so illusory and membership isn’t necessarily as good as it seems. The Great Gatsby is elegiac in tone; the American dream is tainted.

But Frazen’s whipped cream is also spot on. Amid the weighty ideas, Gatsby is a light confection, the glittering rich having fun. No wonder Baz Luhrmann got the gig for the Leonardo DiCaprio film adaptation. The writing sparkles, from the first line to the last.

Gatsby is also about the apparent superiority of imagination over reality. The rich are fooling with irresponsibility, at least until it comes back to bite them. Gatsby is a creation of his own fantasies, and he tries to project them on to Daisy too. And maybe Nick has his own fantasies about Gatsby – or is his hero-worship the right way to see past Gatsby’s facade to the essential goodness of the man behind?

All that makes it difficult to dramatise well. So Elevator Repair Company haven’t tried to produce a dramatisation – not of the novel, at least. Instead Gatz dramatizes the act of reading, how you can fall in love with a book, how you can’t put it down.

The production reportedly grew out of an improvisation that took on a life of its own, and it still has that feel. A man turns up for work in a drab office. His computer won’t fire up, so while he’s waiting for technical support he picks up a battered paperback. He reads out the opening sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice …” He gets involved and continues to read aloud. The other drones in the office start to listen; but then they get involved too, drawn into the story as if by a magnet.

It’s an unpromising starting point. But not many people feel the need to leave early. Elevator Repair Service know what they’re doing in terms of theatre; critics and audiences around the world have remarked on the company’s extraordinary ability to evoke the book’s memorable scenes through the simplest means, and Scott Shepherd, who has been the quietly composed narrator since the original production, seems able to conjure up the characters, events and themes through his imagination.

Maybe that’s the strength of the book. Certainly it’s one of the strengths of this production that you’ll probably leave determined to reread the book.

Gatz is at The Arts Center’s Black Box Theater on Friday 21 and Saturday 22 September, and again on Monday 24 September. It runs between 3pm and 11pm, presented in four acts with two intermissions and an extended 90 minute dinner break – you can also pre-book a buffet dinner at the Torch Club, next to The Arts Center. Information and tickets (AED 210 for standard bookings) are here.

There’s a pre-show talk with the company at 2pm on 22 September. It’s free – click here to register – or you catch it as a live stream on the day.

ERS is also running a two-session Theatre Creation Workshop, on 25 and 26 September between 6:30 and 9:30pm. Register here; you’ll have to commit to the two days.

The NYUAD Library has a good collection of background material and information on ERS and the actors here.

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