"The Great Gatsby" and the Roaring Twenties Are Back, Green Light and All, On Stages and Screens Near You

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The actors from the Elevator Repair Company have invaded New York’s Public Theater once again to stage Gatz, their unique version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the jazz age, The Great Gatsby. Gatz won stellar reviews and several Obie (Off-Broadway) awards last year in a prior six week run at the Public. The Great Gatsby saga is not just at the Public Theater, though. Theater productions and new film version are popping up all over America, and the world, as people are falling in love with America’s best-dressed bootlegger and lost lothario all over again.

There will be three more plays based on the book in England this year at Wilton’s Music Hall, the King’s Head Theater and the Noel Coward Theater. Francis Mayhew, artistic director of the Wilton, said that people today applaud “its description of hedonism and excess as people don’t realize they are headed towards terrible tragedy.”

The novel has been staged at several theaters as a 1920s play and opera with period costumes and, at the Public Theater, a unique contemporary play in which the workers in a dingy, rundown office find a copy of the book and begin to read it and act out the roles of different characters. The main reader is Nick, played by Scott Shepherd. He reads about eighty percent of the story and the other workers drift in and out of the tale, playing different people (they don’t read; they act out the roles). By just reading the novel, reciting its lyrical language, they recreate the wild parties on Gatsby’s lawn, his racing sports car and trips to New York his expensive shirts, hoodlum friends and stock deals. The play runs eight hours with two intermissions and a dinner break. It is a new and different way to stage a play, or, for that matter, a book reading. The Elevator Repair Company has staged other novels in this same fashion, but none has had the success of Gatz.

Gatz takes you on an historical trip back to the wild days of the 1920s and its mansions, fabulously dressed women, dangerous gangsters and marble swimming pools. The story has engaged people for more than eighty years. Why do all of the Gatsby productions generate such interest? Some say it is because today the over-the-top lifestyles of the 1920s story mirror the excesses of life in modern America. The Depression that soon followed the extravagances of Gatsby’s era reflects the current recession.

There are also so many Gatsbys out there because the Fitzgerald estate, so tight with rights to his works for decades, have loosened up and authorized numerous productions. In fact, when his heirs authorized a play based on Gatsby in 1999, it was the first stage venture in seventy years. Now, slowly but surely, they are giving the green light to many more.

Gatsby and his fabulous sports car have been riding all over the silver screen for years, too. The first Gatsby film was a feature-length silent movie in 1926, in theaters just a year after the book was written. Alan Ladd starred in a sound version in 1949, then of course there was the lush 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, the 2000 made-for-TV version starring Paul Rudd as narrator Nick Carraway, a hip hop version, G, in 2002 and the latest, directed by Buz Luhrmann, to open at Christmas -- in 3-D no less -- featuring Leonardo DeCaprio as Jay Gatsby. Gatsby has been an opera (1999) and a radio reading series (England’s BBC in 2008). There has even been a recent dance version of the story, produced by the Washington Ballet last fall. It was such a hit that later this year the company will travel to Turkey to stage it in several cities there.

What is it about Jay Gatsby, and the 1920s, that makes theater and film producers lust after the story today, eight decades after the last Charleston was danced at Gatsby’s magnificent Long Island mansion and partygoers happily downed gallons of bootleg liquor?

  • Lost love. Everybody enjoys the story of a guy trying to get his old girlfriend back, as Gatsby tries to do in the book.
  • Yet another national swoon for the Roaring Twenties as a popular time in history (see also HBO's Boardwalk Empire).
  • America’s odd admiration for the gangster. Literary lions rarely acknowledge it, but Jay Gatsby was in the mob and involved in bootlegging and stock fraud (it’s right in the book).
  • A trip back into the past, when everything was beautiful, or so people believed.
  • Solving the Gatsby puzzle of the never ending allure of the story, which people have failed to do in the eighty-seven years since the novel was published.

    One could fill an entire a book on criticism of the Gatsby novel and its movie versions -- in fact, dozens of people already have. The Great Gatsby is a short, tight, economical story, yet it is flung out all over the pristine beaches on Long Island and the skyscraper canyons of Roaring Twenties New York. There are huge mansions, giddy parties and lush bespoke suits and dresses. It's a flashy story, while at the same time a very personal story of two lovers who met earlier at the right time and now meet again at the wrong time. It is the story of a poor young man who gains everything, but through a criminal life. And it is a story of a man who had everything and died with nothing, a man who had so many friends at his parties but only had a handful of mourners at his funeral.

    It was the story of an age and a country that was so beautiful and yet, under the surface, so ugly. It was the story of a people who were so majestic, and yet corrupt.

    It was the story of the American dream and how it succeeds, and how it fails.

    And, for historians, it was a best-selling novel about life in the 1920s, one of the most historically wonderful decades in U.S. history. It was the decade of the Jazz Age, the "new" woman, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Walter Johnson, and Charles Lindbergh and his flight to Paris. It was the decade when radio rose and the stock market fell. It was the decade when women gained the vote and the Depression started. Al Capone took over Chicago. The Ku Klux /klan flourished. In entertainment, actor Al Jolson starred in the first major sound movie. Louis Armstrong arrived, as did insulin and penicillin. Flappers danced the Charleston. Prohibition was enacted (and ignored), and of course Prohibition factors in greatly in Gatsby.

    There is something in The Great Gatsby for every reader in every generation. If history is a well-told story about the past, The Great Gatsby is wonderful history. Why is such a good-looking, rich, successful man so stuck on his lost love, Daisy? Why do people who don’t even know him drift so easily into Gatsby’s legendary parties, where the booze flowed all night and the music drifted out lazily over the waters of Long Island Sound? How deeply involved in organized crime was Gatsby? How did he concoct that detailed and heroic story about his past? Why do readers have a never ending desire to jump back into their own past, born ceaselessly back, as Fitzgerald writes on his marvelous last page? And, the greatest question never answered at all -- why is the criminal Gatsby the most honest person in the book and why do the villains all live happily ever after? Is that really America in the 1920s? Is it America now?

    And why, oh why, does Gatsby yearn for the love of his youth, married now to another man and living in another world. He must let Daisy go and yet he cannot. He trails her to Long Island in warm summer in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, stares at the green light at the end of her dock, misreads the symbolism of the light and plunges on after her, tearing down a wrong-way road in his magnificent sports car. History and time erases something and you can never get old lovers back, or, if you can, not the way you want them, not the way they were. Gatsby can never get Daisy back, but he moves on, as we all do, certain that he can. Why? What is it about Americans that tells them they can do whatever they want, whenever they want? And yet, in the end, they realize they cannot. What is it? What is it so deeply ingrained in Americans that leads them to believe they are so invincible, so eternally triumphant?

    Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby remains a great book about American history and how Jimmy Gatz, a vivacious Midwesterner, stumbled through it. It always will be. It is good, for a young generation that Twitters itself into the ground and does not embrace books, that Gatsby now gallops across the silver screen, stages across the world and in ballet theaters, places where everybody can learn his story.

    Don’t you think so, old sport?

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