Having just heard Dr. Elliot Engel’s lecture on F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Asheville conference, I was excited to attend the Center Stage Theatre production of “The Great Gatsby” last Sunday. The play captured perfectly the mood of the 1920s, an era of decadence, corruption, hopeless longing, and tragedy.
The play, which Heath Radford directed, consisted of numerous scene changes (which must have driven the props crew and cast crazy!). Kudos to both crew and cast for the alacrity and efficiency with which they prepared the various sets.
As in the novel, the narrator emerges as our reliable source for insights, serving as a one-man chorus in his commentaries and perspectives. The narrator, Nick Carraway, whom Bruce Mahlstadt portrayed admirably in the play, tells us: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
This high moral stance, however, does not prevent him from arranging a meeting between his second cousin Daisy, married to Tom Buchanan, and Jay Gatsby, his next-door neighbor who was Daisy’s lover five years ago. Though she is married and a mother to a little girl, Daisy yearns for the love she shared with Gatsby when she met him during the war, especially considering that she knows Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, married to a mechanic, George.
These lovers, Daisy and Jay, lit up the stage with their passion, and a glance at the program reveals that the actors are married to each other. Robert Nobriga and Sarah Nobriga inhabited their characters — the tentative Gatsby always on the edge of exposure as a fraud and the desperate Daisy, torn between the life she has known with her wealthy husband and the adoration of her lover of the past.
FITZGERALD AS ONE OF THE FOUR GREATS
In his lecture, Dr. Engel ranked F. Scott Fitzgerald as the greatest among the big four best novelists in American literature: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner.
Fitzgerald knew about the upper class as his family enjoyed a prosperity until his father went bankrupt. Fitzgerald’s rich grandparents supported the family, sending Fitzgerald to Catholic schools. His grandmother left a bequest that he attend Princeton, but Fitzgerald left college in 1917 to join the Army, commenting that he needed “a well-cut uniform from Brooks Brothers.” Stationed in Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice, who agreed to marry him after he was successfully published. These biographical details find echoes in “The Great Gatsby,” with Daisy a parallel to Zelda.
The Grove Park Inn has dedicated a display to Fitzgerald’s stay there, which contains a rocking chair, a typewriter, and other artifacts. The North Carolina connection with Minnesota native Fitzgerald lies in his wife Zelda’s schizophrenia diagnosis which placed her at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville.
Alcohol abuse ruined Fitzgerald’s physical health, and insanity affected Zelda, though she died in a fire in 1948, eight years after a heart attack killed Fitzgerald at age 44.
One source said Fitzgerald drank 40 beers a day in 1939 when he was working in Hollywood. Despite this dissolute life, Fitzgerald wrote 17 short stories that Esquire magazine published between 1940-41. These “Pat Hobby” stories met with positive reviews.
Only 30 people attended Fitzgerald’s funeral in Bethesda, Maryland, among them his only child Scottie and his editor Maxwell Perkins. Scottie in 1975 had her parents’ remains moved to the family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland, where their tombstone bears the inscription of the final sentence in “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
MORE POET THAN PROSE WRITER
What makes this novel (and the play version) survive in our time so that it is the novel most taught in high schools and colleges? Fitzgerald began it in 1922, scrapped it, and began again in 1924, mailing the manuscript to Scribner’s in December 1924. Even after submission, he reworked many passages, honing and refining the novel so that it was published by April 1925. Many scholars agree that it is the most widely read novel by an American in the 20th century. Ironically, once his daughter Scottie realized that most of his novels had gone out of print, she mounted a campaign to reissue the books.
Dr. Engel commented in his lecture that Fitzgerald’s greatest skill lies in his poetic descriptions. Here is one example from a scene at a party to which Gatsby has invited Daisy in hopes to impress her: “Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose, her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air.”
In a Note on the Text by James L. W. West III, general editor, I learned that a Variorum “Gatsby” was to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. A Variorum edition like this “sets forth the publication history of the novel and establishes an authoritative text with full scholarly apparatus.” It incorporates changes Fitzgerald ordered in the printing plates and includes his final revisions which he marked in his personal copy.
In the novel “The Great Gatsby” and the play version, we are mesmerized as the characters move toward the inevitable tragedies that unfold — the hit-and-run car accident that kills Myrtle Wilson, the confrontation between Gatsby and Tom over Daisy’s love, Tom’s expose of Gatsby, George Wilson’s shooting to death of Gatsby whose car (with Daisy as driver) killed Myrtle, and George’s suicide.
Nick observes: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness ... and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.