The Great Gatsby, or “Rich People Are Bad” – Scott’s Notes On Our Approach

scott-palmer_0Kathryn Schulz, Literary Critic for the Huffington Post and New York Magazine, wrote, in May of 2013 (just before the Luhrman film premiere):

“When this tale was published, in 1925, very few people aside from its author thought it was or would ever become an American classic. Unlike his first book—This Side of Paradise, which was hailed as the definitive novel of its era—The Great Gatsby emerged to mixed reviews and mediocre sales. Fewer than 24,000 copies were printed in Fitzgerald’s lifetime, and some were still sitting in a warehouse when he died, in 1940, at the age of 44. Five years later, the U.S. military distributed 150,000 copies to service members, and the book has never been out of print since. Untold millions of copies have sold, including 405,000 in the first three months of this year. But sales figures don’t capture the contemporary Gatsby phenomenon. In recent years, the book has been reinvented as a much-admired experimental play (Gatz) and a Nintendo video game—“Grand Theft Auto, West Egg,” as the New York Times dubbed it…Stephen Colbert hosts a Gatsby book club; the new movie opened recently… If you need a place to take your date afterward and have $14,999 to spare, you can head to the Trump hotel, which is offering a glamorous “Great Gatsby Package”: three nights in a suite on Central Park West, a magnum of Champagne, cuff links and a tailored suit for men, and, “for the ladies, an Art Deco shagreen and onyx cuff, accompanied by a personal note from Ivanka Trump.” Car insurance is not included.”

I am a fan of the book, but I often find myself wondering if what I read in it is what other people read in it…I often hear people speak of The Great Gatsby with the kind of love and affection one would normally have for books like The Wizard of Oz or Pride and Prejudice, a gleeful, affectionate, warm response to a book that I found, when I first read it in high school, to be chillingly corrupt, coldly beautiful and completely empty of hope and goodness.

Liza Klaussmann is a novelist and a writer for the London Sunday Times, and she wrote, recently, on the “Eternal Appeal of ‘The Great Gatsby.’” She writes, I was having dinner with a friend recently, discussing Gatsby, and she was talking about the first time she’d read the novel, in high school, at fourteen. “I thought to myself: ‘Why would someone write a book like this?'” she said. “‘All about these unlikeable characters and with no real plot.'” Indeed. There is a long history of making the book palatable to high-school students by citing the glamor, the parties, the tragic love-story. And it seems that Hollywood has done the same for the film in its previous incarnations. But all this misses the real point. The Great Gatsby is about finding out that terrible truth: that, sometimes, the very act of reaching out for, and finally touching, the thing you long for most turns it to dust in your hands, whether it’s an affair or the American dream. It’s about the immovable nature of the chimera.”

I have always found the book to be profoundly depressing, and not a little disturbing. The flapper dresses, the expensive cars, the glittering parties, the hats and cufflinks…almost none of that stayed with me when I first read the book. The things I remember most about the novel, when I first read it, were Tom punching Myrtle in the face and breaking her nose at the party, that Daisy seems to forget that she has a child and has no maternal nature whatsoever, that Jordan cheated at golf, and that Tom and Daisy ate fried chicken the night Daisy ran over Myrtle.

Kathryn Schulz thoughts on Gatsby are compelling and worth quoting in full;

“This is the received Gatsby: a linguistically elegant, intellectually bold, morally acute parable of our nation. I am in thoroughgoing disagreement with all of this. I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. 

 It is an impressive accomplishment. And yet, apart from the restrained, intelligent, beautifully constructed opening pages and a few stray passages thereafter—a melancholy twilight walk in Manhattan; some billowing curtains settling into place at the closing of a drawing-room door—Gatsby as a literary creation leaves me cold. Like one of those manicured European parks patrolled on all sides by officious gendarmes, it is pleasant to look at, but you will not find any people inside.

 Indeed, The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable. They function here only as types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent: OLD MONEY, THE AMERICAN DREAM, ORGANIZED CRIME. It is possible, of course, to deny your readers access to the inner lives of your characters and still write a psychologically potent book… But to do that, you yourself must understand your characters and conceive of them as human.

Fitzgerald fails at that, most egregiously where it most matters: in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. This he constructs out of one part nostalgia, four parts narrative expedience, and zero parts anything else—love, sex, desire, any kind of palpable connection. Fitzgerald himself (who otherwise expressed, to anyone who would listen, a dazzled reverence for his own novel) acknowledged this flaw. Of the great, redemptive romance on which the entire story is supposed to turn, he admitted, “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.”

Heavy plot, heavy symbolism, zero ­psychological motivation: Those are the genre conventions of fables and fairy tales. Gatsby has been compared to both, typically to suggest a mythical quality to Fitzgerald’s characters or a moral significance to his tale. But moral significance requires moral engagement: challenge, discomfort, illumination, or transformation. The Great Gatsby offers none of that. In fact, it offers the opposite: aloofness.

I think this is a little heavy handed and off the mark, but I think it is valuable to keep in mind the one key aspect of this critique that will be important for our performance of the play: every one of these characters, except Nick, is morally bankrupt. They are, in some cases, vapid, selfish, corrupt, ambitious and completely lacking in any capacity for self-reflection. They are dreamers in the worst possible sense of the term; they strive for power, wealth, beauty, influence because they WANT power, they WANT wealth and they don’t know why or care what it will do to them…

Are they products of their time? Yes and no. Are they products of their social class? Yes and no. Should we hold them accountable for their actions? I think we should, although they wouldn’t…

Edwin Fussell in “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World,” writes, “Gatsby had always lived in an imaginary world where ‘a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain,” and “a dream like Gatsby’s cannot remain pristine, given the materials upon which the original impulse toward wonder must expend itself. Gatsby, in other words, is more than pathetic, a sad figure preyed upon by the American leisure class…the unreal values of the world of Tom and Daisy Buchanan are his values, too, they are inherent in his dream.”

The play is about all of the great and powerful impulses of American capitalism…it is about possession, about consumption, about the singular focus on achievement and an achievement so grand, so utterly majestic that it is, in fact, not possible or real. This play is about yearning, about needing, about starvation, and about self-delusion.

Almost every character in the story is chasing something they cannot achieve, and, even more than that, they are chasing it so strongly, with so much focus, that they are actively willing to give up their moral character to do so….

Fussell writes, “Possession of an image like Daisy is all that Gatsby can finally conceive of as ‘success.’ And Gatsby is meant to be a very representative American in the intensity of his yearning for success, as well as in the symbols which he equates with it.”

One of the most remarkable things about Fitzgerald’s vision of American wealth and power is that he embeds, within the text and the characters, an awareness of their own moral choices…these are not people who blithely or blindly follow their dreams of success…they are not “caught up in” or “swept away by” the power of the American dream. They are not thoughtless; they are aware of their choices and of the impact of them…they just choose to do what they do in spite of those implications.

Fussell notes, from the Fitzgerald text, that “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggle of the poor…”

Gatsby comes from poverty, and chooses to pursue a life that is laser focused on wealth and power, to the exclusion of moral action. He makes a plan; he will get rich, any way he can, and become the man that can, ultimately, OWN what he really wants, the dream of Daisy, the meaning of Daisy. But, as Fussell writes, “the hope that the new world could possible satisfy man’s lusts was, after all, ‘the last and greatest of all human dreams,’ unreal.”

I hesitate to say that I find the characters tragic. I think that, if they were stupid, or unaware, or disconnected from their actions they might be more tragic. But they aren’t. They KNOW what they are doing, they just don’t care.

Brian Way in his article The Great Gatsby, writes, “The evolution of Gatsby’s dream is the history of his involvement with a social class, the American rich. The turbulent imaginings of his adolescence first take shape in a scheme of self-advancement…he has a plan to make himself rich, but no clear mental picture of what wealth and success would be like…(Gatsby) sees the acquisition of wealth as essentially THE activity of” great men, big men, American men…

But his acquisition of wealth, once successful, is empty and, as Way continues, “Gatsby needs an image of something beyond him to which he can aspire, and this final stage in his imaginative development is completed when he meets Daisy during the War and becomes her lover. When he kissed her for the first time he ‘wed forever his ineffable vision to her perishable flesh;’ and from that moment, she was the substance of his dream…” but, as well all know, dreams are not real.

Gatsby is the perfect simulacrum of American wealth and power and influence; he is a representation of wealth, an image of it, without having any of the actual substance of it…

Way writes, “the core of Gatsby’s tragedy is not only that he live by dreams, but that the woman and the class and the way of life of which he dreamed – that life of the rich which the novel so ruthlessly exposes – fell so far short of the scope of his imagination. Daisy is a trivial, callous, cowardly woman who may dream a little herself but who will not let her dreams, or such unpleasant realities as running over Myrtle Wilson, disturb her comfort. That Gatsby should have dreamt of her, given his marvelous parties for her, is the special edge to his fate. Fitzgerald shows Gatsby watching over Daisy from the grounds of his house, on the night of the accident, imagining that she might still come to him, and that he is protecting her from her brutal husband. Meanwhile, Tom and Daisy are sitting comfortably in their kitchen over friend chicken and bottled ale, coming to a working arrangement for their future lives. There is a banal and shabby intimacy about their marriage, it is a realistic, if worthless, practical arrangement that suits their personalities. Outside, in the night, Gatsby, the man of tremendous and unconquerable illusions, “watching over nothing.”

There is a purposeful blindness to these people, as if what is staring them in the face, what is attending their parties, what is driving with them in their cars, what is sitting down with them at dinner, what is dancing with them in their arms, what is kissing them…is NOT what is doing that. They simply CHOOSE to see, feel, be other things. This corruption of reality is not enforced, it is chosen. For almost all of the characters in this play, their flaws are not born in them, they are selected.

Andrew Hook, Professor of Literature at the University of Glasgow, writes, “The Great Gatsby is a novel of manners; it comments on American society of the 1920s and it is critical of the corruption and moral disorder of the period. Jordan’s cheating at golf, just as much as the valley of ashes, in which the Wilson’s garage is situated, is an image of that corruption and disorder. And in this there is little to choose between Gatsby and the Buchanans; if Gatsby is involved in the criminality of bootleg liquor and financial swindling, the Buchanans belong to a world that is selfish, careless, amoral and irresponsible. That it is Daisy who is driving the car that kills Myrtle is entirely appropriate; “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

Now, there are obviously other ways to think about these characters…

We can easily imagine that Daisy is a victim of the time, that her callousness and indifference are the result of the corruption of old money and the inherent misogyny of the 1920s. We could imagine her moral bankruptcy to be the result of what many believe is Fitzgerald’s inclusion of Zelda’s own psychological problems embedded in the character of Daisy. We could easily imagine that Daisy is the way she is because of Tom, because of circumstances.

Tom could be this way because of his feelings of inadequacy, because he feels like he never attained his potential and that the attention and sexual conquests of other women make him feel powerful and successful, that his size and strength make him feel valuable.

We could imagine that Myrtle has talent, has intellect and that it is only an accident of her birth that makes her NOT Daisy…and that the frustration and inherent unfairness of that accident makes her a social climber…

We could imagine all of this, and more…but placing the impetus of these character choices OUTSIDE of the characters feels, to me, like a cop out…it feels like externalizing the causes of the rottenness of these characters. It feels like an apology for what Fitzgerald ultimately wanted us to think, which is this:

People who are part of the American super rich are morally bankrupt people. They are bad. They are, simply, bad people who do bad things and we should not honor them.

We are going to try to do THAT Gatsby…

Scott Palmer
Artistic Director
Bag&Baggage Productions