"The Great Gatsby" is one of the most read books in the country, but it also may be one of the most misunderstood. A glance at its back cover makes it easy to see why: "romance," "glitter" and "Jazz Age" -- words that serve as stand-ins for real meaning -- sum up the book in those few, crucial inches of space. Stepping in like a great professor, the Elevator Repair Service's "Gatz" offers no room for oversimplification in its production of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. The word-for-word performance is as faithful to the book as it is liberal in its interpretation, underscoring its inherent hilarity and tragedy more than any superficial gleaning could.
"Gatz," currently running at the Public Theater in New York, has been on the road since 2005, its 13 performers traveling from city to city to put on the six-hour-plus (eight with dinner break and intermissions) production four nights a week. It's received the kind of reviews you'd expect to keep it going seven years and counting -- the New York Times' Ben Brantley called it "the most remarkable achievement in theatre not only of this year but the decade (which, gee, means this century too)."
The play begins with a man entering his office, mindlessly attempting to get his computer to work. When it doesn't, he picks up a copy of "The Great Gatsby" and begins reading aloud. Slowly, seamlessly, his coworkers assume the roles of the characters in the book, and the drab office space becomes the unlikely backdrop for the novel's "glittery" setting -- just the first of "Gatz"'s playful subversions of the text.
Scott Shepherd, who plays office drone/Nick Carraway, knows all 49,000 words of "Gatsby" by heart at this point, what he calls an "accidental side effect" of doing the show. Other forces of habit have crept their way into his and fellow actor Jim Fletcher's -- who plays Gatsby -- daily rhythms.
"They serve us Power Bars in chapter four, get a cigarette in chapter eight, and maybe if you're lucky a shot of whiskey," Fletcher told The Huffington Post. "It structures your day."
According to Fletcher, the marathon-like push of the play -- and those Power Bars of course -- makes it kind of like doing sports.
"If you look at a basketball game or a football game, [late] in the third quarter everybody's tired," Fletcher said. "A lot of times that's when the game gets decided. When both teams are tired they're not doing everything that they could have done in the first quarter, and that's when it happens."
Like a true sportsman, Shepherd said his exhaustion doesn't compromise his performance -- it just opens up a new way into it.
"[The show] becomes your day. It has a way of absorbing whatever your state is," Shepherd said. "So when I get exhausted, it's like, OK that's what we're going to funnel -- the channeling of the book will then come through this exhaustion."
Shepherd and Fletcher sat down with The Huffington Post to discuss more than fatigue and their eating habits. Watch the video for their thoughts on the novel's humor, staying power, and why adapting it to film is like occupying Afghanistan.
"Gatz" runs at the Public Theater through May 13. Go here for ticket information, and read the full transcript of the interview below:
You've been performing this for six years, is that right?
Shepherd: We first performed the whole thing in 2005, so what's that, that's seven years ago now. Yeah, that's a long time.
What is it that brings you back each year? Do you find new things in the text?
Fletcher: I find new things in the text every day, every night we do it. It's a big enough frame, this piece, having so many people, having it be so long, and it being an entire novel. I find novels to be infinite anyway, that's sort of a requirement of a novel, and this one certainly is, while being very simply stated. The language is not hyper-literary or avant-garde for its time, but yeah, it's amazing. So not only in the novel do you find new things, but in the play because there's a lot going on outside from the novel, the reality of the people on the stage -- not just the reality of their characters in the book, not just the reality of these characters in the workplace, but the reality of Scott, and, so there's always something every night, there's always something on the line.
Do you have a favorite line in all these years that sticks out to you?
Shepherd: The book is too big for that and there's too many good lines. Sometimes I get asked this question and I don't know what the right answer is and then I do. We do the play again and I see something, that's like, oh I always love this one and I forgot to mention it. But the one that struck me this last time with that feeling was this description, it's in chapter one, when the "last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face," on Daisey's face, and then it describes the light leaving her face, "each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."
When was the first time you read "The Great Gatsby"?
Shepherd: I read it in high school, did you?
Fletcher: I was gonna say, "1, 2, 3… high school!" (laughs)
I assume it's changed meaning for you since then?
Fletcher: I can say for sure I didn't understand it in high school. I felt I understood it, that's the big problem. That's the biggest obstacle to understanding, is thinking that you understand. So, with "Gatsby" you think you got it, especially as a young person. And somehow things keep getting emphasized -- Jazz Age, opulence, elegance, blah blah blah, vivacity -- so you think that's what it's about, it's about the Jazz Age or something. But I didn't understand at all that, and he states it explicitly -- and that's why you have to listen and so much is revealed -- it's about outsiders and Midwesterners, he says this is a book about the Middle West. And the other thing is, I didn't realize that it was so witty.
Shepherd: That's the thing you realize when you read it out loud, I mean because laughter is social, so a lot of people who see the play make this comment that they didn't remember how funny it was. And actually there was an event here at the Public with Sam Waterston, and he hadn't seen "Gatz" yet but it was an event about "The Great Gatsby," and I remember him urging the audience to read the book out loud so that they could understand the humor in it. But as far as reading a book in high school, I feel like that didn't count. You read books just like for practice, it was like riding a bike with training wheels. All those books have to be reread once you're actually living.
Fletcher: Yeah, but I felt like I understood Faulkner, "Intruder in the Dust." I mean, I was mystified by it, I felt like it got to me. I felt like I understood Thoreau in high school. But this one, I underestimated it, plain and simple.
Does it help to essentially have the script in front of you on stage, or do you find you've memorized it at this point?
Shepherd: Yes, I've memorized the book as an accidental side effect of doing the show. And the book memorizes very easily because of a combination of pleasure, just you know, language is pleasure when it hits just right, when expressed just right. There's so much sensual pleasure in that, so with the repetition, it just kind of sticks. But having the book does help, not to help me remember what the words are, but it helps create my relationship with the audience. Or the relationship of the whole piece to the audience and the book. Because the piece is all about how the book affects you, and so that's something that we're all going through. Like what Jim said, there's something different going on every night in the way these things get negotiated between your character in the office and your character in the book, and just who we are as people responding to the writing.
Fletcher: And who else is in the house. In the first few years of performing this piece, I would find myself ignoring the fact that the book is on stage with us the whole time and just sort of getting into the scene, scenemaking, you know? It really helps to remember that this book is on stage the whole time, it makes a huge difference. Another thing that's good about the book, for me going back to the book, not that it helps me to memorize, but it helps me to get out of mental habits I might have in the articulation of the lines. If you can always reattach to what's on the page and question it, honestly question it, rather than coming with all your so-called understanding. You have to use all your understanding, but even then past your understanding, there's a question, an open question. And really, just keep reattaching that, and it's very rich.
What do you think is the staying power of this book, that keeps resonating with people?
Fletcher: Do you want to go for that? (to Shepherd)
Shepherd: It's all yours.
Fletcher: First of all, if you could sum up in a book what the impact is, you wouldn't need to read it. So that's one thing about it, is that it constantly resists summation, while still being simple, I love how it's simply written, almost in a magazine language. It's very, way ahead of its time. I don't know how he did it. Because if you think of the other people who are writing at that time, his language is so modern, everyday. Yes, yes in the public discourse, it's not some sort of private reinvention of psychology or something, but it's very efficient, very clean that way. And yet, the example Scott just gave of his favorite line, there are so many things in there that bear repeated listening. You can't keep the whole book in your head at one time. It's ecstatic, it's an ecstatic vision of America, New York City, and yet it's a forward-looking kind of ecstasy that really, you still can't, you can't grab it.
What is a day in your life like when you're performing this? Does your diet change for such a physically demanding role?
Shepherd: That's interesting, yeah, I guess that's right. The first long run of this was in Boston, we did a five-week run in early 2010, and I thought, maybe I won't eat so much meat, and I started getting every day before the show, just from this salad bar, this big vegetable mix, and then I'd try to go to yoga. Just things that made me feel a little cleaner tended to help. But the show is so long that it has a daily routine built into it.
Fletcher: Yeah, you've got that Power Bar.
Shepherd: Yeah, so I come in, drink a cup of coffee at the beginning of the show...
Fletcher: They serve us Power Bars in chapter four, get a cigarette in chapter eight, and maybe if you're lucky a shot of whiskey. It structures your day. I found that, the show is so long, the only time you can relax when you're doing a run of this show is while the show is happening. As soon as it's over, get something to eat, get home, get some sleep, wake up, take care of whatever business you have, then get back there. But once the show starts, you can relax because you've got your water, your Power Bar, your cigarette, some time. Lots of time.
Do you ever wish it were over halfway through?
Shepherd: Hm, that's interesting. No, I mean, sometimes the exhaustion will hit all of a sudden, you know? I won't realize that I'm getting tired, and I don't know if this happens to you (to Jim), but then suddenly, oh wow yeah, I don't even know if I can move my mouth anymore. But the way the show is, it becomes your day. It has a way of absorbing whatever your state is. And so when I get exhausted, it's like, OK that's what we're going to funnel into… The channeling of the book will then come through this exhaustion.
Fletcher: It's just like a sporting event, that's what I love about this show. If you look at a basketball game or a football game, there's a long halftime break. Then in the third quarter, late in the third quarter, early in the fourth, everybody's tired. And you always know if you watch sports a lot, a lot of times that's when the game gets decided. When both teams are tired they're not doing everything that they could have done in the first quarter, and that's when it happens. Whatever's going to happen, a lot of times it happens then. So yeah, it's like that. And that's what makes it exciting every day, cause you don't know who's going to win. And I still don't know how to explain that any better, because it's not like I can identify anybody I'm playing against, unless it's something inside us, but you don't know who's going to win and how it's going to turn out.
Do you have any expectations for the upcoming version of "The Great Gatsby"?
Shepherd: Oh you mean the Baz Luhrmann thing. I can't wait to see it, that's all I can say. I know it's in 3D and it was shot in Australia and Carey Mulligan looks great in those little hats.
Fletcher: The novel is kind of like what they say about Afghanistan -- nobody has ever successfully invaded it, occupied it. So we didn't try to do that, we have all these revelations because of seeing the actual book over and over again. But I think if anybody tries to do an adaptation what they're trying to do is extract something from it. What are they going to extract? The plot? The storyline? The character? Daisey's character or Nick's character? Is that where the essence of the book is? And you've got to look at that question of the wit, what about the wit? Has that ever happened in a movie adaptation? And where is the wit in "Gatsby"? Cause it's there, so how would you get that on film, except by dealing with the narration. And a lot of times the narration is only about the story, and a lot of the time even parts of the story is left out.
Could you imagine doing this kind of thing with any other book?
Fletcher: Well, ERS has worked on two other books, and I really loved that. I got to work on the Faulkner piece, and it wasn't every word of it, but it was another way of diving into a novel.
Shepherd: Very different because that Faulkner novel is a very different attitude toward the reader, willfully obscuring things and giving you something to fight against, sort of pushing against you as read it. So when they went to stage that it was a different thing. Figuring out the way that time was fractured in that novel and this problem of the narrator being a mute. So it couldn't be done in the same sort of simple, straightforward way as "The Great Gatsby." I think what's unique about "The Great Gatsby," that makes it work, is it carries you, very friendly narration, that really wants to bring you along. And not all books have that quality.
Fletcher: Yeah, it certainly lends itself to performance, somehow.