At a time of exceedingly diminished expectations for the theater, few productions are more welcome than the Elevator Repair Service’s dazzling and conceptually rigorous Gatz, which played for a weekend last fall at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Simply put, Gatz is a six-and-a-half hour staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. A staging, and not exactly an adaptation, because the production revolves around a word-for-word reading of the novel by performer Scott Shepherd. After a brief opening sequence in which Shepherd establishes himself as an anonymous office worker in a barely functional office, he discovers Fitzgerald’s book tucked away in a rolodex. At first, Shepherd’s snatches of reading are punctuated by office business; gradually, though, he reads more continuously, and just as gradually, his coworkers begin to associate themselves with the characters from the novel: Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Gatsby himself. The piece traces the novel’s tragic arc until Shepherd recites its final iconic sentence and, turning out the lights, departs from his workplace.
Numerous aspects of Gatz can be invoked to explain its profound power, primary among them the accomplishment of Fitzgerald’s storytelling and hypnotically crafted prose and the creative energy with which Elevator Repair Service exploits the mundane setting to evoke the mansions and deadly autos of West Egg. The company marshals a remarkable blend of improvisatory, lo-fi wit and artistic discipline to make the piece consistently engrossing; despite its length, Gatz hardly tests its audience’s endurance. Yet it demands a response that goes beyond surface observations. What accounts for the sense that Gatz opens up genuinely new—if potentially disquieting—possibilities for the theater? When we say that the piece transforms our understanding of Fitzgerald’s novel, what are we trying to say? As members of Gatz‘s audience, how do we locate ourselves?
Elevator Repair Service has been a presence in New York’s downtown theater scene since it was founded by artistic director John Collins and a group of actors in 1991. Collins had previously served as the sound director for the seminal avant-garde Wooster Group, with which Scott Shepherd also performs. Elevator Repair Service shares many of Wooster Group’s preoccupations, including a fascination with found text and objects and a disregard for the naturalistic conventions of the theater. Pieces staged throughout the 1990s featured scripts adapted from industrial documentaries and radio horror shows, while characters included thermoses and dot-matrix printers; in a version of Euripides’s Bacchae, Cadmus was represented by a pole in the performance area with googly-eyes attached. All along, the company has explicitly grappled in rehearsal and performance with the question, “What is theater?” The interest in found objects is not incidental to this question; by incorporating seemingly arbitrary, anti-theatrical elements, the company at once tests and reconfigures the boundaries of its artistic medium.
This refusal to fall back on inherited conventions is recognizable as an inheritance of romanticism, and in particular of its late iteration, modernism. Discussing modern music, Stanley Cavell observes: “Convention as a whole is now looked upon not as a firm inheritance of the past, but as a continuing improvisation in the face of problems we no longer understand.” In the theater, such a self-conscious dedication to the reinvention of conventions, the re-imagination of the medium itself, is perhaps most closely associated with the names of Brecht and Artaud, each of whom located the inadequacies of the theatrical tradition in its persistent illusionism: specifically, the illusory divide between the audience and the player. In view of this modernist inheritance, the company’s decision to incorporate one of the landmarks of literary modernism, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, as a monumental chunk of found text, appears both inevitable and inspired. The attempt makes Gatz a kind of limit case of the practices of textual appropriation pervasive in the contemporary arts: can the piece incorporate the entirety of one of the twentieth century’s most familiar and sophisticated texts and yet remain something entirely itself?
A past Elevator Repair Service project centered on the life of Andy Kaufman, whose comic readings of Gatsby have been cited as an inspiration for Gatz. Kaufman, who might fairly be said to have “modernized” stand-up comedy, developed a skit in which he undertook to read Fitzgerald’s novel in its entirety, going on until he had emptied out the room. Like much of Kaufman’s work, culminating in his elaborate and unnerving involvement with professional wrestling, the act stands uneasily between put-on and genuine event. In undertaking Gatz, the company ventures an artistic risk akin to Kaufman’s, though perhaps less personally hazardous: while the comedian ultimately tried to make his own life a sort of found object, an occasion for playing out ever more baroque improvisations, Elevator Repair Service’s success depends upon its ability to present Fitzgerald’s novel straight and in quotation marks at the same time. It is a seemingly impossible tightrope act of the type described by those existentialists who defined authenticity as combining a full engagement with one’s life with awareness of its character as a performance: the thematic resonances with Gatsby itself, however vertiginous, are certainly no accident.
But how do they pull it off? The first step to appreciating how Gatz works is recognizing that the play, strictly speaking, has no characters or setting. To be more precise, setting and character operate on three different and incompatible levels simultaneously: the world of the novel, the world of the office and the world of the performers. The only one thatenjoys real specificity is that continuous with the actual world, the world in which Scott Shepherd, Susie Sokol, Gary Wilmes and the other performers rehearsed what became Gatz in an office space in New York’s Performing Garage, a rehearsal process whose traces are omnipresent both in stage design and performance. (The continuity is underscored by having Ben Williams run sound onstage, occasionally stepping from his table to take part in the action.) The piece that evolved has these performers playing anonymous office drones in a workplace whose only defining characteristic is its failure to function: a setting which, from its inception in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” has been archetypal in American literature— especially in its failure of capitalism department (a department whose dispatches, of course, have particular resonance during our grim moment).
And while these performers eventually come to enact the scenes that make up the plot of Gatsby, their performances almost universally hover between full-fledged characterizations and readings: they are portraying the act of reading the book as much as they are playing out its story. This duplicity emerges most clearly in the sense that the performers resist fully inhabiting their characters. For instance, Tory Vazquez’s coolly brittle and understated affect and Gary Wilmes’s seventies-era moustache serve to explicitly distance those performers from the characters they play: Daisy and Tom Buchanan. The effect is to suggest a fundamental arbitrariness in the assignment of roles, even as events on stage conspire to make these assignments seem fated: of course Jim Fletcher, occupying the desk next to Shepherd’s, would come to be Gatsby; of course the golf-magazine-reading Susie Sokol will be Jordan Baker. An uncanny, twinned sense of necessity and chance grants the whole proceedings the quality of evanescence that so haunts Mr. James Gatz of North Dakota, even as it heightens the narrative’s tragic trajectory. The strategy owes something to Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt—the distance between performer and character intended to activate the audience’s critical intelligence—but here the effect is intermittent, competing with an absorption in the more traditional pleasures of Fitzgerald’s narrative. The alternation between alienation and absorption, however, appropriately thematizes crucial concerns of the novel itself. In effect, the more the production seems to aim at drawing one’s attention away from the story, the more surely it shows the way back in.
There is, however, one performer who comes to inhabit his role seamlessly. This exception is underscored when Shepherd, playing Gatsby’s narrator, Nick Carraway, literally goes off book and recites the last sections of the novel from memory. The thrill of this moment goes deep, and its depth reveals a good deal about Gatz. On the one hand, there’s the sheer virtuosity of Shepherd’s measured delivery: he really becomes the narrator he’s been playing all along. But the move also reveals the unique suitability of the company’s method for exploring Fitzgerald’s text, since it dramatizes one of the enduring cruxes of Gatsby interpretation: Nick Carraway’s passivity has, after all, been cause for complaint since the novel’s initial publication. Furthermore, in choosing this passivity as the one occasion for wholehearted identification, Gatz quietly and disquietingly implicates the audience. Oddly enough, Shepherd’s transition works most saliently to strip away our already unsteady sense of location: abandoning his office-worker persona, he effectively transforms theoffice setting into a bare scenic stage design, and the performance into a staged reading. Even as events continue to be enacted in this theatrical nowhere, the sudden shift prompts the realization that we, like Nick, have been rather contentedly entertained by the terribly sad spectacle of Gatsby and the Buchanans, and even if that entertainment has turned painful at times, we even more than he have been utterly bereft of the ability to do anything about it. After six hours, it’s become part of our lives, too, but like Nick, we don’t quite know what to do about that.
This gentle insistence on the most unsettling aspect of Fitzgerald’s novel, that it ultimately leaves open the question of whether the kind of reflective contemplation characteristic of art can amount to anything more than passive acquiescence in the face of private and social horror, acquires a further resonance because of the book’s almost numbing familiarity. Paul David Young, in one of the few extended considerations of Elevator Repair Service’s work, upbraids them for their safe choice of canonical works. The criticism is as superficial as it is condescending. To be sure, Gatsby is the quintessential book that every American knows, ubiquitous on high school curricula and civic reading lists. But the achievement of Gatz is to defamiliarize the work, reawakening its beauties and its almost unbearable pains. Further, the production exposes how the culture has deadened its passionate critique by enshrining it. In its own disarming way, Gatz offers a model of theater as edification. Re- imagining Fitzgerald’s novel and revealing its strange depths—simultaneously the depths of our shared and private experience—it offers, however fleetingly, the possibility of a future from which we might not be ceaselessly borne back.