The Guardian July 26, 2000


Theatre review by Tom Pearson:

The Great Gatsby

At New Theatre (Sydney) until September 2

At first I didn't know what to make of this stage version of F Scott 
Fitzgerald's novel, in large part because the play is pretty much word-for-
word from Fitzgerald. (It would be interesting to know what someone who had 
not read Gatsby thought of the play as a work in its own right.) At 
least one noticeable difference highlighted on stage is how much more of 
Fitzgerald's humour emerges when his characters' lines are spoken.

Perhaps the reason for such a formal adaptation, by Barry Lowe, is director 
Frank McNamara's view of the novel.

In his notes on the production he draws this analogy: "Delusions run deep 
in a nation [USA] which declares the equality of all men in a constitution 
written by the owner of slaves. For me Gatsby is a metaphor for this 
delusion." Meaning, let the thing speak for itself?

As a result there is so much of the novel verbatim in the play I couldn't 
separate the two in my mind at the time, and still can't. 

That might be a mark of its success: I enjoyed it anyway and recommend it.

Briefly the story, set in 1922, is of a man's obsession with an idealised 
past, and how that obsession brings him down.

As the novel is written in the first person, Barry Lowe had an 
embarrassment of riches to work with. He chose to have the narrator, Nick, 
address the audience periodically throughout to keep them informed and up 
with events, just as Nick does for readers of the book.

Fitzgerald's richly descriptive, romantic language makes his characters and 
their surroundings glow with an unreal light, and he used this as a way of 
emphasising the arrogant, utterly self-centred and exploitative nature of 
his protagonists.

The play's action begins, as does the novel's, when Nick visits his cousin 
Daisy and her super-rich husband Tom, and we are quickly shown Fitzgerald's 
ability to encapsulate entire lives in a single insight.

The flesh and blood object of Gatsby's obsession, Daisy, is a shining and 
beautiful trophy for Tom to display, the typical bourgeois wife-as-
possession, pampered and prepared from birth for just such a role.

That she has an inkling of this insidious bondage invests her with just 
enough humanity to make Gatsby's unwavering devotion believable. So we have 
Daisy's description to Nick of the birth of her daughter:

"I woke up from the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the 
nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and 
so I turned my head away and wept. `All right', I said, `I'm glad it's a 
girl. And I hope she'll be a fool  that's the best thing a girl can be in 
this world, a beautiful little fool.'"

The cast are professional in their work (I especially liked Cathey 
Robbinson as Daisy, Kate Lascelles as Jordan Baker and Stephen Nash as 
George Wilson). Frank McNamara directs with an eye for class 
contradictions.

The politics in Fitzgerald's writings are a reflection of his own 
contradictory background. Educated at the exclusive Princeton University 
and from a rich family, he nonetheless perceived the fundamentally unjust 
nature of the society in which he lived.

"I've been a radical as long as I can remember", he said in 1935.

"A Marxist socialist since I started thinking. Wells and Shaw nudged me 
along those days", then adding, "but I'm not a joiner."

His dissociation and disillusionment with the Communist Party and the 
labour and civil rights movement were, as he admitted, the result of his 
conflicting class position.

"God knows there's no future in capitalism's rotten profit system", he 
declared, "and I have no faith in the future of my kind in the supposedly 
classless society, We're finished, done for, doomed."

And again: "I believed in the cause of peace and freedom, and the Great 
Change in our society that my friends were talking about, but I still felt 
a strong tie to my class. I wasn't able to reconcile my two loyalties, so I 
stepped aside and took my place on the sidelines."

Still, from his first novel, This Side Of Paradise to The Last 
Tycoon, unfinished at his death, and his satirical short stories of his 
time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, he held on as best he could to his 
belief that the world could be made better.

Maybe he was summing himself up when he had Nick in Gatsby describe 
his worthiest attribute  "Every one 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."

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