26 July 2010

The Great Gatsby

The passion and scandal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, is brought to the stage in a thrilling new adaptation by Ken Duncum (Cherish, Flipside, Blue Sky Boys), directed by David O’Donnell (Hollow Men, Yours Truly, Collapsing Creation). Senior English Lecturer at Victoria University Anna Jackson took some time to share with us a taste of the insight and magic behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glamorous façade of the American Dream.

The Great Gatsby
By: Anna Jackson, Senior Lecturer in English, Victoria University of Wellington

With The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald took, as novelist Edith Wharton put it, "a flying leap into the future."  In comparison with his intricately patterned representation of jazz age society, she declared, he made the late nineteenth century novelists such as herself and Henry James look like "the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers."  The landscape of The Great Gatsby is a modernist landscape of billboards, highways, and industrial waste; the references to magazines, musical hall songs, automobiles, and party scenes all insist on a modernity that to an older generation felt like "the future."   More importantly, Fitzgerald was the first writer to describe the new generation who came of age in the 1920s after growing up during the confusion of the war.  Fitzgerald himself declared it the "wildest of the generations," which "brusquely shouldered my contemporaries aside and danced into the limelight."

The Great Gatsby is set in this limelight where the women "dramatised themselves as flappers" and the whole generation "eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste."  It is a novel about enchantment, Gatsby's enchantment with Daisy and Nick Carraway's enchantment with Gatsby, and it is a novel full of the romance that characterised the 1920s.  But the story is told retrospectively, after the enchantment is over, from the perspective of Nick's later disenchantment with the "vast carelessness" of characters like Tom and Daisy.   It was after the economic crash of 1929 that Fitzgerald came to see the generation of the 1920s as having overreached itself, yet The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, already addresses the lack of morality and taste that left this such a lost generation.   

One of the most talked about nonfiction books in the 1920s was Walter Lippman's Drift and Mastery, which argued that Americans had become uncritical drifters without direction or purpose.  We see this "drift" in the scenes where the characters of The Great Gatsby keep driving  back and forth from the Buchanan’s estate to New York city, for no apparent reason except to keep driving, and hear it in Daisy's plaintive question, “What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?  And the day after that, and the next thirty years?”  At the end of the novel, Nick Carraway retreats to his family home out west, wanting "no more riotous excusions," wishing the world would stand "at a sort of moral attention forever."  But Gatsby remains exempt from his disenchantment, Gatsby and his "extraordinary gift for hope." 


The Great Gatsby opens at Circa on 31 July and runs until 28 August. Anna Jackson will be a special guest speaker at The Great Gatsby Cast and Crew Q&A Session - Tuesday 10th August – after the 6.30pm performance. Tickets are available at www.circa.co.nz or by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992.

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