Book Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, adapted for the stage by Simon Levy

Great literature has a way of multiplying books, and that has certainly been the case for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the 1920’s [1].  When a novel becomes a great novel, it is rapidly adapted for plays and screenplays and then people write books on how to understand them properly and give them the proper respect as great books with deep and symbolic importance.  This particular play is a short one that manages to take the dialogue of the classic novel and put it in the service of a compelling plot that manages to capture its excellence and its dramatic potential.  The fact that the play was approved by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that the playwright has apparently written several adaptations of the novelist’s works only makes this play more clearly an officially recognized play that does what it sets out to do–turn a compelling novel into a compelling play.  Of course, the genres are different and the symbolism of a novel must be shown and not told in a portrayal, but Levy is able to handle the complexities involved in successful adaptation.

The play itself is a model of simplicity, almost.  The action of the play is divided into two acts.  The play captures the dialogue between the figures well, and the violent drama of domestic abuse from the thoroughly rotten Tom Buchanan, the wishy washiness of the beautiful and indecisive Daisy, and the glorious but ultimately tragic desires for personal advancement from Gatsby himself are portrayed with the gravitas they deserve.  As is the case in the novel, we see the story through the sympathetic viewpoint of Nick Carraway, who finds himself disgusted by the corruption of the jet set in New York and inclined to overlook Gatsby’s own deception in carrying on an adulterous affair and in re-inventing himself to overcome an ordinary Jewish background.  The play also ends up capturing some of the anti-Semitism of the 1920’s among WASP elites like Tom Buchanan in the snobbery viewed towards those who associated with Jews and with sordid commercial transactions despite their own sordid actions.  The play ends with a suitably dramatic suicide and the tell-off that Nick (speaking, presumably for the audience) gives to the survivors of Gatsby’s fall, and presumably the adaptation was a successful one.

One of the advantages of this being a play instead of a novel is that it is even shorter to read at just over 50 pages than even the relatively short novel was.  Additionally, it allows the reader to come to grips with the issue of framing that takes place in both the novel and the play.  Nick Carraway is simultaneously an insider by virtue of being Daisy’s cousin and an outsider by being from the Midwest and being somewhat “provincial” and “innocent” in his perspective.  Gastby’s lack of moral scruples and his towering ambition to remake himself are both viewed as praiseworthy by the author and by his expected audience, and that is not a bridge I am willing to cross.  As a reader I find my response to be complicated in that I can see the framing of Tom Buchanan as being evil and heavy handed and feeling sympathetic to the feelings of exclusion from social elite status by upwardly mobile children of Jewish immigrants without feeling that the hypocrisy or wickedness of America’s white and Protestant elite is a refutation of the morals that they purport to represent.  The existence of hypocrites does not mean that there is no just moral standard to enforce on people, it merely means that we are all sinners in need of mercy, something that is decidedly lacking in the novel and in this play, as great as it is purported to be.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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