The lights come up on a dingy office with the sound of a busy avenue just outside. Its sad furnishings are from all decades of the 20th century: a 1950s black leather sofa; 1930s metal desks and chairs; clunky early computers. At far stage right, a dark-haired man crouches over a sound system, sipping coffee. You’ve just noticed him, when the office door opens and a slim, preppy-handsome fellow in a macintosh, blue button-down shirt and suit pants, with freckles and sandy hair, comes in and settles down to what looks from its start like a long, mind-numbing day. He has what must be foul coffee in a classic New York takeout cup. His desk clock is broken, showing always 9:40 (as it should be for a timeless novel). His desktop computer is broken, too; both the keyboard and monitor are eventually taken away, never to return. What’s left for him to do? In silence, he slumps – then takes from an ancient, bulky Rolodex an unmistakable copy of The Great Gatsby. It’s the old familiar Scribner’s paperback, with the original edition dust-jacket painting by Francis Cugat reproduced on the cover in brilliant blues. Gatsby’s not a jazz book, it’s a blues book, from the outside in. You recognize the cover from high school, but this time, you sigh with pleasure as the man settles into his chair, smiles, and begins to share his novel with us, holding it furtively at first so only we, and not his fellow employees, can see. And then we hear the opening words we almost recall: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice …”
The premise of Gatz, staged over a holiday weekend in December by Elevator Repair Service at the Berlind Theater, is pure and simple: the small cast, headed by a superb Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, reads and performs to you aloud every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17’s The Great Gatsby. From the comfortably seductive opening scene, you realize slowly that these people who work in a small, dull office are becoming the characters of the novel. Shepherd, with a flat Midwestern accent masking his natural Southern one, turns seamlessly into Nick, the self-proclaimedly honest, not-quite-omniscient narrator, as he reads. His superior in the office, a taller man with a touch of the elegant roughneck to him, a dazzling smile, and an air of command, must be Jay Gatsby, Jimmy Gatz, the man of mystery. The slim, tan woman in a Lacoste shirt, who strolls in to distribute the mail and then settles onto the couch, becomes Jordan Baker when, with a twist of the wrist, she picks up a copy of Golf Magazine. As the novel and its layered, luminous story begins to spin out, you cannot watch this production in Princeton without thinking about the author, beginning to plan his third and finest novel in the “Middle West” in the summer of 1922.
Fitzgerald, only 25, had rented a house in St. Paul for his young family in late 1921. He, Zelda, and their baby daughter Scottie lived there until summertime, when they decamped to the White Bear Yacht Club in Dellwood, Minn., just northwest of St. Paul. From the lakeshore, he wrote to his editor Max Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons about a new novel he was planning: “Its locale will be the middle west and New York of 1885 I think. It will concern less superlative beauties than I run to usually + will be centered on a smaller period of time.” A month later, Fitzgerald had a more intense plan, centering not on plot and characters, but style: “I want to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.” He began Gatsby in earnest in situ, as it were, on the edge of Long Island Sound that fall. Fitzgerald’s setting was New York and the north shore of Long Island, and the time was not 1885, but the summer of 1922, and the immediate aftermath of that summer.