“Can’t repeat the past,” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
Why watching someone read the Great Gatsby on stage for eight hours is a sensible way to spend an afternoon.
The lights dim. An office worker sits on a stage in the stark theater lighting. For no particular reason — he doesn’t seem especially bored or desperately curious — he opens a spectacularly well-thumbed book. We don’t know if he has read it before. We don’t know who recommended it to him or why. We don’t know what his office does, how he is finding the time to read, or why he seems possessed by the drive to keep reading.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years,” his voice rings out with the slight, tinny distortion reminiscent of the early years of radio. His accent is hard to place but it sounds old-fashioned to my un-American ears. “my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
Those words were the first of the exactly 47,094 words that were to be spoken on the stage at the Berkely Rep that Thursday afternoon. I know how many words were spoken on stage not because I counted them, but because Elevator Repair Service’s stage performance Gatz contains every word in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. No more, no less. The radioman in me knows that the rule of thumb is that in normal speech, 2.5 words per second is about average — so just reading the whole book out loud, non-stop, would have taken five hours, thirteen minutes and 57 seconds. Give or take.
That premise is what I settled in for on a Thursday afternoon, on opening night, in a jam-packed theater in Berkeley. At first, the experience is surreal. A man. On stage. Reading a book out loud that I’ve read three or four times before. At first, I flip-flop between intense intrigue and desperate boredom, as my mind is trying to make sense of this performance. It is a marathon. It is a test. And it is doing something that no other art form could do. Slowly, as my brain readjusts to the idea that I will be in this chair for the next eight hours (minus some breaks thrown in), other thoughts disarrange my line of mental inquiry, pushing themselves to the forefront.
The performance itself shifts on itself — each act has a distinct flavor. The actors go from being window dressing to active participants in the story — and back. The set, unmoving, takes on different lives through clever sound and lighting design. And what starts as a monotonous drone of Gatsby, gradually evolves and takes on new depth.
Parts of the performance were surprising. The way the actors delivered the lines from the characters in the book warranted another look, askance, perhaps, at how I had read the novel. What if Fitzgerald was a deeply sarcastic writer? The title of the book would certainly hint at that — and the actors added emotion that wasn’t present for me before. In their performances, they added new depth and nuance that I had never seen in Gatsby. They took Cliff’s notes, tore it asunder, and offered a new look at an old classic — a reminder that books aren’t just worth reading; they are worth thinking about and re-reading if they made a mark the first time around. During the performance, I found myself compiling a mental list of books that deserve revisiting.
“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues,” the actor reads out, glancing into the audience. “and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
The actor holds our hearts in his eyes for a beat, and as he does, my mind does a somersault. What if Fitzgerald really was leaning heavily into sarcasm? What if the narrator, in declaring his honesty, is doing the opposite? It is unclear whether the actors are descending into madness around the narrator, whether the play itself is a commentary on the unreliability of narrators, or whether we are just taken on a journey of the dogged pursuit of completionism. A love story to an east coast that turns out to sour in the eyes of the narrator, facilitating a return to the romanticized mid-west, hinting at a person so ill at ease with his own existence that he’ll never be happy anywhere. Do any of these trains of thoughts make internal sense? Would they even pass a high-school paper? Who knows — but it doesn’t matter, I’m realizing to myself, as I’m concluding that this is the first time I’ve ‘read’ anything slowly enough to sit with critical, analytical thought of the work I’m consuming. It feels… Nostalgic, yet beautiful.
Sitting there, mesmerized by the people on stage, emotions of warmth lap against the sides of the dry-dock that’s keeping my soul suspended for these six hours. Being read to is such a beautiful, intimate way of experiencing a book. Memories of drifting off to sleep to my mother’s voice. Memories one of my first girlfriends, reading to me on a sunny lawn behind her house, my head on her shins (because, god forbid, I should put my head on her thigh. That would be outrageous — and a lot more comfortable). Recollections of me reading to others — one of my least favorite activities, because it feels like such an abhorrently slow way of consuming a novel — all sparkled to the forefront of my attention. At a time utterly inconsequential to what was being said on stage — I couldn’t tell you which act it was, or what part of the story was being regaled — I was surprised at tears rolling down my face. I shouldn’t have been. That’s what happens when I’m willing to let myself sit and feel for an afternoon. And, well, isn’t that the whole purpose of art in the first place?
If I’m being honest — and what is there, except honesty, in the safety of a darkened theater, where all eyes are locked on the stage— I was deeply saddened by a realization. I have, on many occasions, read a book in a single flight, over the course of a day, or over a weekend. I cannot remember the last time that happened. While I self-identify as a voracious reader (and I generally do hit my target of 26 books per year — one every two weeks, on average), it has been a while. I read faster than anybody can read anything out loud. Much faster. But here I was, watching a person, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race, read every single word in a book out loud. Beginning to end. Word for word. Watching this play had been on my calendar for a month or so — for a month, an eight-hour block of time was sitting there, reserved for artistic consumption. Do you want to know how many books I read in that month? Zero. I felt a pang of shame, but wiped it away with a resolution: Read more, you fool. Read while you can. Start today.
Another activity that occupied my consciousness for the sixty-eight weeks I was stuck in that theatre chair, was that I found myself mentally re-writing the Great Gatsby on the fly. Set in the San Francisco Bay Area. The art deco parties replaced with glitzy happenings on lawns outside venture capital offices. The orgies of shallow friendships, idle gossip, the perversions of wealth and morbid curiosity — unchanged. Keeping up the idea of re-writing the Great Gatsby for modern times kept me occupied for one of the acts. But, just before the break, I had my epiphany; the changes to bring the novel into today would be so small and subtle as to essentially be unnecessary. Yes, it would be fun to flex my creative spirit. But, it turns out, if we forgive the occasional cringe of racism and sexism (and we should; they stand out as reminders both of how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go on both fronts), the book doesn’t need re-writing. It stands, perfectly fine, on its own, as-is.
“So we beat on,” the actor on stage recites, somehow locking eyes with everybody in the audience with a sigh, as if to welcome us to share his final breath of prose. “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
We filter out of the theater. Back into life. Like humans, against the current, borne back ceaselessly into our futures. Perhaps with resolves to read a bit more. Perhaps with inspiration, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.