Gatz

GatzI saw Gatz in New York on Friday. A friend of mine had a spare ticket and she offered it to me, if I would just take the day off from work and get myself from Boston to New York in time for the 3:00 pm curtain.

Early start time, right? Not if you’re proposing to stage every single word of The Great Gatsby in one go, it’s not.

So yeah, Gatz is something else, all right. Six and a half hours (eight if you count all of the 15-minute stretch breaks and an hour-long dinner break) of non-stop read-aloud Fitzgerald.

Holy cow, did I love this play.

Now, if you look around online for reviews of Gatz, you’ll see that most people mention having read it when they were in high school. It’s just one of those books, right? Like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird. The Glass Menagerie. Everybody’s read them because everybody was made to read them.

Actually, no. Through whatever accident of fate and shifting curricular priorities, I was never assigned to read The Great Gatsby, never had to write a thoughtful essay on its themes and motifs, never had to plumb the depths of its symbolism in pursuit of its ineffable truth.

Do they still have tracks in schools these days? Because in my relatively small public school, we were corralled rather firmly into the three tracks of AP, College Prep, and whatever euphemistic term they used to classify that murky hinterland between “average student” and “special ed.” I shudder to think of that hinterland now, where everyone from the violently disturbed to the merely shy were shunted together into classes where some woefully underpaid and overworked teacher struggled mightily to address this cornucopia of needs.

My mother was just such a teacher, so I know.

I, meanwhile, floated reasonably happily above all of this in my all-AP courseload, loving English, confused by science, and reduced to tears by math. I wasn’t a straight-A student by any stretch, but I pulled in a steadily respectable melange of As and Bs each year. I was satisfied with me, at least.

And I rather suspect that it was in those swollen CP classes that the standard rituals of the great American literary canon were enacted. Because I never read Gatsby in high school. Nor, when reading Catcher in the Rye, did I ever grew rigid with self-recognition at the character of Holden Caulfield. Never doodled the name Mrs. Atticus Finch into the covers of my notebooks.

Shocking, isn’t it?

Instead, we in our AP ivory towers confined ourselves to — wait for it — mostly 19th century greats. And their hydra-headed antecedents, of course. We struggled with Homer. Dabbled in Chaucer. Exposed ourselves to Shakespeare. Wrestled with Hawthorne. I think we flirted with the 20th century just long enough to memorize the greater part of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and to know that reading Joyce was a thing we should aspire to.

But Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and beyond — we pretty much just said goodbye to all that.

Of course I picked up Gatsby at some point. Some summer reading challenge or another — I always participated in these — had it in their lists and I raced through it, briskly and unthinkingly before I moved on to tackle the rest of the pile before Labor Day hit. I was exposed to — and briefly memorized most of — To Kill a Mockingbird when I was assistant stage director for a local theatrical production of it. Ditto for The Glass Menagerie.

There’s something important in that, I think.

While it is not, I think, possible to read too many novels, it is entirely possible to read too many at once. To resist the penetration of each book’s heart into your own. To avoid, through sheer literary gluttony, the tasting of each succulent syllable on your lips, the weight of it in your gut. When I was finally forced to hear the words of these books spoken aloud — as in the theatre — and to live with them in my head for weeks on end — as a member of the crew — only then were they able to truly get under my skin.

The Glass Menagerie is still one of my favorite plays. And I still know whole tranches of it by heart.

Gatz is a play that does that to you. It forces you to take this marvelous, thrilling book out of whatever stale, hurried context you originally encountered it in, and to plant yourself in a chair for the duration. To open yourself up to it, with an almost obscenely decadent luxury of time.

It’s every single word of it, read and performed on stage.

But it’s more than that. Gatz isn’t just a reading of The Great Gatsby, isn’t just an acted-out, obsessively verbatim version of the thing.

It’s about reading it.

Gatz is actually a depiction of what it’s like to come across a truly wonderful bit of writing, and then to be thrown headlong into its grip. There are scenes in Gatz where your narrator — even as he is morphing into the narrator of the book, Nick Carraway himself — is almost literally getting knocked around by the action of the book, bucketed about the stage by the events and the words used to relate them like a helpless sailor in a storm. All the while, his face is plastered with the incredulous grin of someone who’s found himself in the grip of something much, much bigger than he’d expected, and who is just hilarious with the delight and thrill of it all.

But of course the arc of the story sweeps on, and hilarity turns to tragedy, hope to despair, and finally our hero trades in one fast yellow car for a slow yellow train home.

The story of The Great Gatsby is magnificent, and magnificently told.

Gatz tells the story of what it’s like to get caught up in that magnificent story, to get sucked in by its entirely likable narrator, to be raised ecstatically up by its startling prose, and then dashed against the rocks of its shattering end.

Gatz is still playing at the Public Theatre in New York. Its run has just been extended to May 13. After that, it’s off to London for the summer.

Go see it.

The Remains of the Day

My monthly column is up at the history blog Wonders and Marvels. This time I’m nattering on in my usual way about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her thickheaded husband Louis. Excerpt below.

Wedding of Eleanor and LouisIf I had the chance to choose one item to remain after my death, one artefact that would encapsulate my entire life and all its choices and decisions, I seriously doubt that I would choose anything that I either gave or received as a gift at my wedding.

Believe me, nothing from that day would give any future biographers any tremendous insight into my true nature.

But why do physical artefacts matter so much at all? Why is it so important that we know so-and-so touched this, or wore that, or handled this very thing?

I don’t know why it matters, but it does.

Even Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most fascinating, powerful, and politically important historical figures a person could name, has only left us with one sparkly vase to remember her by.

And I bet she didn’t even like it all that much.

Read the whole post at Wonders and Marvels.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Don’t Care

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Anders Zorn

Last Friday, I took the day off from work and squired an out-of-town friend across town so that I could show her one of my absolutely favorite places in the whole world.

It is a place that requires suitable preparations, like a temple for which you must ritually cleanse, and so we approached it with all of the solemnity the occasion demanded.

We ate grilled cheese sandwiches, drank strong coffee, and shouted for an hour over the din of a noisy cafe until our throats were sore.

Then we washed our hands, checked our coats, and stalked silently up a long, glass corridor into the preserved, inexplicable, crazyass house of a bona fide 19th century whacko.

I speak, of course, of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Gardner is just one of those places that I’ve always known my way around, always loved. She’s like that mean old neighbor in the house on the hill. You whisper stories as you walk by in the day, run past her darkened windows at night, and call her ma’am when you see her in the store with your parents.  It’s a living, breathing house of hauntings. Everything in that place sighs with the melancholy of an old society dame whose friends have all already passed away, who can’t stop telling stories of the old days, the old crowd, the things they once knew and got up to, when they were young and in charge.

It’s awesome, in other words. Just… awesome.

I’ve never understood why people say that the Gardner Museum is just a stale remnant from a bygone age, like it’s some sort of faded antimacassar on the back of a horsehair chair. To me, it is a never ending source of delight, a jumbled old mess of a place that offers, if nothing else, a steady stream of fresh insults to the established way of doing things.

She’s like the Don Rickles of art museums. Only much less concerned about what you think.

Seriously, what’s not to love about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

Let’s start with Isabella herself. Fearless leader of society, insanely wealthy widow, shameless plunderer of Europe’s artistic treasures. I mean, that’s what insanely wealthy Americans did in the 19th century. They spent absurd amounts of time in Italy, competed with each other over first editions and Titians, and then brought them all back home to flaunt them.

Isabella, of course, took it all a step further. Perhaps that’s what I so enjoy about her. I do have a weakness for taking a thing too far. Had you noticed?

She built this crazy house out on the edge of a swampy backwater of Boston, way out near where the Red Sox were busily making a name for themselves in their new ballpark down the road. She wanted it to look like one of the Italian villas she loved so much when she was abroad. And it might have done so, too, if she’d been able to keep her sticky little fingers out of the builders’ business when they were constructing it.

Instead, she was every contractor’s worst nightmare. An amateur with deep pockets, who needed to micromanage every least detail. She once stayed up all night pulling out the ceramic floor tiles her Italian laborers had spent the whole day painstakingly setting in place. Yanked them all out, because she didn’t think they had quite captured the look she was going for. Got up on a ladder herself and mixed paints until the interior walls were just the right shade of salmon pink, just like she remembered from her own rented villa in Venice.

And of course her artistic vision for the rest of the place — clobbering together little vignettes of her bits and pieces of artwork and architecture, assemblages that still cause art historians to yank out entire tufts of hair just looking at their woeful mismatchings and unapologetic odd bedfellows — was famously quirky, to say the least.

But woe betide anyone who tried to impose their will on her domain while she was still alive. And of course she gets her way in death, too, as the terms of her will state that not a single hair can be moved within the confines of her crazy old treasure chest of a house. Everything has to remain exactly in the place where she left it, or the trustees have to sell off the contents and donate the proceeds to Harvard. (Whether or not the strikingly modern new addition violates or honors her will is a matter for some debate, but I’ll leave that alone for now. Enough ink has already been spilled, and all that.)

Basically, Isabella didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else thought. She knew how she wanted things to be, and that’s how she did them. She was in charge, right or wrong.

So no, there are no labels in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. No placards to tell you artist and title, what materials were used, or any of that stuffy old art historian nonsense. The lighting is atrocious. The curation is questionable. Acknowledged and breathtaking masterpieces of Western art hang shamelessly next to pasty watercolors by charismatic young artists whom she probably just had a sort of older lady crush on, and who sponged off her shamelessly in her later years.

But she was also good friends with some of the legitimately most incredible artists of her day. And she gave unforgettable, intimate concerts in her house out there on the fens, taking great pains to give her favorite struggling musicians a place to play — and the undeniable power of her patronage.

She adored anything associated with the name Isabella. She wore white as a widow. She was a huge baseball fan.

I just love her. Although I seriously doubt that she would have had the time of day for me. And the modern incarnation of her hospitality is just as spiky and uncomfortable as she was — the museum guards bark at you if you so much as think about taking a picture or texting a friend, the sunlight blinds you in some corners and is utterly absent in others, and you need a seeing eye dog to help you get through some of the twisty, dark corridors that connect the improbable series of galleries.

Spiky and hostile, generous and unpredictable, passionate and powerful. Crazy old Isabella.

Love her. So much.

 

Kitchen Confidential

the line cooks that summer were not this good lookingThe summer of my nineteenth birthday, I invited the boy I’d been dating up in college to visit me on the Cape.

We’d actually broken up back in April, but I was lonely and bored and I figured it would be okay if I pretended to have a really, really bad memory for a few days.

It was not okay.

I won’t go into the details right now. We spent a reasonably happy few days together, during which I squired him around town and fed and housed him and introduced him to my mom and even brought him to Nantucket for the day, timing our return to Hyannis Harbor just for the exact moment when the fireworks would begin, so that we could watch them from the ship’s rail and have a special little magical moment together.

Yes, I was mostly hoping to get some action. I thought this was only reasonable, considering that we’d broken up because of his inability to keep certain bits of himself in his pants when he wasn’t technically anywhere near me. I hardly thought it would be asking too much to ask him to show me the same courtesy he’d shown so very, very many of my friends and classmates during the brief time that we’d actually supposedly been dating.

If you catch my drift.

He, however, decided to develop a sudden case of morals. It was incredibly inconvenient.

The sun set in a blaze of glory, the clouds parted and the sparks rained down on our smiling faces, but certain nineteen-year-olds I could name went home that night unkissed. Unmanhandled. Quite thoroughly and completely unmolested. It sucked, especially because I had absolutely no right to expect anything else. And this, of course, was the most galling realization of all.

But whatever. Obviously I’ve gotten over all of these tawdry little details, lo these twenty-odd years later. Because I am a highly evolved and totally mature adult who absolutely does not live in the past.

Yep. That’s me all right.

So the next day I said my frustrated farewells to him at the bus station and headed off to work after a deeply unfulfilling three days’ vacation. I was working in a restaurant on Main Street in Hyannis at the time — one of several jobs I would hold in my life where my actual title was “salad girl” — and banged my way in through the back screen door in quite simply the foulest of moods.

Vinnie, the head cook who had hired me at the beginning of that summer based solely on my almost preternatural skill at shucking oysters, took one look at me and ran.

That is to say, he ran straight into the nearest walk-in cooler and hauled out a case of lettuce for me to work on. Usually I started my day by concocting up a vast quantity of pasta salad, my arms buried up to my elbows in a five-gallon bucket filled with macaroni and ranch dressing. You’d be amazed at how soothing a sensation this can be. Or I would be set up in some corner with a giant bowl of creamed butter and a pastry bag, destined to spend the next hour filling hundreds of little white ceramic ramekins with gently fluted clouds of love.

But today, I guess Vinnie recognized that I needed to break things.

And so he set me up with a case of lettuce heads and a cutting board, and demonstrated to me the time-tested method of removing the core from a head of iceberg lettuce.

You seize it by the top and sides, core facing down toward the counter, and you bring it down — THWACK — with all of the strength in your sexually frustrated, morally bankrupt little nineteen-year-old heart. Lift the lettuce head again, and the core comes bouncing merrily out like a head rolling out from a guillotine.

Oh, so many enemies of the revolution, so little time.

The sound that this delightful operation makes would be enough, really, to soothe a heartsick soul — a great, resounding thwack that is extremely well amplified by the stainless steel surfaces which surround you in a professional kitchen. And by the absolute and profound solitude a nineteen-year-old girl is given by a kitchen full of men when she has that uniquely murderous look in her eye.

Solitude, steel, and surliness. I think that most adolescents would benefit from a little lettuce therapy once in a while.

I still have that old boyfriend’s shirt hanging in my closet. Not in any really nostalgic, let-me-breathe-in-your-scent sort of way, but simply as a sullen trophy that I repeatedly refuse to relinquish. I had been planning on giving it back to him when he came for his visit, but I’d gotten distracted by the depths of my annoyance at him. And I’ve never quite been able to part with it, in all of the countless closet purges that the intervening years have wrought.

This is all a rather roundabout way of saying that I have been thwacking metaphorical heads of lettuce all day long today, burying myself in massive amounts of work in a desperate attempt to forget that I actually care whether or not something happens this week. Tomorrow, in fact. And as a matter of fact I know that it probably will not happen, but I am far more upset at my stubborn insistence on caring about it than I am at its inevitable failure to materialize, and this bothers me most of all.

What is this thing? I have entered my best existing manuscript in the Golden Heart competition, the most prestigious competition in the United States for unpublished romance. And tomorrow is the day that the finalists are announced.

This thing, it is not going to put out for me. And I have absolutely no right to expect that it will.

Thwack, thwack, thwack.

I’ve written two long and detailed essays for a history magazine today, outlined and rehearsed two of the three talks I’m giving this month, and spent more time in the garden with the pruning shears than I should really freely admit to. All in an effort to make the time pass relatively painlessly until the phone fails to ring tomorrow and I can go back to my normal life.

It hasn’t really worked. And this time there is no Vinnie, no giant case of lettuce, no cowering gaggle of line cooks that I can glower at when the moodiness overcomes me.

There is just a blue plaid flannel shirt hanging silently in the closet, laughing at me. Reminding me that things almost never turn out the way I expect them to.

If only my memory weren’t quite so good.

 

Image by Jules Morgan

Down To Studs

I suppose it’s no coincidence that I generally become obsessed by the idea of home renovation at about the same time that I am supposed to be eyelash deep in revisions.

I can’t stop with the home reno shows these days. And that should tell you pretty much everything you need to know.

And I hear that hiring contractors is like being in the seventh level of hell. Which after a long weekend of tearing my current manuscript to shreds, sounds positively refreshing.

It’s not really that bad.

Oh wait. No. It is.

There’s something so unutterably humbling about taking a story down to studs, laying bare the posts and taking a series of great, heaving whacks at the molded drywall with the proverbial hammer of Thor. At the end of it, heartsore and muscles weary, you’re left facing the bare, unadorned fact of the matter.

Where there is rot. Where it is sound. Where the architecture sings and where it falls flat.

Where old ghostly remnants of abandoned doorways and closets still hover, the marks in the wallpaper clearly mapping out where previous versions of this particular house began and ended.

You tuck these away, regretfully admitting at last that these tendrils do not belong to this story. Maybe later, they will live on in another house. But here, they are sadly and unavoidably out of place.

And you tear them down, rung by rung.

It’s exhausting. But at the end of the day, or weekend as the case may be, you’re left standing in a pile of carpet tacks and plaster dust, your hands stained with turpentine and spirit gum.

And it’s worked.

You can now see clearly what this place is all about. What kind of story it is, after all. What you’ve actually got on your hands.

It’s not what you thought. It’s not even remotely what you had planned.

But it has an internal logic that you’d only barely hinted at before. And once you’ve pulled down all of the absurd drapery that you’d festooned all about it over the last several months of desperately hoping that a full rehab would be somehow avoidable, you can finally see it for what it truly is.

And you see what a lovely old thing you have on your hands, after all.

And you begin to rebuild.

 

Image by Editor B