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F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have never been keen on the idea of a creativity elite. Since 1959 when C. P. Snow wrote his legendary essay “Two Cultures” about the breakdown in communication between the sciences (“the white coats”) and the humanities, other us/them dichotomies have emerged. Creativity is one of those, highlighted in recent books like Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and the Rays’ The Cultural Creatives. And my ongoing dialogue with my friend Bose about what constitutes creativity has kept this topic particularly active over the last few weeks.

An earlier post about the difficulty of measuring creativity has also been rattling around in my head. I have a personal life full of amazingly talented artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, but I have always considered my highly analytical, business-oriented partner Dave to be one of the most creative people I know. When I first read the well publicized creativity exercise used to promote open source innovation, 40 uses for a brick, I realized that’s the way Dave has always approached everything, from business problems to planning a family vacation. He sees connections that others often overlook and has an ability to keep propagating new ways of seeing.

This is different than what happens for me in the studio. And yet there is some common elemental source at work here—a shared language, a common fragrance. Parsing it any more than that seems like an unnecessary excursion. But it is my nature to leave plenty of life’s unnamed experiences only partially exposed, respectful of what is inchoate and just a little mysterious.

What set me off this morning was a back issue of the New Yorker with an article about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s painfully unsuccessful attempts to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Having just recently been enamored and awestruck by experiencing The Great Gatsby performed verbatim in a production of “Gatz” at the A. R. T. (and written about here), I was a bit unnerved by this unsettling account. It is about the harsh reality that creativity doesn’t always spill over. It has its limits, it has those domains where it cannot scale. In other words, it is a story about human longing and human limitations, of how the gap between the two can be a terrain of extraordinary misery and suffering.

Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald’s foray into Holllywood as “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job,” with no clue how to connect the pipes and get the water to flow. How could the author of one of American literature’s greatest novels be so off in another form? In Slow Fade, Arthur Krystal does a decent job of putting it into perspective:

Fitzgerald drew his faith not from camera angles or even plotlines but from sentences; and what draws us powerfully to his work is the sensitive handling of emotional yearning and regret. When he was revising “Gatsby,” he characterized the burden of the novel as “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” As Arthur Mizener….pointed out, “it is precisely this loss which allows Gatsby to discover ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.'” Perhaps Fitzgerald could have captured this heightened state of awareness in a script, but was this what the studios were looking for? Fitzgerald’s vision of becoming a great screenwriter was no more realistic than the likelihood of his returning a kickoff or writing a hit Broadway show. But, then, Fitzgerald was not one to give up on dreams; if he had, he could not have written so beautifully, so penetratingly, about their loss.

Reading this left me with a willingness to surrender to the “chop wood, carry water” that so characterizes a lifetime of work, be it in an overtly creative field or not. This isn’t a negative view; rather it is accepting where we might be brilliant and where our own personal river runs thin. Fitzgerald’s life happens to exemplify two extraordinary extremes. But that is often the nature of genius.

Jim Fletcher as Jimmy Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island

Try telling your friends there is this 7 hour, two-part play at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge that consists of nothing but the text from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Then try telling them it is one of the most memorable nights you’ve ever had in a theater.

The truth is, Gatz is hard to describe. It sounds like a high brow yawn, self-conscious and unappealingly long. Someone reads from a book and that’s the whole play? Well, yes. And you found this engaging? Utterly.

It opens in a dingy office where every wall and fixture looks like it is coated in 40 years of grime. A bedraggled office worker enters and sits down at a ramshackle desk. When he can’t get his 80’s vintage PC to boot, he is left with nothing to do. Ransacking idly through the items on his desk, he finds a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel stashed in a floppy disk holder. In an odd but strangely organic moment, he begins to read the book out loud. Slowly, one at a time, others in the office join in to bring the story into form. It is as if they cannot resist getting caught up in this very American and bitterly heartbreaking tale. Just like all of us in the audience. It has the irresistible gravitational pull of a myth.

It is a preposterous and outrageous undertaking, to be sure. How do you take a book most of us have read and make it feel brand new? How do you create a theatrical frame that can hold the action while still allowing Fitzgerald’s jewel-like prose rise up without constraint? How do you pace the thing, ornament it, bring in humor (but never too much) and set a tone for the production that is pitch-perfect?

The Elevator Repair Service theater company began working on this project in 1999. For years they couldn’t get the rights to the material and ran into other external obstacles. But it wouldn’t die. Finally the stars aligned, lucky for us.

The plays (Part 1 and 2) run through February 7 in Cambridge and then heads to New York (according to the program notes by director John Collins.) Both my partner Dave and I woke up the next morning and said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great to see the whole thing again!” That’s not surprising coming from me, notoriously excessive with an endless passion for going under the spell of what art can do. But the more measured and temperate Dave? Now that tells you a lot.

Here’s a few excerpts from the play: WBUR