Gatsby and American Yearning

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:24

    Two recent productions in New York confronted this matter in their own very different ways. One was a depressingly unappealing if luxurious version of The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera, which is about to complete its limited run. The other is a spare one-man show, Fully Committed, in the tiny Cherry Lane Theater, which describes a day in the life of a reservations clerk in Very Hot Four-Star Restaurant Number One. The former was enormously subsidized and involved a conventionally celebrated composer, John Harbison of MIT (Pulitzer, MacArthur, etc.), a cast of thousands, the big Met band, and orchestra seats were $140 each. The latter was?and is, it's still on?a vivacious and hectic chronicle of the tension between Eating Something and Being Somebody. It was written by Becky Mode and is acted by Mark Setlock, both of whom have served time as troops in the restaurant industry.

    American society reflects chronic tension between the satisfaction in how things are and the lure of the future. The relative wealth and geographic luxury of the country has established as near-sacred public holidays the rituals of national self-congratulation such as Thanksgiving. More routinely than Barnum and Bailey describing their circus, American politicians and other more or less sanctimonious celebrants intone with confidence about "the greatest country on Earth." Comparable practitioners in other countries may say the same thing because it's their job but without the conviction sustained by money, power and the peculiar national American gift of turning immigration with all the differences it presupposes into a colorfully plausible community. And because of the inevitable changes produced by lots of full-grown new people coming here, often from certifiably weird places, there is a general readiness for the inevitable impact of the swoop of new arrangements.

    At the same time as there is pleasure in what exists now there is also an underlying tension and fear about the dangers of fixed social structure. Because it was a new model nation, unlike the societies of Europe the U.S. was not founded on aristocracy, land and the coercive precision of manners. With the massive exception of racial slavery, there has not been anything as formally restrictive as the caste and category systems of Asian communities within which the arc of one's birth-cry and death-rattle were unalterably defined. There has not even been the kind of overt and outright class conflict that generated the communist or labor parties of Europe that saw a formal enemy in a clear-cut system that permitted only some few people to live well and elegantly.

    Here the enemy is almost more potential restriction of the future than the reality of a painful present. And among the more effective accountants of the fear of static status, of limits on opportunity, have been artists who write like Dreiser or Dos Passos or Richard Wright or paint like Ben Shahn or Edward Hopper or dramatists like Arthur Miller. An especially interesting version of this has been the work of artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald who sought to chronicle the lure of luxurious ambition against the background of viciousness and dishonesty often thought to be its inevitable platform?the sour with the sweet, bad with good, the slum in the shadow of the penthouse. And in this context, Gatsby has been a Great symbol of the American Odyssey from modest ordinariness to the overwhelming dominance of the power of houses, parties, cars and flurried social spectacles among la creme de la creme. It was Gatsby after all who appeared from nowhere, or at least from nowhere those in the know knew, to galvanize the social season and set a brilliant standard of consumption without apparent work. Unlike European high society in which work was vaguely indecent, Americans normally had to and still do announce how hard they work. Even in universities, English academics had studies. But North Americans had offices, like insurance adjusters.

    And yet Gatsby's money and hence his leisure of course has a questionable source, to say nothing of his own real origin, under the perilous name of Gatz. His status panic dooms him as much as his fiscal impracticality and the opera that purported to render all this did so with music, production, words and a level of energy even more depressing than the raw material of the story it portrayed.

    The production was itself a Gatsbyesque gesture?the Met should have a glistening new American opera and what better vehicle than the great Great Gatsby? But it was a spectacle of frail artistry megaphoned by the money-power of the Met and the underwriters. Sitting through it involved almost indescribable effort to pay respect to the composer and writer and performers. It appears to have won few friends for itself.

    "Fully Committed" is the phrase the reservation clerk is told to use by the chef when there are no longer pews for the diners who absolutely must be at Table 31 on Saturday night at 8:30. The manipulativeness and self-absorption of the callers from Kuwait to Oyster Bay are quite brilliantly and economically portrayed by Mr. Setlock, who plays everyone from the dingily vain chef to Naomi Campbell's personal assistant who commands, for tonight please, a table for 15 for the vegan tasting menu and, also, that the lights in the sconces near the table be dimmed to gleam less harshly on the celebrated diners.

    A long time ago I wrote in these pages that the pressure to dine in in-restaurants was so acute that eventually brokers would emerge who would block-book tables and then release them for a consideration. The reservationist in Fully Committed does not quite approach this level of self-interested rationalization. Nevertheless it is clear to the aspiring actor he is, with an audition there the next day, that there is a cheerily welcoming feedbag for the executive from Lincoln Center in a restaurant otherwise Fully Committed. A plain brown envelope containing plain green American money secures a table for a caller who cannot imagine any other source of protein than the famous Table 31. The curious alloy of status panic and greed for culinary novelty feeds this brief but charming exposition of what happens when normal objects like mashed potatoes become the focus of bizarrely disproportionate needs.

    New York City is currently enjoying an astonishing richness of excellent and interesting restaurants. People here seem to be able to consume better and more interesting food for a smaller percentage of their income than anywhere else in the industrial world. There is a remarkable supply of fine nutrition available that is chronicled and juiced by an aggressive industry of public relations, gossip-dining, reviewing, celebrity-feeding and the like. This translates the otherwise ample supply into tightly defined demand for a limited number of anointed locations at any one time. So showing off by dining out occupies nearly all of Gatsby's evenings.