The Place of Dead Paper: Gatz, the Secret Griefs of Wild, Unknown Men, and a Bottle of Brown Chartreuse

…his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.  He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

The Great Gatsby

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet…the pile of debris before him grows skyward...

Walter Benjamin  Theses on the Philosophy of History


I finished “Nostalgia for Nostalgia: The Place of Dead Paper” Friday morning.  Friday afternoon (and evening, and night) we saw the Elevator Repair Service’s production Gatz, in which some pale, nondescript Bartelby’s chance discovery of The Great Gatsby in an office rolodex turns into an eight hour reading and reenactment of the novel.

The pile of debris in Gatz grows skyward, if nowhere near sky-high.  It’s mainly paper, the stuff of an office, scattered, flung, tossed, and dumped on the ground, and also a deck of cards, sent flying, one by one, by an idler’s expert hand.   But these idlers and scatterers and tossers have no money or vast carelessness to retreat into, and so they clean it up.

The wreckage is cleared, but the cleansing damage is done; the eruption of paper has drawn in its wake an irruption of art and dreams into the lives of wild, unknown men and women.  What starts as the reading of a novel, and a dreary office becoming a party, turns into a near-dramatization.  Art swallows life, which goes down happily.

Where else would it want to go, but out of this place?  One of the few things Gatz has in common with Sleep No More, the other great theatrical event of the second decade of the twenty-first century, is an office set.  Both are expensive productions and expensive tickets, but the richest details sometimes come cheap.  Cardboard file boxes, metal shelves, old wooden desks, a typewriter, a vintage PC, a scale, a plastic desk clock (stopped), filing cabinets, in and out trays, office furniture, and reams of paper.  Maybe a few hundred dollars worth of set dressing, and far more real than the elaborate sets of Broadway.  This is recession theater, in a way.

A recession reflected in the unglamorous players’ ill-fitting clothes, as cheaply bought as the set dressing.  Unglamorous people full of surprises.  Other than the subtle temporal dislocation suggested by the contents of the office (a PC and a typewriter), nothing seems amiss.  Until the man who “becomes” Nick Carraway opens a rolodex on his desk and finds a copy of The Great Gatsby.  A classic set-up for a fantasy or fairy tale, the mysterious appearance of a magic book on the shelves on an ordinary house.  “Nick” reads it aloud, reads all the voices…until a co-worker with the vague look of a maintenance man - sturdy, colorless clothes, no tie, keys hanging from his belt - recites from memory the words of Tom Buchanan (suitably, the play’s wealthiest character).  Another classic set-up, the blue collar character opening up to reveal the soul of a poet.

What is this office?  What business is transacted here?  Who knows?  It seems like a good place for trans, not so much for act.  Maybe it has something to do with shipping, import/export…or at least those endless sheets of paper could record the movement of goods from one city to another, to another state, another nation, continent, world…all these places these people won’t be seeing any time soon, if ever.  No wonder the minute the boss (if that’s what he is) disappears (later to reappear as Gatz/Gatsby), the bottles come out. 

It’s the bottle of Chartreuse that had me wondering how many boxes within boxes Gatz contained.  The cheap whiskey might appear in any desk drawer in any office in America.  But Chartreuse?  It’s there because it’s in The Great Gatsby, and if art is going to penetrate reality, liquor bottles are a good place to start.  On another level of reality, this is a play, and the bottles are of necessity (and possibly according to Equity regulations) full of something zero-proof.  Iced tea is always a good substitute for “something brown” (as my mother’s friend would reply when she stopped by and was asked what she wanted to drink), though it does have an unfortunate tendency to froth, un-liquorlike, when poured.

But in this office, or this office set, (or this West Egg), even the Chartreuse is brown.  Why?  Few liquors tell you with their name exactly what color they’re supposed to be, and here the set’s easily bought realism appears glaringly betrayed.

It could be sloppiness.  Substitute stage liquor was needed.  Iced tea for something brown, water for vodka, maybe cranberry juice for red wine…but Chartreuse?  Eh…the iced tea will have to do.

I’m inclined to think not.  At least I’d prefer a different explanation.  Elevator Repair Service doesn’t strike me as a sloppy or amateur operation, but as a group of people laboring for years with little material reward for their art.  As director John Collins writes, “ERS shows begin with a proposal to do something difficult or impossible.”

So what’s with the bottle of Chartreuse?  It would have suited the play’s melancholy humor if the line in the novel about Chartreuse being poured was matched on stage with the appearance of a bottle of Early Times.  But a Chartreuse bottle it is.  Full of something brown.

I knew someone who had a bottle of Pernod in his freshman dorm room, meaning he was either pretentious or an ambitious dreamer.  I can imagine another dreamer in an office like this.  Maybe he’s moved on, leaving only a Chartreuse bottle (and certainly no works) to mark his having been there.  Or he’s still there, on stage, at his desk.  Either way, it’s a beautiful bottle with an evocative label.  Who wants to throw it out?  Keep it and refill it.  With something brown.  A few drinks later, with a little squinting and the right lighting, you can look at the bottle and see a green glow, a green light.  That image from Gatsby, known even to people who haven’t read the book, has no visual echo on this stage.  But the Chartreuse bottle is there.  You just need to find your own way to seeing the green light.