Old Sport and gin rickeys: The Great Gatsby at Senate House
By BENJAMIN POORE
“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”, ran the tagline. Masterminded by Professor Sarah Churchwell, the Living Literature series aims to immerse people in the worlds of our favourite literary works – starting the week before last with The Great Gatsby. We were promised a party, and what we got was a relatively free-form evening of pop-up talks, displays, music, cocktails, silent film and costumes in the art-deco surroundings of the University of London’s Senate House in Bloomsbury. “This is not a lecture”, Sarah Churchwell declared from the grand staircase in the lobby, which was bathed in the slightly uncanny green glow that lingers throughout Scott Fitzgerald's novel. Dressing up was mandatory.
Gatsby is well known for its synaesthesia: Nick Carraway’s famous description of the “yellow cocktail music” of the party springs to mind. But this tumult of both seeing and hearing – the excitement and confusion of sensory overload – is an element of the novel that was amplified at the event. Partly following the lead of Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk, actors (from Punchdrunk, in fact) wandered about encouraging people to get into the spirit of the Jazz Age. This was an exercise in meticulously researched precision: posters, billboards and newspaper articles were taken from the exact historical moment of the novel's setting in 1922, and accompanied by excerpts from the novel. Text and image were given to us in myriad forms, including movie reels of New York from the 1920s, along with sound recordings of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. Even the recipes for the canapés were taken from the period (though the spread was not quite as lavish as Gatsby’s, with its “glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold”).
The spirit of the Jazz Age was, of course, gin, in the form of classic 1920s cocktails – notably the gin rickeys mentioned in the novel (1 1/2oz gin, lime juice, soda water, lime garnish, mixed in a highball with ice). Jay Gatsby’s bootlegger background was part of the evening too: to get hold of the gin or bourbon for your desired drink, you had to sidle up to one of the costumed characters carrying a basket of daisies and wait for them to produce a miniature. The London Gin Club had even brewed a special batch of “bathtub gin”, based on Scott Fitzgerald’s own attempts at home-distilling, which was a cheerful 69 per cent proof. There was live jazz, of course, and a special section devoted to two historical fragrances concocted by the parfumier Sarah McCartney – the small atomizer that I left with contained “Old Sport”. The researchers and graduate students who work on the period were happily milling about to discuss their work.
The gin and perfume were more than gimmicks for extracting cash. Drunkenness is very important in the novel, and the act of drinking punctuates key scenes. Until Nick Carraway finds something better to do or someone to talk to, he slopes off to the cocktail table, “the only place in the garden where a single man could linger without looking purposeless and alone”. The rug in Gatsby’s mansion is “wine-coloured”, a mock-Homeric gesture that I suppose must paint Gatsby as a deluded Ulysses, presiding over a savage race of Long Island socialites, living the epic of his own life. It is the tragedy of the characters in the novel that they believe the party doesn’t have to end.
Propped up around the event’s two main rooms, and in the programmes, were various enlarged pages from the New York newspapers of the summer of 1922 (the Tribune, Evening World and Herald Tribune, among others) with fashion tips and sketches of the latest trends in women’s haute couture (“The Charm of Studied Simplicity”; “Toilettes for Midsummer Days”). Carraway notes at the end of The Great Gatsby that Jordan Baker, who is dressed for golf, “looked like a good illustration”. Dressing up, whether for a party or not, reminds us that, in both Gatsby’s world and our own, identity is a fiction anyway, and the images we use to re-imagine ourselves are as flimsy as they are seductive.
This Living Literature event proved a clever means of having fun with a novel that has gone too many rounds on the A-level literature syllabus. What else might be amenable to this treatment? Novels with highly textured sense-worlds – which is to say, lots of eating and drinking. Gatsby seems to work so brilliantly partly because it is a novel about trying to close yourself off from the outside world; playing make-believe with it was always going to sit well. There is the possibility, Sarah Churchwell told me, of doing Marcel Proust next year. Expect champagne and madeleines – though after the bathtub gin, I might play it safe and stick to the lime-blossom tea.