Tuesday, December 17, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Vegetable (1923)

His only full-length published play.  It's hard to judge it, of course, just by what's on the page,
because the kind of comedy it was intended as is probably the kind that only comes to life on the stage.  Then again, he did publish it, so he must have intended it to have some kind of life beyond the stage.  But it doesn't:  it's dead on the page.

It's partly because it simply isn't funny.  Maybe it was funnier at the time - maybe the jokes haven't aged well - but I rather doubt it.  After all, the play bombed, and the book doesn't seem to have done much better...  The situations aren't particularly funny, the characters aren't particularly funny, and the dialogue isn't particularly witty.  It reads like the kind of thing that was screamingly funny when Fitzgerald and his friends concocted it - but the humor metabolized out along with the alcohol...  I've now read most of Fitzgerald (I'm a few volumes behind in my blogging, but I think I'm ready to say I've read enough now), and one thing I don't think he was, was funny.  There are smiles and smirks in his writing, but precious few actual laughs.  He's not that kind of writer.  He tries to be here - he thinks he is - but he's not.

But I could forgive that, actually.  Comedy often doesn't age well, and in fact comedy doesn't always have to provide laughs to be worthwhile.  There can be other things on offer.  What really sinks this book is that it puts the worst of Fitzgerald's social attitudes front and center.  The plot revolves around a shlubby Everyman for whom bootleg alcohol is the pillow of Kantan:  he dreams he's President.  The problem is that, rather than enjoying his success and then awakening to realize that all earthly glory is as transient as a dream, he screws everything up as President and then wakes up thankful that he's just a simple man after all.  In other words it's a profoundly antidemocratic work that laughs at little people for being little people, and tells them that they shouldn't aspire to great things, but should be content with their little stations in life.

If there is humor here, it's the snide laughter of the elite, aimed at shaming the plebes into remaining in their place. 


Matt said...

Can we have an example of the actual gags? You got me curious!

Tanuki said...

Act II is the guy's drunken-stupor dream about becoming President. The scene's set in the White House, and the gag is that everything's white: the brick wall around the garden, all the trees and flowers, all the furniture, the pets, the janitor's broom...see, the not-very-bright guy thinks it's called the White House because everything in it's white. Actually, that's one of the better gags.