Academic journal article American Drama

Ragged Edges: The Curious Case of F. Scott Fitzgerald's the Vegetable

Academic journal article American Drama

Ragged Edges: The Curious Case of F. Scott Fitzgerald's the Vegetable

Article excerpt

F. Scott Fitzgerald's only full-length play The Vegetable, written and revised between 1921 and 1923, depicts the comic adventures of unhappily-married clerk Jerry Frost. The play garnered some accolades for its April 1923 published version but few for its first production in that November at Nixon's Apollo Theater in Atlantic City. Zelda Fitzgerald wrote to a friend that The Vegetable "flopped as flat as one of Aunt Jemima's famous pancakes" (Bruccoli, Epic 219). Punning on the main character's name, Fitzgerald called opening night "a Colossal Frost" and, along with Zelda Fitzgerald and the Ring Lardners, joined much of the audience in leaving before the final act. After that unsuccessful week-long tryout, Broadway plans for the play were scrapped, relegating The Vegetable to the realm of arcane trivia and literary footnotes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Vegetable has received the least critical attention of any major Fitzgerald work. Even the essays collected in the Cambridge Companion to F Scott Fitzgerald (whose back cover promises that "no aspect of his career is overlooked") scarcely mention the play beyond biographical chronologies. Yet, The Vegetable is a curious play, a cacophonic collision of Eastern wit, Midwestern virtue, and avant-garde stylistic daring written by a playwright who was both a native Minnesotan and, in one reviewer's words, "the apostle of the flappers" (Claridge 131). While Zelda Fitzgerald situates her only play, 1932's Scandalabra, firmly within the British comedic tradition of Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward, her husband's play more self-consciously blends American traditions and specifically invokes L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The play's pastiche of styles, while not always successful as good theater, marks a dramaturgical transition from turn of the century Midwestern stage voices to the distinctly urbane and urban sensibility that dominated American "new" comedy between the wars.

Before the Great War, lucrative shows on Broadway were exported to other regions of the country, and success on the road (particularly with Midwestern audiences) helped make back the bulk of their backers' investment. Fittingly, many successful playwrights of the time were Midwesterners who constructed plays that "declared that the residents of America west of the Ohio were the salt of the earth" (Bryden 138). In such drama, Midwestern character is pragmatic and honest, committed to hard work and to what David Radavich has called "an ethos of sobriety, regularity {and} normality" (Agora). Perceived as "the keeper of the nation's values" (Shortridge 143), the Midwest has often been depicted as a repository for the core identity and experience of the culture, woefully lost in the East amidst modern industrialization and alienation.

By the end of the decade, skyrocketing touring costs and growing competition in the mass entertainment industry forced producers to look increasingly for scripts and productions that would profitably cater to savvy New York audiences alone. As a result, the 1920s and 30s were a renaissance for a new kind of American comedy, characterized, according to Ronald Bryden, by "speed, smartness, scorn for out-of-towners and sentimentalists," glittering with a "high comedy finish {of} one part sophistication, one part rapier wit and one part sheer arrogance" (138, 140). Even though many of the leading playwrights continued to come from the Midwest (including Preston Sturges and Ben Hecht), the style in which they wrote changed. The Midwest was seen as "a 'hinterland,' an unsophisticated, provincial locale remote from America's intellectual capital, centers of government and culture" (Dictionary of Midwestern Literature 3). In part, the new sensibility ridiculed those "core values" whose validation previously had been key to a play's success.

Situating itself at the moment of this stylistic transition, the premise of The Vegetable is novel: an unambitious, bored, and henpecked railroad clerk named Jerry Frost unexpectedly becomes President of the United States on his way to realizing his lifelong dream to be a postman. …

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