The Last Romantic:

F. Scott Fitzgerald

at the Next Theatre

By Jack Helbig

As befits a romantic, F. Scott Fitzgerald died young–or youngish. Ravaged by years of alcoholism, he was 44 when his heart gave out in a Hollywood bungalow in 1940. His books were out of print. His money was gone. His glittering, beloved schizophrenic wife was back east in an insane asylum. Still, Fitzgerald kept writing, turning out short stories (which were not as good as the ones he wrote in his best years, before the Crash of ’29) and screenplays; he even contributed material to Gone With the Wind. He was also at work on what he felt would be his last novel, a work modeled on the life of the late, great movie mogul Irving G. Thalberg.

By naming his one-man show The Last Romantic, Tom Webb consciously echoes The Last Tycoon. And like that book, The Last Romantic tells the story of a man who gained the world but lost his soul. Only in Webb’s tale the man ends up losing the world, too.

The first act of The Last Romantic is set in a seedy hotel room in or around Asheville, North Carolina, in 1935. Fitzgerald has retreated there to write, battle his alcoholism (unsuccessfully), and sift through the ashes of his life. It’s late summer, and one can feel the approach of winter in every word Fitzgerald utters. “In the real dark night of the soul,” he mutters, “it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Then he cracks open another bottle and takes a swig. This is the dark side of Fitzgerald, the broke, lost, exhausted man Fitzgerald wrote about in his sometimes harrowing, sometimes whiny autobiographical piece “The Crack-Up,” published in Esquire in the mid-30s.

It’s a testament to Webb’s gifts–both as an adapter of Fitzgerald’s material (much of the first act comes from “The Crack-Up” and other Fitzgerald writings of the period) and as a Fitzgerald impersonator–that his Fitzgerald never seems self-pitying or mawkish, the way the man sometimes does in print. Nor does Webb take Fitzgerald’s route in The Great Gatsby and make the seedy, weary writer into a symbol of some larger cultural sickness. Instead he gives us the man, angry, a little drunk, and stripped of every shred of glamour. Told by his doctor that he may be dead before year-end, Webb’s Fitzgerald is determined not to go gentle into that good night. But his grumbling rage is directed at more than the dying of the light. “Now that I’m sober,” he growls at the beginning of the act, “I can’t stand any of the people I liked when I was drunk.”

When Webb performed the first act several years ago as a stand-alone piece, Fitzgerald’s lamentations were a bit much after a while. It wasn’t that Fitzgerald seemed weak; actually he seemed quite strong, spiritually. And it wasn’t that Webb’s adaptation flagged; in fact it’s remarkably well constructed. But he’s packed so many bitter truths into the act–about growing old, about changing fortunes, about losing youth, health, and love–that it was unbearably sad. Especially in Cafe Voltaire’s dark, tomblike basement space.

Webb is now performing at a safer distance from the audience, on the Next Theatre’s stage. And the first half of the play isn’t quite as devastating. For one thing, Webb’s performance feels more varied: this Fitzgerald doesn’t seem so doomed. For another, this time around there’s a second act to his life–in Hollywood.

Not that it’s a glorious comeback, as Webb makes quite clear. The second act is set in December of 1940 at 2 AM. Fitzgerald has just been fired from a picture, Winter Carnival, because of his drunken and erratic behavior. But his mood is upbeat. He’s at work on a new novel, The Last Tycoon, and the creative juices are flowing as hard as they were for The Great Gatsby. His walls are filled with notes and character sketches, and the bounce in Webb’s voice as he says “I have begun something that is maybe great” speaks volumes about Fitzgerald’s hope for the future.

His troubles haven’t left him entirely. No longer in debt, he is still poor and still very ill, and Zelda is still insane. He’s a hack writer in a town where writers have all the clout and prestige of script girls. Maybe less, since they’re frequently not welcome on the set. But somehow the fact that Fitzgerald is loving his words again makes up for this. Every writer can identify with this feeling. If the words are with you, that intoxication can make up for all kinds of reversals, disappointments, and household tragedies.

At the same time, Webb’s superb multilayered performance suggests more than a hint of hysteria and denial in Fitzgerald’s optimism. We can’t believe the line “I have accepted that I shall never be the czar of Hollywood,” especially since it ends “and I have written half a novel about it.” There are czars and there are czars, and Fitzgerald has clearly opted for the kind of virtual czarship only the life of the mind can provide.

To Webb’s credit, he doesn’t overplay the second act’s great irony: that Fitzgerald feels he’s coming back to life as a writer in the very month and year of his final heart attack. Webb gives us Fitzgerald as Fitzgerald presented himself in his life, letters, and diaries of the time, as a man who’s survived some harrowing times and is now living a quieter life. Fitzgerald knew that The Last Tycoon would be his last novel, but he clearly never dreamed that he’d die before he finished it. Instead of a melodramatic death scene, Webb gives us a final soliloquy from Fitzgerald’s writings. “I have asked a lot of my emotions–one hundred and sixty stories,” he sighs. “The price was high because there was one little drop of something–not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these–in every story. It was the extra I had. Now it is gone and I am just like you.” As Fitzgerald prematurely mourns his own demise, Webb shows us what a subtle, sensitive, self-pitying soul we lost when F. Scott succumbed to his own romantic excesses.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Polner.