The Vegetable: or from President to postman
As Scott Fitzgerald’s only full-length play, The Vegetable represents his sole attempt to establish himself as a successful playwright. It also represents his brief excursion into the realm of political satire. An ordinary railroad clerk, Jerry Frost, gets drunk on the eve of Warren Harding’s nomination and suddenly finds himself and his entire family in the White House. The consequences are predictably disastrous, but Jerry is able to escape them by waking up. Much relieved, he can fulfill his true calling: to be a postman.
Although the play was a flop and Fitzgerald returned to writing short stories and novels, this little-known work deserves to be rescued from obscurity. As a boy, Fitzgerald had a special love for the theater and enjoyed precocious success as a playwright and impresario. At fourteen, he presented The Girl from “Lazy J” at an organizational meeting of the Elizabethan Dramatic Club of St. Paul, Minnesota. As he wrote in his scrapbook, his “head was turned,” and the next year the club produced his second drama, The Captured Shadow, as a benefit performance for the Baby Welfare Association. Scott himself played the “Shadow,” and later in his scrapbook he wrote, “Enter Success!” This was followed the next summer by a two-act melodrama, The Coward, about a reluctant Confederate soldier. According to one reviewer, it also was a “decided success.” This was just before Fitzgerald’s departure for Princeton, but it was not his final production for the club. The summer following his freshman year, he returned to St. Paul and wrote a comedy, Assorted Spirits, in which he also acted and served as stage manager. His final performance was unexpectedly memorable, for at one point during the show a fuse blew and there followed an explosion and sudden darkness. But the seasoned actor seized his cue and proceeded to calm the audience with an improvised monologue.
During the academic year, Fitzgerald had become active in the Princeton Triangle Club, which annually produced an original musical comedy. The 1914-15 show, Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, owed its plot and lyrics to Fitzgerald. In fact, the very notion of a sustained plot tying together the musical numbers was considered a real innovation and the Louisville Post proclaimed that Fitzgerald “could take his place right now with the brightest writers of witty lyrics in America.” He went on to write the lyrics for the next two Triangle productions: The Evil Eye (1915-16) and Safety First (1916-17). In addition, he published in the Nassau Literary Magazine a one-act play, The Debutante, which would eventually become a chapter in his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Though one critic felt that it was “somewhat far-fetched” it was praised as “a devastating skit on the foibles of young femininity.”
How was Fitzgerald rated by his classmates? In the graduating class poll, he received six votes as their favorite dramatist (Shakespeare received sixty-one and Shaw twenty-nine)—not a bad start. After Princeton his theatrical career gave way to the ambition of becoming a serious and successful novelist. Yet his love for scriptwriting was never wholly suppressed, for in his first two novels—This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned—several episodes were set as dramatic dialogues complete with stage directions; and two stories for The Smart Set magazine were conceived and published as one-act plays: “Porcelain and Pink” and “Mr. Icky” (republished in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922).
Having published his debut novel and a collection of short stories (Flappers and Philosophers, 1920), Fitzgerald turned his eyes to Broadway and in the late fall of 1921 wrote to his agent, Harold Ober, “I am conceiving a play which is to make my fortune,” adding in a subsequent letter that it “is the funniest ever written.” Then with no less self-confidence he wrote to his editor at Scribners, Maxwell Perkins, that he was at work on “an awfully funny play that’s going to make me rich forever.” From the very start, Fitzgerald viewed the play as something to guarantee his fortune, if not fame as well. On the day before publication of The Beautiful and Damned, he wrote to Ober that he was sending him the first draft of the play (which had as yet no title) to be placed with a producer. His opinion of it was still high, but he clearly foresaw the revisions that lay ahead:
I should not, I suppose I should say now, want to collaborate with anyone else in a revision of this. I’m willing to revise it myself with advice from whomsoever they should designate—but I feel that Acts I and III are probably the best pieces of dramatic comedy written in English in the last 5 years and I wouldn’t let them go entirely out of my possession nor permit the addition of another name to the authorship of the play.
That was in March. By May he had revised the script, and his former college pal Edmund Wilson was trying to place it with the Theatre Guild. In a long and thoughtful letter of 26 May 1922, Wilson offered much praise while suggesting structural changes:
So far as I am concerned, I think it is one of the best things you ever wrote….As I say, I think that the play as a whole is marvelous—no doubt, the best American comedy ever written. I think you have a much better grasp on your subject than you usually have— you know what end and point you are working for, as isn’t always the case with you… I think you have a great gift for comic dialogue—even though you never can resist a stupid gag—and should go on writing plays… By the way, the great question is, have you read James Joyce’s Ulysses? Because if you haven’t, the resemblances between the drunken visions scene in it and your scene in the White House must take its place as one of the great coincidences of literature.
(It was a coincidence.) Soon afterwards, the Guild turned down the play but Wilson told Fitzgerald that he ought to have it published even before it was accepted for production.
Fitzgerald set out to revise a second time and in July wrote to Perkins, “At present I’m working on my play—the same one… . Bunny Wilson says that it’s without a doubt the best American comedy to date (that’s just between you and me).” By August, it had finally been given a title, Gabriel’s Trombone, an allusion to a scene--later cut from the script--in which the Apocalypse is predicted by Jerry’s senile father, a Last Judgment heralded in tones familiar to the Jazz Age:
Dada: The world is coming to an end. The last judgment is at hand.
Gabriel’s Trump will blow one week from today just at this hour.
Fish: What’s a trump?
Doris: It’s something like a trombone, only not so good.
(Too true to be good? The playwright as prophet?)
Fitzgerald asked Perkins if Scribner’s Magazine would be interested in serializing it, “that is, of course, on condition that it is to be produced this fall.” Perkins replied that he was “mightily interested.” In the meantime, no producer was found and Fitzgerald continued to revise. By December, the manuscript was in Perkins’s hands, now reworked for the third time, and it bore a new, simpler title: Frost. Perkins wrote a lengthy and perceptive critique, which not only articulated the central theme of the satire but also suggested further revisions:
God meant Jerry to be a good egg and a postman; but having been created, in a democratic age, Free and Equal, he was persuaded that he ought to want to rise in the world and so had become a railroad clerk against his taste and capacity, and thought he ought to want to become President. He is therefore very unhappy, and so is his wife, who holds the same democratic doctrine.
Your story shows, or should, that this doctrine is sentimental bunk; and to do this is worthwhile because the doctrine is almost universal: Jerry and his wife are products of a theory of democracy which you reduce to the absurd. The idea is so good that if you hold to it and continuously develop it, your play, however successful simply as fun, will be deeply significant as well.
Moreover, the means you have selected to develop the idea are superb—the bootlegger, the super-jag his concoction induces, Jerry thereby becoming President, etc. (and dreams have a real validity nowadays on account of Freud). In fact all your machinery for expressing the idea is exactly in the tune of the time and inherently funny and satirical.
Fitzgerald was intrigued by Perkins’s idea of using a President’s impeachment as the climax of Act II. Indeed this new development led to the highlight of the play: President Frost’s oration in his own defense, a perfect piece of impassioned rhetoric that says absolutely nothing. It is also a virtuoso performance in mixing metaphors:
Gentlemen, before you take this step into your hands I want to put my best foot forward. Let us consider a few aspects. For instance, for the first aspect let us take, for example, the War of the Revolution. There was ancient Rome, for example. Let us not only live so that our children who live after us, but also that our ancestors who preceded us fought to make this country what it is….
If Fitzgerald exploited this scene to satirize political speeches he also found an opportunity to carry the satire a step further by injecting some real history into his fantasy. The subsequent declaration of impeachment by Chief Justice Fossile, for all its absurdity, was no mere play of the author’s imagination. Fitzgerald the history buff had turned to his books and lifted almost verbatim the opening speech of Congressman George Boutwell of Massachusetts at President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment hearings:
In the Southern Heavens, near the Southern Cross, there is a vast space which the uneducated call a hole in the sky, where the eye of man, with the aid of the powers of the telescope, has been unable to discover nebulae, or asteroid, or comet, or planet, or star or sun…. If we compare the quotation with Fitzgerald’s version we discover that the caricatured Chief Justice is actually less verbose than his historical counterpart. Fitzgerald must have enjoyed this delicious bit of irony.
In January of 1923, Fitzgerald sent Perkins a list of ideas for the play. He wanted John Held, Jr., the originator of the cartoon “flapper,” to design the jacket cover with “little figures—Dada, Jerry, Doris, Charlotte, Fish, Snooks and Gen Pershing [sic] scattered over it.” The popular Westport cartoonist followed the author’s wishes and brilliantly captured the spirit of the play. This is one book—or program--that can be judged fairly by its cover, and so I revived it for my edition of the play, which Scribners republished for the election year of 1976. Fitzgerald also requested that it “be advertised, it seems to me rather as a book of humor… than like a play—because of course it is written to be read.” Indeed, as in Shaw’s published scripts, the lengthy stage directions often provide some of the most entertaining moments. Fitzgerald also suggested writing a preface and inserting “the subtitle ‘or from President to postman’ (note small p.).”
He never wrote the preface, but when the book went to press its title had been changed once again, to The Vegetable, and was accompanied by a quotation “from a current magazine” on the title page:
Any man who doesn’t want to get on in the world,, to make a million dollars, and maybe even park his toothbrush in the White House, hasn’t got as much to him as a good dog has—he’s nothing more or less than a vegetable.
It has been suggested that Fitzgerald got his idea for the final title from a passage in H. L. Mencken’s essay “On Being an American”:
Here is a country in which it is an axiom that a businessman shall be a member of the Chamber of Commerce, an admirer of Charles M. Schwab, a reader of The Saturday Evening Post, a golfer—in brief, a vegetable.
If so, Fitzgerald reversed the thrust of Mencken’s epithet with a kind of deadpan irony, which was later enriched in the revised acting script by having Jerry’s wife, Charlotte, discover the quotation in her Saturday Evening Post. But Fitzgerald’s dramatic satire is never as severe as Mencken’s, whatever his debt to the essayist may have been. It owed at least as much to his college days in the Triangle Club. The result is a mixture of satire and slapstick. One senses an occasional indecisiveness beneath the banter, as though he were a composer who had forgotten his key and had begun an endless series of modulations. This was not a formula for success in performance, no matter how entertaining it might be for the reader.
The book received mixed reviews, some enthusiastic in their praise. Late in life Edmund Wilson wrote me a stern letter declining my invitation to write an introduction to the play which Fitzgerald had dedicated to him, claiming that he had never approved of our published version, that Fitzgerald had taken “too much advice” and had “ruined the whole thing.” (When I showed the stinging letter to my father, he quipped, “After God created the rattlesnake He created Edmund Wilson.”) Yet a half-century earlier, in his review for Vanity Fair Wilson wrote that Fitzgerald’s play “is, in some ways, one of the best things he has done.”
In it he has a better idea than he usually has of what theme he wants to develop, and it does not, as his novels sometimes have, carry him into regions beyond his powers of flight. It is a fantastic and satiric comedy carried off with exhilarating humor. One has always felt that Mr. Fitzgerald ought to write dialogue for the stage and this comedy would seem to prove it. I do not know of any dialogue by an American which is lighter, more graceful or more witty. His spontaneity makes his many bad jokes go and adds a glamor to his really good ones.
Another reviewer found that “Fitzgerald’s first act is Sinclair Lewis, his last act is James M. Barrie—and his middle act is nightmare.” Still another called the play “a caricature of a caricature.” Many saw only nonsensical riot; others, genuine satire. One critic even considered it “the most moral book in years,” the moral being simply that “what the country needs is more good postmen and fewer bad Presidents.” For a brief moment it made the best-seller list.
Encouraged, Fitzgerald placed the script with Sam Harris, who scheduled it for a fall production. During the summer Fitzgerald commuted to New York from Long Island to attend rehearsals and make still more changes for the acting script (which I added as an appendix in my 1976 edition). The play finally opened on Monday, November 19, 1923, at—can you believe it?--Nixon’s Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City. Ernest Truex played the title role—“the best postman in the world,” as Fitzgerald inscribed the play to him. It was a disaster or, in the author’s wry words, a “colossal Frost.” It closed almost immediately; Fitzgerald’s hopes for fortune in the theater evaporated and he was forced to turn out a spate of short stories to improve his financial situation. His literary recovery was to take another two years and a new novel, The Great Gatsby (1925). After his first disappointment, Fitzgerald never really regained interest in the play. Later there were to be a few revivals, mostly by amateur groups, and even some talk of selling movie rights. But except for a momentary worry in 1932 that Ryskind and Kaufman had plagiarized The Vegetable in Of Thee I Sing, he gave his play little further thought. In his opinion, the whole venture had simply been a wasted year and a half.
But was it? The constant revising, the special demands imposed by a play—a short, carefully constructed work—coming after the sprawling Beautiful and Damned proved an ideal exercise for a young writer. Though the final piece was flawed, Fitzgerald had nevertheless gained valuable experience in literary craftsmanship. He followed it with a new novel composed with all the economy and tight structure of a successful play: The Vegetable prepared him for writing Gatsby. Indeed, shortly after its publication Gatsby was adapted for the stage by Owen Davis and was an instant success on Broadway.
The Vegetable was a victim of bad timing. The audience at Atlantic City in 1923 was still unaware of the worst scandals surrounding their deceased President. It was not until a year later that the lid blew off Teapot Dome. Fitzgerald’s political fantasy contained far more truth than the audience was prepared to take in. But nearly a century later, after two impeachment proceedings, this not-so-fantastic spoof may be experienced afresh as it offers another sparkling facet of Fitzgerald’s imagination. As his daughter, Scottie, remarked to me, “It was one of his few efforts, until much later in his life, to write about the country outside of its country clubs.”
Charles Scribner III
New York, 1975 & 2018