F. Scott, Remember Me by Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber

F. Scott, Remember Me

The Thirty Years War began in 1618, shortly after Protestants defenestrated two Catholic Regents and a secretary.  They survived the 70-foot plunge from a window by divine intervention, although Protestants, horribly plagued by the Holy Roman Empire, said a soft landing in a dung heap was more factual. Soon, hooks suspended heads, tainted blood poisoned wine, catapults flung rotten corpses. A Black Death, riddled with fleas, rose like a red welt on Germany.

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Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in September 1896. His father was from Rockville, Maryland; his mother was daughter of Irish immigrants. Both were Catholic. It’s hard to say what latched onto and killed their son, what leapt from the window of his soul, but history indicates he was plagued by aspirations for high-living, an unstable woman, and too much gin.

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Oberammergau posted sentries, to repulse Protestants and disease, but a villager one day tiptoed out to find work, got fleabit, then returned and straddled his bride.  Thus the Black Death pounded Oberammergau in 1632.  In a village of 600 faithful, 84 deaths mounted.  Wolves howled. Village leaders prayed, and Councils of Six and Twelve met. They swore an oath at the village crucifix: if God halted the plague, Oberammergau would reenact the last week of Jesus’ life, every 10 years. Forever. The plague quit the village.

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Fitzgerald wrote a lot of plays.  His first, The Girl from Lazy J, was performed in 1911 in a neighbor’s living room. Next, performed at a local girls’ school, was The Captured Shadow, about a romantic thief. Coward, staged at the St. Paul YWCA, was a Civil War story. Assorted Spirits debuted in the summer of 1914.  Newspapers reported that a fuse blew, leaving the hall in darkness; teenaged Fitzgerald kept panic at bay. He jumped into the pit and launched a monologue, saving everything.

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Sixty townsfolk performed the first Passionsspiele, in a church meadow near freshly dug Black Death graves. By 1710, some ledgers were kept. Line items, amounting to 45 florins and change, included “trumpeters from Ettal” and costumes rented from a monastery. By 1730, total debt reached 84 florins. In 1770, Bavaria banned Passionsspieles, costing Oberammergau 274 florins. In 1790, the play was mentioned in a newspaper and sold tickets.  600 florins filled the village coffers. The Napoleonic Wars filled new coffins, so the village council of 1800 contributed toward debts.

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According to William J. Quirk, who examined all of Fitzgerald’s tax returns, the book for 1919 showed earnings of $879. In 1920 he earned $17,055. In today’s dollars, that’s a golden jump from $12,082.69 to $202,788.21.  Scribner’s had given him a $3,939 advance for Gatsby in 1924, but he was soon insolvent. As Quirk put it: the wolf was at the door. Between November 1923 and April 1924 Fitzgerald produced seven or so short stories. He viewed them all as formulaic cash cows.

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By 1750, the Age of Reason criticized the Passionsspiele for dramatizing a sacred story.  A Benedictine monk introduced a meditative element, and divided the performance with seven musical interludes, tableaux vivants, featuring static actors and woodcarvings in painted scenery. These told stories of the Old Testament in a way analogous to the Passion. With this stabilizing revision, Oberammergau resumed staging its play in 1780.

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When critics objected to Fitzgerald’s themes of love and success, he famously responded: “But, my God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” As a social historian Fitzgerald wrote in Echoes of the Jazz Age, “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.” Fitzgerald, confirmed alcoholic and adulterer with barely any insurance, died in 1940 of a heart attack.

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The attendance at Oberammergau surged, thanks to Romantic newspaper accounts.  By 1850, there were 45,000 spectators. The 1860 version was rewritten for themes of timelessness, idealization, and psychology.  Judas, greedy devil, transformed into a doubter with fears, worries, regrets.  The director used light and darkness symbolically, and reintroduced Veronica’s veil, with its souvenir of Christ’s suffering face. In 1940, Oberammergau, propagandized by the Third Reich as the agrarian heart of anti-Semitism, refused to perform.

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Objecting to his adultery and attendance record, Catholics denied Fitzgerald’s wish to be buried in consecrated ground near his parents.  Rockville Protestants welcomed him.  In May 1975, Fitzgerald’s daughter successfully petitioned the Church to permit Scott’s burial at St. Mary’s.  Upon disinterment, vaults opened, a gravedigger reported Fitzgerald’s coffin had a glass viewing-window over the face. Fitzgerald’s golden-haired corpse had a face still jaundiced and tight. He wore a green plaid suit, his tie the orange and black of Princeton, and a pink pocket square.  Stylish, cirrhotic…. so little had changed. He didn’t look so bad.

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After World War II, intellectuals shoveled complaint onto the Passionsspiele, charging anti-Semitism.  The people of Oberammergau in 1975 asked theologians and scholars to look at the text of the play that had changed so little.  A trial performance of a new script was staged, rejected.  By 1980, the Anti-Defamation League submitted its suggestions. In 2010, the Grim Reaper was astounded to witness an intelligent, beautiful, and moving work of art that didn’t smack of racist accusations leveled against it.

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Despite going out of print, suffering critical crucifixion and trouncing, the village and Fitzgerald, conscripted often, and sometimes understood by only a dozen, kept tumbling out of texts.  Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor, said Scott’s novels threw “a glamour over vice” and used religion to “lay a lash upon the vicious.”  Oberammergau enacts this spiritual conflict, as Jesus’s first spoken words every decade are: Is this God’s house, or is this a marketplace?  Audiences, indulging and pitying their own poor souls, drop coins into the alms box. They jingle like clopping funerary horses: why NOT; WHY not; why NOT.

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F Scott 30 Years War

 

Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber teaches literature and composition, and edits fiction at Indianola Review.  She has work forthcoming or in The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Vignette Review. Read more at anneweisgerber.com, or follow her @AEWeisgerber. She thanks Randall Brown for his inspiring advice.

 

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