A short play
In Unseen’s first dramatic writing submission, Edward Eng’s adaptation updates Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the late 90s, centering on a quiet, intimate scene between cousins Nick and Daisy and unveiling parallel threads of romanticism between the Roaring Twenties and the Millennial Generation. Written in response to recent stage and film adaptations that incline towards a strong visual portrayal of the jazz age, one that seemingly sidesteps the finer currents of social divides in the novel, “After The Tea” strips away the bright lights and pizzazz, focusing instead on the cousins’ conflicting aspirations and desires, revealing the persistence of everyday ideologies and markers of class, social status and romantic love almost a century after Gatsby’s parties lit up West Egg.
A cosy New York apartment in the bright heat of noontime. NICK is having a quiet smoke by the door, on a bench fashioned from a sideways-laid bookshelf. DAISY admires the living room. Its chairs, tables and wall decor are woody, a slightly confused mix of things that could have been on discount at an upmarket furniture shop.
NICK: ‘I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.’ Some words just don’t go well together. Certainly, awfully. But the silence after said more than anything else. Whether or not she had intended its effect or if it was just another flippant gesture of hers, Gatsby had been well won over.
(He leaves the unfinished cigarette in an ashtray and enters the living room.)
DAISY: Oh Nick, you didn’t tell me your house was this lovely! (A slender finger across the tabletop.) The hues! Even the grain of this teak is just wonderful.
NICK: It’s nothing. Most of these things are hand-me-downs. That’s why we chose the country club for yesterday’s tea. Not that I’m not proud of this… (He realises how striking DAISY looks in his relatively modest home.)
DAISY: I’m sorry?
NICK: I mean my favourite thing is still my music collection.
DAISY: Oh. You do sound like the kind of man who owns a nice record player.
NICK: No, it’s actually a CD collection.
DAISY: CDs? My cousin, I can’t have you living impoverished here in New York. Without a record player? What next, digital music?
NICK: Well, I’ve managed fine.
DAISY: It’s not just about how it sounds, you know. Don’t you think it’s more… stately? It’d fit in well with your apartment. (Pause. DAISY grins.) You know what? I’ll get you one tomorrow! You pick the records.
NICK: Please. It’s not necessary.
DAISY: You’re right. Nothing is. It’s always a want… but with no wants then what is there?
NICK: Daisy, I can’t let you buy it for me. It’s 1997. CDs are just as good as records these days.
DAISY: All the more since it’s ‘97! No recession in sight! Not that it matters. But the sky is luminous, and awaits all that jazz!
NICK: I’m serious. But if I change my mind I promise to let you know.
DAISY: Fine, you win. (Pause.) How’s that job you just started?
NICK: I’m not really… comfortable here. I think I moved to New York at the wrong time.
DAISY: Oh I’m so sorry to hear that. Maybe you haven’t spent enough time here. Look, how about you come over to my place for lunch one of these days. Whenever you feel tired.
NICK: I can’t. I can’t just walk out of work like that.
DAISY: It’s not far isn’t it? What use is your Yale degree if you can’t go for an extra hour of lunch?!
NICK: Yale… is about some lofty old ideal, I guess. The seven liberal arts. But absolutely useless when it comes to the paycheck.
DAISY: Oh, come on. Don’t be so miserable! You were the smart kid weren’t you?
NICK: Perhaps if memorising quotes from smart people makes me smart…
DAISY: I like a nice quote. Come on, give me one.
NICK: You can’t be serious.
DAISY: I’m not teasing you.
NICK: Don’t we have other things to talk about?
DAISY: Please, Nick. Don’t be a spoilsport.
NICK: (Exhales.) If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to-
DAISY: Stop. (Unanticipated pause.) That makes me feel…
NICK: Makes you feel?
DAISY: I don’t quite know what it is.
NICK: Do you have anyone in mind?
DAISY: Nick, you are ever so eloquent.
NICK: I’m sure Tom’s got nice words too.
(DAISY remains silent. NICK rises to get some water.)
NICK: Or Jay?
DAISY: He is lovely.
NICK: Is he? What do you think of him?
DAISY: He went to Oxford.
NICK: Harris Manchester, wasn’t it?
NICK: Do you know what that means?
DAISY: What what means?
(NICK returns to the table. With each lunge he becomes more cynical.)
NICK: I mean his college.
DAISY: Nick, you’re being ridiculous. He’s a perfectly good man and that’s all that counts-
NICK: It was only named Harris Manchester in 1996. That’s last year.
(Ugly pause. Nick finishes his glass of water.)
DAISY: I like him a lot.
NICK: Why wouldn’t you? (Pause.) But what makes you think he’s a good man?
DAISY: Stop it, Nick. You know I’m not going to answer.
NICK: And when you say that do you really mean ‘love’?
DAISY: That’s a strong word.
DAISY: Stop it.
DAISY: Why I am careful around that word is because I know what it wants from me. But I don’t know what it means.
NICK: Reminds me of that clock he knocked over yesterday. He tried to put it back together. Even if he could, its hands would still be late.
DAISY: Love’s a loaded word.
NICK: And you avoid using it.
(Tired pause. NICK stands and walks to the far end of the table. He picks up an exquisitely wrapped gift box.)
NICK: Do you believe in predestination?
DAISY: You mean, like fate?
NICK: Like you’ve sailed for weeks on the Santa María. The journey has been empty and stretches for eons and eons. The sea beneath you, is just black enough such that when New York City shines on the horizon, it turns whatever vague destiny you’ve imagined for yourself, into something concrete, something you can hold.
(He returns to DAISY’s side with the open box.)
DAISY: Would that make me Columbus?
NICK: In an idealistic way. Minus the transatlantic slave trade. (NICK offers her a chocolate.) Ballotin? There’s a bit of brandy in it.
DAISY: (Pause.) No. I cannot believe in fate. It’s not led anyone to anything good.
NICK: I see.
DAISY: You see?
NICK: Well, he believes in it.
DAISY: That’s his problem, isn’t it?
NICK: I should tell you this. It was at night when he reminded me to ask you out for tea. Late at night, and his house was lit like it was Christmas. Well… Christmas isn’t as ostentatious. Every inch of that house. But there was no party that night, and it was quiet. A bit surreal, all these lights shining like modern day smoke signals.
DAISY: Did you go in?
NICK: He was waiting outside. You know he has these walls he’s built for himself. All his ‘old acquaintances’ and ‘appointments’. When I mention your name they come down in a second, and all you’re left with is a kind of a relentless idealist. Fresh out of wherever it is he’s from.
(Troubled pause. DAISY paces in the apartment and as she reaches the nearby window, her voice returns to its former clarity.)
DAISY: Why are you telling me this?
NICK: Well. I don’t want you, either of you, to hurt yourselves in this… thing.
DAISY: I don’t think we should talk about it.
NICK: About Jay?
DAISY: Him. I don’t think it’s right that you make him sound… delusional. Tom and I will all be okay as we are, as we always have been. As you said, Jay does have a gorgeous personality. Isn’t that enough for him to live with?
(NICK gets up and brings her glass of water to the window. He holds it out for her. She looks past the glass.)
NICK: Will you tell him yourself?
DAISY: (Pause.) No.
NICK: I am genuinely worried.
DAISY: Well, do you think you might be fussing a bit too much about him? He’s a grown man now. I’m sure he’s… practical. Besides, how long have you known him for? A couple of months?
NICK: I don’t know if I can watch his heart break.
DAISY: He’s got so many friends to care about. You’ve seen how dazzling the parties are here. You can’t help but watch and let the wide, blue lawns draw you in. Surely he didn’t move here for a woman he met so long ago?
NICK: Five years, wasn’t it.
DAISY: Yes, Nick. My dear, I think you’ve been having too much water and too little drink. (She takes the glass from his hand.) Is your bar stocked, at least?
NICK: It is.
DAISY: Let’s swap this for two nice martinis, shall we?
DAISY: Isn’t it better to concern yourself with things of the ‘now’? With things that you can touch and hold. That’s what is important, isn’t it.
NICK: And not reclaiming the past.
DAISY: That’s quite the silly thing to do.
(Daisy exits. Nick returns to the table. He runs his knuckles against the grain and sighs.)
NICK: Daisy, oh, Daisy. But Gatsby thinks the past is all there is to do.
(Lights fade out.)
Having recently given up his corporate career plans, EDWARD ENG is an aspiring playwright-filmmaker currently excited by ideas of hypocritical hedonism, funky metaphysics and moral ambiguity. Edward currently reads Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick, where his upcoming adaptation of The Merchant of Venice set in a local prison is being staged. Will write for food.
Photo credit: Chloe Lim