Edinburgh Fringe 2023
In Belle Sauvage’s production of ‘The Last Flapper’, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott and icon of the Jazz Age, is in a mental institution. When her doctor fails to show up for their appointment, she takes the opportunity to update her file- and he audience- on what she thinks they ought to know about her story.
Stories of Zelda Fitzgerald often start at the beginning, and as a result, often feel like a rags to riches fable, or a somewhat sanitized cautionary tale. Many have her as a comic foil to her author husband, or the zany madwoman who keeps him from his full potential. This story is different. We begin with Zelda, disheveled and the opposite of her beaded Flapper image, arriving for her appointment with her doctor, who will no doubt tell her to count down from one hundred and relax. The doctor does not show up, and Zelda decides to take a peek at her file, where she sees that it is recommended she is “relieved of decisions” so as not to agitate her, and to deny her any option to “rebel against authority”. Zelda decides the file needs to be amended, and as she tells us stories of her life from an Alabama debutante girlhood to being married to one of the voices of the Lost Generation, she writes down the bits her doctor has been missing.
In Catherine DuBord’s capable hands, Zelda is portrayed as a sympathetic, misused woman without taking away her teeth or her sense of humor. She is magnetic, and even without the baubles and trappings of the Golden Age, DuBord’s Zelda shimmers. The direction by Lydia Mackay transforms the small Clove theatre into Zelda’s opulent apartments, the lonely sanitarium, or wherever it else it needs to be. Even F. Scott himself “appears” as the light from the lamp- shining and untouchable.
There are so many ways to process this story, all of them valuable. Zelda is one of many stories of lauded men who used up their wives and disposed of them in asylums. Even today, women find it difficult to be believed by medical professionals about the status of their own bodies and minds. There is the question of what we allow artists to get away with because of their assumed god-given greatness. It is known that Fitzgerald plagiarized from his wife’s diaries, letters, and even short stories, but it is a mere footnote in his story that is happily overlooked. “I loved the artist in him,” Zelda says of F. Scott, “I should have loved the artist in myself.” The rapt audience gave a collective sigh at this line, as if all agreeing with her and wishing it for ourselves as well. Though placed towards the end of her life, it can be argued that plays like this are only the beginning of her story.