Why F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Vegetable Was So Rotten

His oft-forgotten foray into playwriting that failed to take root.

the vegetable f. scott fitzgerald play

"I wanted to stop the show and say it was all a mistake, but the actors struggled heroically on." –F. Scott Fitzgerald, about the horrendous opening performance of The Vegetable or From President to Postman. 

One can almost feel bad for F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was probably one of the most embarrassing opening nights in theatre history. It was an especially cruel blow for a writer accustomed to soaring praise for his work, but even literary titan Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby fame couldn’t hit all of his targets. Every artist has that one underperforming piece that they just can’t be proud of and it exists as a blight on their permanent record. 

The Vegetable or From President to Postman started off well enough as one of Fitzgerald’s trademark snazzy magazine short stories based on a very American theme: upwards social mobility, and the rights and wrongs for getting up there. 

Jerry Frost, an underachieving middle-aged clerk, is dissatisfied with his lot, and throughout the course of the play he has a series of episodes that paint him as a fool doomed for failure no matter what ploy he comes up with or how high he manages to rise. Frost is the anti-thesis of “The American Dream” in that he is constantly trying to find cheat codes to achieve wealth and success, rather than applying hard work and realistic goals, much like Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman. 

As Fitzgerald wrote on the subject of self-improvement: “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.”

With this premise, and Fitzgerald’s already rock-solid reputation as the voice of a fast-paced and exciting era, The Vegetable had the formula for success set firmly in place. But it was a disaster, and began and ended Fitzgerald’s career as a playwright with one show. He would never write another play again. So what happened? 

Fitzgerald intended for the play—which he hurriedly adapted from the original short story—to stand as a smart political satire. But on the night of its premiere, it became a laughingstock that somehow drew zero laughs from the audience. The humiliating fiasco took place on November 19th, 1923, at the Nixon’s Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City. 

Fitzgerald had high hopes for the show. He and his wife Zelda had burned through his previous earnings from his works, sales of his books and short stories were dropping, and they needed cash. What happened instead, according to Matthew J. Bruccoli in Some Sort of Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that the audience got so fed up with the play’s bizarre and unfocused fumbling that many of them got up and left during the second act. Zelda would write in a letter that the worst possible outcome happened for a high-flying 1920s writer. The people got bored. 

Fitzgerald was in disgrace, and as quoted above, he was tempted to bail out on the whole thing and save what little dignity his already dwindling reputation had left. Actor Ernest Truex played Jerry Frost, and during the second intermission Fitzgerald and his good friend Ring Lardner asked him if he was even willing to go through with the last act. 

Ever the professional, abiding to the sacred law of “the show must go on,” Truex said he would do it. Fitzgerald and Lardner made a hasty—and perhaps somewhat cowardly—retreat to a nearby bar and missed the rest of the play. The show closed immediately afterwards and Fitzgerald was so distraught he went on one of the famous drinking sprees that would ultimately destroy his health and end his life too early in 1940, at age forty-four. 

So why was The Vegetable such an epic flop of a play? A handful of factors apply. Firstly, dialogue that delicately balances both sentiment and cleverness was never Fitzgerald’s strong suit, and that is the life force of any half-decent and everlasting play. A good play needs dialogue that is beyond just snappy and clever. It needs lines that are subtle, rich with hidden meanings, and relatable to an audience prepared to be emotionally vulnerable for the span of one or two hours. 

The old copywriter who’d worked for the Barron Collier advertising agency came out in an overly ambitious Fitzgerald and The Vegetable and its lines are painfully over-the-top and cheesy. The characters are constantly trying to parade something uninspired, or just begging for a chuckle from an unimpressed audience. Behold an excerpt: 

JERRY: It’s sort of a disagreeable name.

SNOOKS: The Buzzard Islands. Property of the country of Irish Poland. Garden

spots. Flowery paradises ina middle of the Atlantic. Rainbow Islandsa milk an’

honey, palms an’ pines, smellin’ with good-smellin’ woods and high-priced

spices. Fulla animals with million buck skins and with birds that’s got feathers

that the hat dives on Fifth Avenue would go nuts about. The folks in ee islands—

swell-lookin’, husky, square, rich, one hunerd per cent Buzzardites.

JERRY [startled]: You mean Buzzards?

SNOOKS: One hunerd per cent Buzzardites, crazy about their island, butter,

milk, live stock, wives, and industries.

JERRY [fascinated]: Sounds sort of pretty, don’t it?

SNOOKS: Pretty? Say, it’s smooth! Now here’s my proposition, an’ take it from

me, it’s the real stuff. [Impressively.] The country of Irish Poland wants to sell

you the Buzzard Islands—cheap.

JERRY [impressed]: You’re willing to sell ’em, eh?

SNOOKS: Listen. I’ll be fair with you. [I regret to say that at this point he leans

close to Jerry, removes the latter’s stick pin and places it in his own tie.] I’ve

handed you the swellest proposition ever laid before a President since Andrew

Jackson bought the population of Ireland from Great Britain.

Secondly, Fitzgerald failed to include his wife Zelda either as a muse or a collaborator during the creative process of the play. From the very beginning, Zelda was the open secret of Fitzgerald’s success as a writer. Her fascinating whirlwind social life, her larger-than-life personality, and her Southern charms enchanted post-war readers—who regarded her as the surefire cure to their gloom—when Fitzgerald transcribed them into his wildly read first novel, the 1920 hit This Side of Paradise, and in many of his short stories. 

He does no such thing with The Vegetable and naively expected the audience to fall for his pathetic everyman instead of his more thrilling first act, a sexy flapper girl. The main female character in the play is a nagging wife named Charlotte, and this was a major miss with both sexes, who didn’t take to a character who, to the women, appeared blatantly bland and misogynistic and, to the men, came across as annoying and far too familiar. 

The Vegetable might have stood a fighting chance if Fitzgerald had sought out Zelda’s input on the script or perhaps even allowed her to act in the play herself. She was a talented performer in her own right, and might have lent something extra that the play desperately needed. Shamelessly, Fitzgerald swiped entire excerpts from Zelda’s private diary to trim his novels, and borrowed every one of her characteristics to design his coolest female characters, but in the matter of scriptwriting, he thought he could fly solo. He couldn’t, and he crash-landed instead. In a way, he lived out his own character’s mistakes. He tried a get-rich-quick scheme that didn’t work, and he didn’t cooperate with his wife, and so the consequences were devastating. 

Finally, Fitzgerald simply did not understand the core basic objective of any 1920s theatre production: entertain your audience. A theatergoer has vastly different needs and expectations than a book reader or even a magazine browser. They’ve paid a one-time ticket for a quick, pleasurable, sensuous experience, and will likely not walk away expecting to be educated on the same level as they would a full-length book, unless of course they are a serious theatre critic. They want, overall, to laugh and feel. By trying too hard to be a genius, Fitzgerald had briefly forgotten how to be a writer. 

It doesn’t seem like Fitzgerald ever really grasped scriptwriting. He did attempt a stint in Hollywood during the final stretch of his life, but made no memorable mark in the film industry. Biographers nowadays prefer instead to speculate on the adulterous relationship he enjoyed with columnist Sheilah Graham while living out in Los Angeles, separated from Zelda. That was the most fascinating part of that chapter. 

Would a screenwriting course have improved Fitzgerald’s craft? Or perhaps a touch less egotism? There is no way of knowing now. What is known is that The Vegetable is rarely if ever featured in the lineup of any theatre festival, nor is it often included on the syllabuses of university theatre courses. The Cherry Land Theatre in New York attempted to revive it in 1929, but it only lasted an unlucky thirteen shows. Like any rotten vegetable, it seems like it’s best suited for the green bin.