The “Prison Play” (plan)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Although his three-act comedy The Vegetable failed in 1923 after a brief try-out in Atlantic City, F. Scott Fitzgerald never gave up his desire to write a suc­cessful work for the stage. Even prior to the opening of The Vegetable he wrote Edmund Wilson that he was “going to write another play whatever becomes of this one.” 1 And six months after the Atlantic City closing he wrote Maxwell Perkins that soon he would “try another play.” 2 But if he did begin another one at the time, nothing remains.

During the following years, he was associated in a number of ways with the theater. In 1925, for example, Owen Davis wrote a stage version of The Great Gatsby, and the next year it had a respectable Broadway run; Fitzgerald, who was not involved with the production, was not pleased with Davis's rendition. 3 In 1933, he helped revise his wife's Scandalabra, a farce presented by a Baltimore amateur group, but, even with the rewriting, the work received poor reviews. Later he attempted, with no success, to make some of Ring Lardner's short one-act plays suitable for Broadway presentation. 4 Finally, during the late thirties, Cora Jarrett and Kate Ogelbay dramatized Tender Is the Night, but this work, too, was not produced. Fitzgerald was pleased, however, with this version. Al­luding to his misgivings about the novel's faulty structure, he wrote Mrs. Jarrett, “I want especially to congratulate you and Miss Ogelbay on the multiple feats of ingenuity with which you've handled the difficult geography and chronology so that it has a unity which, God help me, I wasn't able to give it.” 5

Meanwhile, he was still hoping to write his own successful play. At one time in the early part of 1935, while jotting down the contents of a hoped-for uni­form edition of his work, he included the publication of a volume consisting of poems and three plays, The Vegetable, a second stage piece to be written at age thirty-nine, and a third at age forty-two.6 In the summer of 1935, ill and broke, he wrote Harold Ober: “If I ever get out of debt I want to try a second play. It's just possible I could knock them cold if I let go the vulgar side of my talent.” 7 A year and a half later he again referred to the vehicle when he wrote Maxwell Perkins: “I am thinking of putting aside certain hours and digging out a play, the ever-appealing mirage. At 40 one counts carefully one's remaining vitality and resources, and a play ought to be within both of them.” 8 At about this same time, his trip to Hollywood postponed for a while, he told his daughter that he was starting the work. 9

Then, soon after, on 19 July 1937 in Hollywood, he indicated to Edwin H. Knopf of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that he had finished all but a small part of the third act and that he would be done within three weeks.10 In another letter, to Corey Ford, he stated that he had completed it.11 But in December he told Edwin H. Knopf that he would have to rewrite the play because of its similarity to the many then-recent Hollywood gangster films. In addition, he was considering taking on a collaborator. “As I said,” he wrote, “my play had for two acts a prison background which has since been overplayed by the release of ALCATRAZ THE LAST GANGSTER and other pictures. When I get to it, which may be in three to six months, I want to rewrite it, preserving the plot and most of the characters but changing this element to another.” 12

These statements are the external clues to the identity of the 14.5 x 9.5 cm. spiral notebook in Fitzgerald's hand in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers at the Princeton University Library. On the front cover the novelist printed the word “PLAY” and, below, his name. In addition, he numbered consecutively the recto of each of the sixty-four leaves (all versos are blank), and, on the first leaf, wrote out a table of contents:

Nora 2
Hero 5
Act I  9
Act II 15
Act III 21
Outline  27
Titles 37
Conversation 38
Prison  50
Theme 53
Other characters  54
Plot Scenes  59
Ideas 63

But despite this ambitious plan, he entered only a few notes. The hero was to be “Brought to see evil through love of a girl” (leaf 5). Nora, the heroine, was to embody, in some way, characteristics of “Diana Manners visit to monastery” (leaf 2), a reference to the society celebrity and actress. Although there are no statements about the first two acts, the third act was to include “The fight for the Pen” (leaf 21). Other notes refer to the theme (leaf 53); plot ideas and descriptions of convicts (leaves 54, 59, and 63); “The Assistant warden who is hard&cynical&runs a shop for morphine&liquor and carries on an affair with the ex-wardens wife—a Pat O'Brien marine type. Very worldly.” (leaf 54); “The wardens wife. A ghost of a woman, frightened and frightening. Doesn't want to leave on account of Pat.” (leaf 55); and “Her son who studies Penology at California” (leaf 55).

Fitzgerald's outline (leaves 27-28) is his most extensive statement about the play:

The new warden arrives and having reached his goal kills himself. A prisoner by mistake escapes from boat and reaches the island. He is under sentence of death. He talks to the new warden&changes with him, becoming the new one.


Immediately he begins prison reform apparently with success. The visitors come to Island and he falls in love with the disguised girl. She makes him fall first from real mischief. He finds this out and using his prerogative as a ship’s captain has her locked up. She learns of break and while he believes all the revealments he still thinks that by sheer moral force he can control it. She uses her psychic powers to show him what he's up against

The problem is now to subdue the criminals without getting caught. He wins by fighting them morally but he becomes like them in doing it&at the end almost becomes a criminal. They escape.

During the next three years Fitzgerald devoted most of his time to his film scripts and to his fiction. In addition, he was involved at least twice with plays.

In 1938, he assisted Sheilah Graham in her writing of the unfinished Dame Rumor. 13 In 1940, he had some discussions with Edward Everett Horton about a play based on the Pat Hobby series.14 But, apparently, he never returned to his prison drama, and, presently, little else related to it is known to exist.

Alan Margolies, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY


1 Fitzgerald to Wilson, 25 June 1922, The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1963), p. 336.

2 Fitzgerald to Perkins [ca. 18 Feb. 1925], Letters, p. 177.

3 Fitzgerald to Mrs. Edwin Jarrett, 17 Feb. 1938, Letters, p. 566.

4 Andrew Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Scribners, 1962), pp. 232 and 247.

5 Fitzgerald to Mrs. Edwin Jarrett, 17 Feb. 1938, Lettersy p. 566.

6 “Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Fitzgerald Papers. In all quotations from the Fitzgerald Papers, I have retained Fitzgerald's spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Mate­rial from the Fitzgerald Papers is published with the permission of Frances Fitzgerald Smith. All rights to this material are the property of Mrs. Smith.

7 Fitzgerald to Ober [received 2 July 1935], Letters, p. 399.

8 Fitzgerald to Perkins [Feb. 1937], Letters, p. 271.

9 Fitzgerald to Frances Scott Fitzgerald [spring 1937], Letters, p. 15.

10 Fitzgerald to Knopf, 19 July 1937, Fitzgerald Papers.

11 Fitzgerald to Ford [early July 1937], Letters, p. 550.

12 Fitzgerald to Knopf, 7 Dec. 1937, Fitzgerald Papers.

13 See Sheilah Graham, College of One (NY, 1967), pp. 161-162. The MS in Fitzgerald Papers.

14 See, e.g., Fitzgerald to Arnold Gingrich, 23 Feb. 1940, Fitzgerald Papers

Published in Papers of Bibliographical Society of America magazine ( Vol. 66, 1st quarter 1972, p. 61-64).

Not illustrated.