Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The disjointed, often repetitive plot comes from the mind of Henry Carr, an old British consulate officer reminiscing in 1974 about how his life intersected in 1917 with the Irish writer James Joyce, the Dada artist Tristan Tzara, and the Russian revolutionary Lenin.
The play begins with James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin writing in the Zurich library. Tzara is cutting paper and putting the scraps into a hat, pulling out words to read a nonsense poem. Cecily Caruthers, a librarian, tries to silence him. Joyce dictates nonsense poetry to Gwendolen, his secretary, and gives her a folder. Lenin gives a folder to the librarian, but it is switched with Gwendolen’s folder. As Cecily is leaving, she bumps into Nadya Lenin, who enters to converse with her husband. Nadya and Lenin then leave the library.
Old Henry Carr reminisces about the Zurich of 1917. Carr works in the British consulate. Joyce is writing his masterpiece, Ulysses (1922). Carr mentions his involvement in writer Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895), which Joyce had produced and in which Carr had played Earnest.
Carr talks about two revolutions forming at that time: Lenin’s socialist revolution and Tzara’s Dada revolution. He discusses Switzerland’s potential as a breeding ground for revolution because of the asylum it provides radical thinkers. He becomes his younger self and is served tea by Bennett, his butler/valet. They discuss the war, a war in which Carr had fought.
Carr’s memory leads him to repeat bits of dialogue. The characters discuss the tendency of people in Zurich to feign espionage, Tzara’s consuming champagne the previous evening, and the abdication of the czar. Carr clearly has problems with socialism, seeing the need for socialists to wait through a period of capitalism.
Carr says that Bolsheviks are violent, telling soldiers to turn against their officers. Lenin wants to return to Russia but is unable to cross international borders. Bennett announces Tzara, who enters and starts speaking nonsense. Gwendolen and Joyce enter. Joyce asks Carr to fund his production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Tzara and Gwendolen leave, and Joyce follows. Tzara and Carr debate the nature of art. Tzara thinks that art should expose society’s attempts at creating order, while Carr wants art to portray beauty. Tzara starts repeating the word “dada.” Carr and Tzara argue. Carr is offended by Tzara’s simplification of war, and Tzara is disgusted with Carr’s view of art. The argument climaxes as Tzara continues repeating the word “dada.” After some time, Carr offers Tzara a cucumber sandwich. They discuss Cecily and Joyce, and Tzara says he has been in the library admiring Gwendolen, who is Carr’s sister. He has come to propose to her.
Carr says he will not give consent to Tzara’s marriage proposal and then hands him a library card. It is Tzara’s card but has the name “Jack” written on it. Tzara has been pretending to be his own older (fictional) brother. He had come up with the name during a talk with Lenin. Tzara and Carr argue again about art, with Carr saying that artists create the myth that art is important.
Gwendolen raves about Joyce’s poems, while Tzara writes a...
(The entire section is 1353 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Travesties concerns a number of possible travesties (or burlesques), including one by the playwright. First is the artistic philosophy of Tzara, who, like his fellow practitioners of Dada, tries to reverse all the bourgeois notions of the proper role of art and literature; Tzara “composes” a poem by cutting out all the words from a Shakespearean sonnet, putting them in a hat, and pulling them out at random. Another candidate for travesty status is Joyce, who, his genius as a writer notwithstanding, seems to have behaved in a spiteful and money-grubbing way toward someone he might well have thanked. Lenin’s travesty could well be his fleeing his scholarly pursuits in Zurich to lead a revolution that would end with the deaths of millions under Joseph Stalin. Henry Carr, the British consul in Zurich, gets involved in an undignified squabble with Joyce over some theater tickets and a pair of pants, and the case goes to court. The most likely travesty, however, may be the play itself, with Stoppard poking fun at his story, told from the point of view of an aged and confused Carr, about these unlikely characters coming together in Zurich, a conservative and conventional town. This travesty, then, would be Stoppard’s burlesque version of events, his focus on the grotesque in a story that is essentially true in its basic details.
Tzara, Joyce, and Lenin were all, in fact, residing in Zurich at about the same time and must have used the Zurich public library. Stoppard discovered that Joyce, on the lookout for a profit, produced an English-language version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and that Carr was persuaded to play the part of Algernon, with some success. Joyce and Carr had a dispute over some tickets that Carr had been given to sell and over Carr’s purchase of a pair of pants to wear as part of his costume. Joyce paid...
(The entire section is 769 words.)