Last Reviewed on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
Travesties by Tom Stoppard focuses on fictionalized versions of several real people in 1917 Switzerland. The main character, Henry Carr, claims to be the British consul in Zurich. He narrates the story years later, and his memories are often confused or misleading. He speaks with his current perspective on events and then shifts to inhabit his younger self and narrate from that perspective.
Carr encounters several notable people during the course of the play, including James Joyce, the Irish author. He's in Zurich to produce The Important of Being Earnest, an Oscar Wilde play. Carr also meets Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who is unable to return home because he can't cross international borders, and Tristan Tzara, the poet, essayist, and artist who was one of the founders of the Dada art movement.
Travesties opens with Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara in the library doing various types of work. When Lenin gives a folder to Cecily, a library employee, it's switched with a folder full of work Joyce dictated to his secretary.
Carr discusses various topical issues with other characters in 1917, including the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the ruler of Russia, the problems of socialism, the way people in Zurich spy on each other, and the violence of the Bolsheviks. He's served tea by Bennett, his butler.
Joyce visits to ask Carr to fund The Importance of Being Earnest.
Tzara says that he believes art should shine a spotlight on the ways society creates its own order. Carr disagrees, saying the purpose of art is to be beautiful. They argue over several topics, and when Tzara admits he's come to propose marriage to Carr's sister Gwendolen, Carr refuses.
Gwendolen and Tzara talk and come to terms, with her saying she'll love him as long as he likes Joyce. They embrace, and then Joyce and Tzara discuss the Dada movement. The two men argue about art before Joyce pulls a rabbit from his hat and exits.
The elder Carr looks back on events from 1974 and remembers suing Joyce over the proceeds to the play. Joyce won; Carr wishes he could have a retrial and pictures how he would deal with Joyce if Joyce took the stand in his own defense.
Carr and Cecily, the library employee, argue over political issues and art. When she accuses him of attempting to flirt with her, he says he wasn't. Cecily climbs onto a table and starts saying Marxist phrases. Carr tells her to remove her underwear, saying he loves her, and the two make love.
When Tzara returns, he argues with Carr about Cecily, who leaves crying. She believes that Carr and Tzara were brothers because Tzara had the false name Jack on his library card.
Nadya, Lenin's wife, discusses his arrangements with the Germans. Carr is unsure whether he should stop Lenin from returning to Russia but ultimately decides to. He believes that socialism will reach Russia whether or not Lenin is there.
Despite Carr's efforts, Lenin does get to Russia. He gives a speech about the role of art in the socialist revolution.
The play shifts back to Gwendolen. She and Cecily both claim to love Tzara—but Cecily thinks Carr is Tzara. Cecily wants Carr to love the Leninist ideas in the folder she has, unaware that it was switched with the folder of Joyce's writings. Gwendolen wants Tzara to love Joyce's writing in the folder she doesn't know was switched with Lenin's. When the two men—also unaware of the switch—say they were disgusted by the contents of their separate folders, Cecily and Gwendolen both get angry and exit.
Joyce and Carr argue over the money earned from The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr doesn't want to give the proceeds to Joyce, as Carr paid for the costumes and feels he's owed a return on his investment.
The women return, and the characters realize that the two folders were switched at the beginning. Once the realization occurs, everyone is happy and...
(The entire section contains 2051 words.)
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