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Last Updated 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...

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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 makes up.

The play closes with Cecily and Carr in 1974; they married long ago. She corrects some of his story, saying that he wasn't actually close to Lenin and that he wasn't the British consul—Bennett was.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1353

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 poem of his own, cutting up a Shakespearean sonnet and placing the pieces in a hat. Carr and Joyce discuss the theater that Joyce is running, and Joyce asks Carr to play the lead role in The Importance of Being Earnest. The two retire to discuss the play, leaving Gwendolen with Tzara, who has her pull words out of the hat and recite the nonsensical sonnet.

Gwendolen hands Tzara a folder, telling him that she would love him if he would like Joyce. She kisses him as Joyce enters the room. Joyce picks up his hat and leaves as Gwendolen kisses Tzara again. She leaves to talk to Carr, and Joyce reenters the room with pieces of the sonnet all over his shoulders. Joyce asks Tzara about dada and puts the words back in the hat; he then pulls out a paper carnation, and Tzara recounts finding the word “dada.”

Joyce and Tzara argue about art: Tzara wants to vandalize art and Joyce believes in the ability of art to make events immortal. Joyce pulls a rabbit out of his hat and leaves. Carr reenters and begins to recall The Importance of Being Earnest ordeal, in which Joyce had sued Carr for money for ticket sales and Carr had countersued for what he paid for costumes. Joyce won the suit, and Carr had to pay twenty-five francs. Carr imagines having a retrial and getting Joyce on the witness stand.

Cecily gives a speech about Lenin’s exile, implying that Carr is spying on Lenin for the British. Nadya enters the room to talk to Lenin. Cecily translates their conversation, which concerns the revolution. Carr enters the room and talks to Cecily, but she mistakes him for Tzara because she thinks Tzara is Jack.

Cecily and Carr discuss finding some books. They, too, debate the role of art, with Carr defending the apolitical nature of Wilde’s play. Cecily hands Carr a folder, which, she says, contains a letter written by Lenin. Carr rebuts some of her Marxist claims, saying that the classes are actually moving closer together.

Cecily accuses Carr of making advances on her. He denies this, but she climbs on the table and starts to chant Marxist gibberish. He yells at her to take off her underwear. He professes his love for her, and they start making love behind a desk as Nadya enters the room.

Nadya talks about Lenin’s attempts to reach Russia and that he even wore a wig to get across borders. Tzara argues with Carr over Cecily, and Cecily still thinks Tzara is named Jack. She also thinks Carr is his brother. She runs out of the room crying. He talks about Lenin’s plans and his own uncertainty about whether to stop him from reaching Russia. Nadya picks up the story, discussing Lenin’s deal with the Germans.

Carr, as a younger man, reenters and stands with Tzara apart from the Lenins. Carr says that Russia will come to socialism with or without Lenin. He and Tzara debate art in history, with Tzara claiming that history also comes out of a hat. Carr resolves to stop Lenin from reaching Russia and sends a telegram to a British officer in Bern, but Lenin has made it into Germany.

Lenin reaches Russia and delivers a speech about the role of art in socialist society. He says that art must support the aims of the revolution and that artists cannot be free until there is a socialist society. Lenin reads a letter that he wrote to Maxim Gorky, responding to accusations of arresting artists. He admits that mistakes were made but that the attitude was correct.

The scene changes to a room where Gwendolen sits. Bennett and Cecily enter, and the scene is written in a musical manner. Cecily and Gwendolen discover they both love Tzara. However, Cecily believes that Carr is Tzara, and when she calls him in, Gwendolen reveals him to be her brother. Tzara enters, and Cecily accuses him of being a Bolshevik. The women ask Tzara and Carr what they thought of what they read in the folders. The men say they were disgusted, and the women exit angrily.

Bennett reads a review of The Importance of Being Earnest that praises Carr’s performance. Joyce enters and asks Carr for the money for the tickets, which Carr refuses to give because he paid for his costumes. Joyce asks Carr how he got a copy of his manuscript. The women enter and figure out that the folders were switched: Carr got Joyce’s chapter and Tzara got Lenin’s essay. Everyone reconciles and embraces, dancing offstage. Old Carr and Old Cecily dance. Cecily corrects some parts of Carr’s memory and tells the audience that Carr never got close to Lenin and Bennett was in fact the British consul. Cecily and Carr are married.

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