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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

Henry Carr

Henry Carr is the protagonist of the play. Now well into his dotage, he reminisces (not always accurately) about his time as a minor official in the British Consulate in Zurich in 1917. Back then, Zurich was crowded with all manner of colorful characters, many of whom Henry actually met. Artists, bohemians, and revolutionaries all crossed paths with this unassuming British bureaucrat at one time or another.

The younger Henry fancied himself as a bit of an actor. He played the part of Algernon in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest he organized with legendary Irish writer James Joyce. Unfortunately, poor old Henry thought that his contribution to the play was not sufficiently valued by Joyce, so they fell out, which led to litigation. Their argument also involved something about a pair of missing trousers, but that's another story. In any case, the senile Henry's memories of Zurich in 1917 become increasingly blurred with the imagined events of his own little production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

James Joyce

James Joyce, Irish literary legend, is in town, working on his epic Ulysses. Indeed, so engrossed is he in earning a place in the pantheon of European literature that he neglects to notice that his jacket and trousers don't match. (There are those trousers again.) However, he's not too busy to drag himself away from his literary labors to expostulate occasionally on the nature and function of art with the enfant terrible of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara.

Tristan Tzara

Tristan Tzara is known as the enfant terrible of Dada, an artistic movement whose adepts attempt to shock their bourgeois parents by their outrageous contempt for all traditionally accepted standards in art and life. Though Tzara is every bit as much of a bohemian as Joyce, their respective views on art differ sharply: Joyce wants to use myth to arrange the fragmented, chaotic experiences of modern life into some vague semblance of order, while Tzara positively revels in disorder, wildly celebrating it in his own artworks.

Vladimir Lenin

Then there is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, deracinated Russian aristocrat and revolutionary. Along with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, he has made Zurich his temporary home. 1917 is a big year for both of them; they're busily plotting Lenin's return to his homeland, where he will launch the (in)famous October insurrection. Lenin's take on art is somewhat different to that of Joyce and Tzara; he sees it in purely utilitarian terms, serving the cause of the proletariat (as defined by him and other upper-class revolutionaries) and nothing else.


Gwendolen provides some much-needed love interest in the midst of all this madness and endless debate about art and aesthetics. She's Henry's younger sister, very sweet and attractive, but also incredibly bright and feisty. Gwendolen is the object of Tzara's affections, which he demonstrates by tearing up Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 and depositing the tattered pieces into her employer's (Joyce's) hat.


Cecily is a Leninist librarian whose hushed little world is a far cry from the revolutionary turmoil she wants to see unleashed upon the world. The first time we see her, she is shushing Tzara as he enthusiastically sets about "creating" a new poem out of the tattered remnants of Sonnet 18. Cecily—like her hero, Lenin—has a rather conservative appreciation of art and so has little time for anything that smacks of the avant garde.

Henry Carr

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

The play's main character, Carr, is a minor British government official assigned to Zurich during the First World War. The action of the play is presented through Carr's sometimes-unreliable memory. At the end of the play, Cecily, his wife, expresses her doubts over whether Carr...

(This entire section contains 270 words.)

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actually ever met Tzara or Lenin. Carr did, however, meet Joyce when he played Algernon Moncrieff in a production ofThe Importance of Being Earnest. In his memory, Carr engages in discussions that sometimes degenerate into arguments with Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara about the war, politics, and art. Carr's memory confuses the story of his life with that of The Importance of Being Earnest. Some of the dialogue he recalls are quotes from the play, and two of his characters have the same names.

In "Stoppard's Theatre of Unknowing," Mary A. Doll notes that Carr "is the improbable fringe catalyst of chaos who remembers his time in war chiefly through recollecting what he wore (war/ wore) twill jodhpurs, silk cravats [presenting] war [as] a metaphor for fashion.'' C. W. E. Bigsby in his article on Tom Stoppard for British Writers comments on Carr's role as narrator, insisting "this clash of ideas loses much of its urgency seen from the perspective of a deluded, prejudiced, and erratic minor functionary." Bigsby notes that Carr "wants to believe in a world in which he can play a central role." As a result, Carr "resists reality with as much dedication as either Joyce or Tzara. He is, of course, in a real sense a playwright. He 'creates' the drama in which he casts himself as the central character."

James Joyce

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278

Carr's decidedly subjective opinion of Joyce is sometimes contradictory but usually shows the effects of Carr's anger over the litigation with the writer over money matters concerning the production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the play in which both of them had been involved. Carr describes Joyce as paradoxical, having both positive and negative qualities. He is "a complex personality, an enigma, a contradictory spokesman for the truth, an obsessive litigant and yet an essentially private man who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized."

At one point, Carr determines that Joyce is "a prudish, prudent man ... in no way profligate or vulgar, and yet convivial, without being spendthrift." On the one hand, Joyce shows "a monkish unconcern for worldly and bodily comforts" and "shut[s] himself off from the richness of human society, whose temptations, on the other hand, he met with an ascetic disregard tempered only by sudden and catastrophic aberrations." Later, however, Carr insists that Joyce is an "Irish lout" and "a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging, fornicating drunk not worth the paper."

Carr explains that he met Joyce when "his genius [was] in full flood in the making of Ulysses, before publication and fame turned him into a public monument for pilgrim cameras." At that time, "to be in his presence was to be aware of an amazing intellect bent on shaping itself into the permanent form of its own monument—the book the world now knows as Ulysses." Joyce detaches himself from the political tensions of the age, admitting, "as an artist ... I attach no importance to the swings and roundabout of political history."

Tristan Tzara

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

A poet who created Dada—a nihilistic movement in art and literature in the early part of the twentieth century—Tzara claims he is "the natural enemy of bourgeois art and the natural ally of the political left." Often, during his arguments about art and politics, he gets highly emotional and lashes out at the other characters. Joyce calls him "an overexcited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of [his] natural gifts.''

Doll argues that Tzara "becomes perhaps the first Stoppard mouthpiece to articulate a clear position on the seriousness of play." She continues that through his discussions with the other characters, Tzara's opinions on the nature of art and the artist become clear: "Not only does he insist on the right of the artist to delude audience expectation but he insists on the ethical function of such denunciation." Tzara explains that wars are fought for economic realities rather than ideologies, fought for words like oil and coal rather than freedom and patriotism.

Bigsby comments on Tzara's sometimes contradictory stance. The critic insists Tzara is "drawn simultaneously in both directions" between the philosophies of Joyce and of Lenin Tzara, he concludes, sometimes spins "neologisms and cascades of words like Joyce, convinced that the artist constitutes the difference between brute existence and any sense of transcendence," and at other times sees the writer "as the conscience of the revolution and justifying the brutality of its servants."

Other Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

Bennett Bennett, Carr's manservant, has"quite a weighty presence." When he relates the current news to his employer, he often expresses definite opinions about world affairs. Tzara claims Bennett "has radical sympathies,'' while Carr notes that he "seems to be showing alarming signs of irony." In her article on Tom Stoppard for Twayne's English Authors Series Online, Susan Rusinko suggests that Stoppard included Bennett in the play "to emphasize, by means of [his] keen knowledge and intelligence, the indifference of Carr to the events swirling about them." Rusinko notes that Bennett's comments are "wide-ranging, from the political events exploding in Russia to the revolutions occurring in the art world.''

Cecily A librarian in the Zurich library, Cecily eventually marries Carr. She epitomizes the shallow pedant, as she studies poets based on alphabetical precedence and translates emphatically every word Lenin speaks in Russian. At the beginning of the play, she works with Lenin on his book on imperialism. She firmly believes that art should have a political purpose.

Gwen Gwen, Carr's sister, works for Joyce, researching and transcribing the manuscript of Ulysses. She reveals her superficiality when she decides that she loves Tzara because she is destined to love a poet.

Lenin Lenin has little interaction with the other characters. Most of what the reader discovers from him is taken from his writings. Bigsby notes that Lenin is the only character "who is not controlled by Carr's distorting imagination." Lenin has been in exile since the abortive 1905 revolution in Zurich. During the outbreak of the war, he and his wife were briefly interned in Austro-Hungary. After arriving in Switzerland, they came to Zurich so he could use the library as he worked on his book on imperialism. Carr notes Lenin's "complex personality, enigmatic, magnetic." He calls him "an essentially simple man, and yet an intellectual theoretician, bent ... on the seemingly impossible task of reshaping the civilized world into a federation of standing committees of workers' deputies " Even though Carr agrees to spy on him, he declares, "to those of us who knew him, Lenin's greatness was never in doubt." Lenin's beliefs on the function of art are illustrated in his essay "Literature and Art,'' which Carr reads. In that essay Lenin insists, "today literature must become party literature. … Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social democratic mechanism."

Nadya Nadya is Lenin's solemn wife. She becomes extremely agitated when she learns that the revolution in Russia has begun.