Critical Evaluation

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Travesties represents one of Tom Stoppard’s most intricate and complex statements on the nature of art in society. Stoppard takes an obscure historical incident and turns it into an absurdist circus: Sections of dialogue repeat themselves, the style switches to and from the style of The Importance of Being Earnest, and some scenes are performed in song or limerick form. At times it is akin to the Dada anti-art to which Tzara so dearly clings, while at others it burns with the political fire of a speech by Lenin. Through it all, Stoppard presents an important dichotomy in the philosophy of art: its potential for both political propaganda and simple entertainment.

Key themes in the play are revolution and art’s role in revolution. Lenin is formulating his ideas and philosophies for the coming socialist revolution in Russia. While he does not figure prominently into the main action of the play, he looms large as a figure who will change the world. His speech about art in act 2 outlines his artistic philosophies, particularly art’s subservient role in society. He believes that art should be used as a tool of political systems, rather than as a symptom of them. He also justifies, in his correspondence with Gorky, the state’s power over the artist.

Tzara was one of the founders of Dada at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1917. Along with Hugo Ball, Tzara helped formulate Dada’s founding principles as an anti-art movement, rejecting the emphasis on logic that had marked previous decades. Nonsense poetry was a key part of performances at Cabaret Voltaire, and so Stoppard’s use of it in the play is very typical of Tzara’s true artistic expressions. Collage was another major outgrowth of the Dada movement, and the play functions as a collage of political and artistic revolutions and personalities populating Zurich at that time. The way Stoppard uses the styles of Wilde and Irish limericks highlights this form.

The play also makes use of the conventions of memory. The repetition of dialogue and the replaying of scenes in different styles mimic a person’s processing of the past, reliving certain moments, and forgetting specific details over time. The way in which Cecily corrects Carr at the end reminds the audience of the illusory nature of both theater and memory. Theater performs a similar function for memory: It picks and chooses elements of reality to display on the stage. Stoppard highlights that link through his arrangements of historical elements and stylistic repetition.

Stoppard also makes use of various aesthetic philosophies, particularly those of Wilde. Wilde believed that life should imitate art. Art should be used to represent ideal beauty. Throughout the play, scenes are played in the style of The Importance of Being Earnest, and some plot points find their way in, such as the presence of cucumber sandwiches, the Wilde-esque switching of the folders, and the mistaken identities of Tzara and Carr by Cecily and Gwendolen. The names of the women and the identity of Jack are also taken from Wilde’s play.

Throughout the play, Stoppard manipulates history and time much as he does in other plays such as The Invention of Love (pr. 1997), Arcadia (pr. 1993), and The Coast of Utopia (pr. 2002). While it deals with major historical figures, like many of his other works Stoppard’s play is most rewarding to the historically and culturally literate reader or audience member. A familiarity with Dada and Marxism can help illuminate some of the themes and styles at work in the play.

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