Form and Style in Stoppard's Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401

Prior to the twentieth century, playwrights structured their works to reflect their belief in the stability of character and the intelligibility of experience. Traditionally, plays ended with a clear sense of closure as conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and their world. Many writers during the twentieth century challenged these assumptions as they expanded the genre's traditional form to accommodate their characters' questions about the indeterminate nature of knowing in the modern age, a major thematic concern for these writers. Critic Allan Rodway explains this focus as a question: "how do we know we really know what we think we know." Tom Stoppard continues this inquiry in Travesties as he examines different points of view on the nature and role of art and the artist. Through his meticulous shaping of the play, he refuses to privilege one point of view over another. As a result, the play becomes a statement on the difficulties inherent in the process of gaining absolute knowledge.

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The nature and role of art and the artist is debated throughout the play by the principal characters: modernist James Joyce, dadaist Tristan Tzara, and political revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Joyce contends that art justifies history by reconstructing from its ruins "a corpse that will dance for some time yet and leave the world precisely as it finds it''

Tzara criticizes Joyce for turning "literature into a religion" and insists, "we need vandals and desecrators" to smash the notion of the superiority of the artist. He also presents radical views on art, claiming that artists should "jeer and howl .. at the delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expression of apparent cause." Thus, literature should be constructed through a random selection of words, the structure designed by chance. In a discussion of the role of the artist, he declares that an artist is "someone who makes art mean the things he does." Tzara tries to prove this point when he randomly arranges words into what he considers to be a poem.

Lenin argues that the function of art must be to promote social and political change. He ignores the beauty of art and instead promotes the didactic, explaining that literature must "become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social democratic mechanism." Cecily becomes Lenin's mouthpiece in the play, adamantly supporting his point of view when she insists, "the sole duty and justification for art is social criticism." Like Lenin, she also places her theory into an historical context when she insists that society is governed by destructive economic forces and that artists must take the responsibility to alter that dynamic.

Some critics have insisted that Stoppard privileges one point of view over the other in the play, but they disagree about which character speaks for him. Roger Scruton in his article on Stoppard in Encounter has no doubt whose side Stoppard is on. He insists, "Joyce's novel, like Tzara's badinage, is supremely conscious of its artistry; but it also justifies every word by a vision of reality, whereas dada is nothing more than self-advertisement." Scruton contends that Stoppard presents Lenin standing apart from the other characters "sifting his benighted pedantries," because "Lenin's words are dead, unfeeling, a patter of urgencies which occasionally rattles across the stage." He concludes that through his presentation of Lenin, Stoppard reveals his belief that political dogma cannot be turned into art.

Mary Doll in her article "Stoppard's Theatre of Unknowing" determines that Tristan Tzara becomes Stoppard's "mouthpiece." Doll notes that Tzara insists on the "ethical function" of art as artists frustrate the audience's expectations. Citing Stoppard's...

(The entire section contains 12963 words.)

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