Form and Style in Stoppard's Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1401 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

as artists frustrate the audience's expectations. Citing Stoppard's wordplay throughoutTravesties, Carr argues that Stoppard supports the theory that dada art is "committed to the serious enterprise of exposing the sophistry within every rational argument."

Other critics, like Enoch Brater in his article in Essays on Contemporary British Drama, have argued that Stoppard leans more to the Marxist point of view espoused by Lenin in the play, noting that Lenin never engages in any of the verbal banter of the other characters, and therefore is treated more seriously. However if the play is viewed as a whole, it becomes clear that Stoppard never resolves the debate on the nature of art and the artist.

Stoppard creates a witty collage of the trio's opinions on art in this farcical production, interplaying them with elements from Oscar Wilde's The lmportance of Being Earnest, from chapters of Joyce's Ulysses, and from Lenin's writings. He masterfully weaves together a series of separate plots, some farcical, some containing serious discussions, on the nature of art and the artist.

The intricate form of the play becomes a "travesty" of the styles of the work of each of the principle characters, including Joyce's modernist narrative, Tzara's dadaist verse, and Lenin's political polemics, through its use of limericks, puns, jokes, and musical numbers. It also parodies the earnestness of each as it borrows characters and dialogue from Wilde's masterful comedy. The names "Gwendolen" and "Cecily" are used for the female leads in each play while Carr and Tzara act out their parts in the play-within-the-play. Carr "becomes" Algernon Moncrieff and Tzara becomes John Worthing.

This clever pastiche results in no one position gaining superiority over the other. The indeterminacy is heightened by the narrative structure of the play as all of the dialogue is related from Carr's faulty memory. Often "time slips" occur as Carr recalls incidents from his past and as a result, he "drops a scene and then picks it up again." These time slips take place during Carr's conversations with his manservant Bennett and reveal his "prejudices and delusions" and indicate the subjective status of past events. C.W.E. Bigsby in his article on the play notes that form and style merge in this context as the characters "become mere performers in a Wildean comedy, which jolts along with all the manic energy and manifest dishonesty of a bogus memoir." As a result of these structural and stylistic devices, the question of the responsibility of the artist to society is never answered absolutely.

One illustration of Stoppard's intricate form in the play occurs during a conversation Joyce has with Tzara at the end of act 1 after Gwen leaves to tell her brother that Tzara has just proposed to her. The dialogue between the two artists echoes that of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses, with its focus on question and response. As Joyce questions Tzara on the tenets of dadaist art, Stoppard undercuts Tzara's responses by including a pun on urinating, which also echoes a similar scene in Ulysses. Stoppard pushes Tzara's theories to an absurd level when he has the artist insist that "making poetry should be as natural as making water." Stoppard also plays with Joyce's insistence on the elevation of the artist when, throughout the scene, he turns Joyce into a magician, pulling silk scarves and a rabbit out of his hat. As a result of Stoppard's parodies of both artists, none of their theories emerge as the most logical.

In his article on the play for London Magazine, Allan Rodway identifies the form of the play as "metaphoric, parodic, and semifactual," which, as a result, continually raises the questions, "What is literal truth? What is authentic? What is fact?" Rodway suggests that Stoppard's point of view in the play is that "the problem of knowledge has no solution; we must just learn to live with it and laugh about the absurdities it generates."

Stoppard reinforces his conclusion about the difficulties inherent in the search for truth at the end of the play when Carr sits with Cecily, reminiscing about his days in Vienna. As Cecily corrects his faulty memory, she suggests he never met Lenin or Tzara and notes the other details of the period that he was mistaken about. Initially insistent on his accurate recall of the past, Carr declares that he remembers three important lessons he learned from these revolutionary thinkers. However the import of both the first and the second is that one cannot determine the difference between the artist and the revolutionary, and unfortunately, he forgets "the third thing."

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Travesties, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Perkins, an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland, has published articles on several twentieth-century authors.

It is Written: Tom Stoppard and the Drama of the Intertext

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5538

In Tom Stoppard's 1964 story,"Life, Times: Fragments," the writer-protagonist seeks originality by consciously denying the influence of previous writers: imagining himself a general on the field of battle, he surveys the corpses of the powerful precursors he has just vanquished. His first-person accounts, however, are inevitably derivative, filled with the haunting echoes of the very writers— primarily Beckett and Hemingway—he has supposedly killed off by the force of his own self-originary powers. "Artistic recyclying"—dramatic allusion, intertextuality, parody, travesty—is not only inevitable, Stoppard is telling us, but necessary; it is only in the interweaving of texts—the "convergences of different threads" as Stoppard called it—that the new text emerges.

From the early Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) through Travesties (1975), Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1979), and The Real Thing (1982), Stoppard's plays have dramatized such an interpretation of text and text, re-contextualizing and transforming the words of others (Shakespeare, Ford, Strindberg, Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Wilde, Albee, Genet, to name just a few) into some of the most original drama on the modern stage. In a well-known Encounter article, Clive James was inspired to use metaphors from the world of physics to describe the interpenetrative dynamics of Stoppardian intertextuality: the relationship between old context (Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) and new text in Travesties, for example, is compared to the movement of "one stream of particles through another''; for James,"here and now in Stoppard is a time and place defined by an infinite number of converging vectors each heading towards it at the speed of light and steadily slowing down to nothing before passing through it and speeding up again." Less high-tech but no less laudatory, Harold Bloom applies the ancient Roman stage trope of contaminatto to Stoppard's plays, which he defines as a "kind of interlacing between an old play and a new one." Stoppard, notes Bloom, is "an almost obsessive contaminator" whose plays "compel wonder and respect."

In this essay, I intend to examine the effects of textual interlacing in Stoppard's drama in both theatrical and thematic terms. Although some critics have claimed that Stoppard's textual game playing occasionally leads to a drama of "disengagement," my purpose will be to examine how contaminatio may perform as a contextualizing and histoncizing force, exemplifying engagement, not disengagement, making a play not only a comment on another play but also what Stoppard has called a "commentary on something else in life." As a beginning, we might say that Stoppard's plays demonstrate a use of contaminatio which is not merely "the licensed interplay of pastiche as dialogue," but also a philosophical and political as well as theatrical act. In performance, contaminatio is one force activating the reciprocity between playwright, director, performer, and audience. Drawing upon a context which all share—the written word— Stoppard's plays highlight the audience's participation in a public event with connections to past events. The dynamic dialogue between texts depends upon the audience performing as "witnesses" to the possibilities of "entering into ... collaborative worlds of play." More than a scintillating demonstration of "Pirandellian games," as Stoppard's intertextual drama has been called, the interlacing of texts reaffirms for the audience the validity of literature within human experience. Thus, while Stoppard's use of contaminatio enables him to present, or represent, prior texts and at the same time play with those texts in the structured world of performance, it also reaffirms a clearly logocentric and humanistic core in modern drama. For Stoppard, the drama of the intertext is not an end in itself but a technique which enables the dramatist to "frame deeply personal considerations of human action, its motives and limitations and values." These ideas will be examined below in the two plays which best exemplify the drama of the intertext as a means of engagement: Travesties (1975) and The Real Thing (1982).

In Travesties (1975), Stoppard employs the drama of the intertext to affirm the mutual permeability of art and history. The play turns on the following premise: three well-known historical figures—James Joyce, Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and Lenin—were all in Zurich during World War I; moreover, each was engaged in some kind of revolutionary activity—Tzara in art, Joyce in literature, and Lenin in political philosophy. What unites these figures is that for all of them writing is central, it is significant, for example, that the play opens on a scene in the Zurich library, where the three are seen busy writing ("they are occupied with books, papers, pencils," notes one of the opening stage directions). As may be expected, Stoppard adds a structural and literary twist to this challenging premise: most of the action takes place within the memory of one Henry Carr, who (historically) played Algernon in a 1918 Zurich production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, staged by James Joyce. Unlike other well-known memory plays (Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, or Arthur Miller's After the Fall, for example), the dramatization of a mind in play with its images of the past is complicated and intensified in Travesties by the subsequent intertextual dynamics; just as Joyce rewrites The Odyssey and Tzara "rewrites" Shakespeare (and perhaps just as Lenin rewrites Marx), Stoppard rewrites Wilde through Henry Carr. The activities of the characters mirror the activity of the playwright. In setting up this mutual mirroring, Stoppard combines two functions first, as in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he reaffirms the value of the written word within the theatrical experience by using repetition, interpretation, and representation in the structured world of performance; and second, he points out the constant crossing of boundaries between the language of history and the history of language by showing how neither can be sacrificed at the expense of the other.

Like the playwright whom they mirror, each of the three characters in Travesties is occupied with defining the function of art in an age of uncertainty. Through these characters, Stoppard seeks the connection between the words we use and the social, political, and moral matrix in which words are embedded. Not surprisingly, it is Joyce who glorifies the artist as "the magician put among men to gratify—capriciously—then: urge for immortality." History—our measurement of human time—would be nothing ("a minor redistribution of broken pots," as Joyce calls the Trojan War) without art; "if there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art," he says. Joyce sees writing as a doubling activity; in spite of the overwhelming nature of the immortal Ulysses theme, he declares, "yet I with my Dublin Odyssey will double that immortality." Later he boasts that the "Oxen of the Sun'' chapter of Ulysses uses "the gamut of English literature from Chaucer to Carlyle to describe the events taking place in a lying-in hospital in Dublin.'' From the mythic magnitude of the Trojan war to the more mundane proportions of events in a Dublin maternity ward, history is significant, even immortalized, according to Stoppard's Joyce, only because of the power of the artist to present it in words, some of which will no doubt also be a doubling or a representation of the words of others.

Both Lenin and Tzara provide counter-arguments to Joyce's credo of the centrality of the artist and the primacy of the word. While Lenin stresses that art is significant only if it is in the service of those material forces which move history inexorably towards revolution, Tzara denies the significance of both art and the artist and calls for an anti-art of pure Chance.

Speaking from a high rostrum in the library, Lenin presents a tour-de-force of Marxist political rhetoric:

Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen; Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social Democratic mechanism.

Calm yourselves, ladies and gentlemen! Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association, including the party, is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views.

Ironically, there is a crack in the virulently anti-bourgeois facade, and thus Lenin is placed in subtle affinity with Joyce as well as, one assumes, with Stoppard. The vehemence of Lenin's oratory is in direct proportion to the power that he knows art to have and that he therefore believes must be suppressed. Lenin's wife Nadya reminisces about how her husband would react emotionally, almost viscerally, to the theater; Gorky, Chekhov, and Dickens all affected him intensely. Lenin himself reveals his critical perspicuity by demonstrating his ability to distinguish great from mediocre art: "I don't know of anything greater than the Appassionata," he says. "Amazing, superhuman music. It always makes me feel," he continues,

perhaps naively, proud of the miracles that human beings can perform. But I can't listen to music often. It affects my nerves, makes me want to say nice stupid things and pat the heads of those people who while living in this vile hell can create such beauty. Nowadays we can't pat heads or we'll get our hands bitten off. We've got to hit heads, hit them without mercy, though ideally we're against doing violence to people. …Hm, one's duty is infernally hard.

Lenin's response to the powers of art, based on clear philosophical and political premises, is travestied and taken ad absurdum by Cecily the librarian, who is striking in her talent for carrying the "ism'' to new heights of gibberish:

The only way is the way of Marx, and of Lenin, the enemy of all revisionism—of economism—opportunism—liberalism—of bourgeois anarchist individualism—of quasi-socialist ad hocism, of syndicalist opportunism, economist quasi-internationalist imperialism, social chauvinist quasi-Zimmervaldist Menshevism, self-determinist quasi-socialist annexationism, Kautskyism, Bundism, Kantism—

For Stoppard, clearly, Cecily's insistence that "Art is a critique of society or it is nothing'' bears with it the concomitant danger of imprisoning both the word and the artist. In Travesties, Stoppard counters the charge that art must further the revolution or else be considered worthless, and he does this by once again using the drama of the intertext; by representing and travestying the Cecily of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, he "doubles the immortality'' of the prior text and affirms the consciousness of the individual artist.

In this context, perhaps the most problematic figure in the play is the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, who denies such authorial autonomy in the name of pure Chance. For Tzara, since the autonomy of the artist is an illusion, then "anti-art is the art of our time.'' It follows that art is totally relative, beyond irrelevant and reactionary standards of beauty or excellence. "Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the thing he does," says Tzara. "A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hind quarters", he continues (most likely a Stoppard aside on the bottom-baring theatrical hits popular in London during the last two decades). Again, just as Lenin's awareness of the power of art reveals an ironic affinity with the aesthetic views of James Joyce, so too does Tzara's extreme statement of avant-garde relativism reveal an affinity with the stringent control of artistic expression imposed by dialectical materialism. In the idea that Chance rules all, "that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about,'' Tzara, like Lenin, denies the independence of the individual artist; as he insists, "The artist has negated himself: paint—eat—sculpt— grind— write—sh—t."

If Lenin is the Marxist critic, then Tzara is the extreme post-structuralist who demonstrates the "death of the author as an organizing consciousness" (to borrow a quote from Roland Barthes) by showing how words in context may contain within themselves their own potential for de-contextualization. "The artist has negated himself": like Barthes, Tzara sees writing not as the expression of individual voice, but as the destruction of voice. In Barthes' words,

writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

For Tzara, the negation of the artist is logically connected to the play of semiosis and the play of intertextuality: "All poetry is a reshuffling of a pack of picture cards, and all poets are cheats." Even Stoppard himself mirrors Tzara through the intertextual techniques he employs; his conclusions regarding the implications of such artistic reshuffling, however, are significantly different. Stoppard, like Joyce, "doubles'' the text as a way of affirming the logocentric core of both history and theatrical play, while Tzara sees this logocentrism as an "overripe corpse," the remnant of a religion of literature that must be destroyed: "Now we need vandals and desecrators, simple-minded demolition men to smash centuries of baroque subtlety, to bring down the temple, and thus finally, to reconcile the shame and the necessity of being an artist! Dada! Dada! Dada!".

Interestingly, just as Lenin's fervent call for a literature "free from bourgeois anarchist individualism" was an indirect acknowledgement of the written text's emotional and intellectual power, Tzara's call to leave literature to the "hand of chance'' is an indirect acknowledgment of the presence, and not the negation, of the artist. Tzara woos Carr's sister Gwendolyn (another character from Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) by cutting up the text of Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet and mixing the scraps in a hat. When Gwendolyn pulls the scraps out of the hat, she ends up with a gloriously bawdy love poem, thus apparently demonstrating Barthes' dictum that "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." The act of cutting up and recomposing Shakespeare's sonnet seems to provide an ironic counter-text to its famous closing quatrain and couplet:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee

However, have Shakespeare's eternal lines to time in fact been mutilated by Tzara's Dadaist act? Do we (and Gwendolyn) witness in this act the "death of the Author"? Stoppard provides the answer in the dialogue following the cutting of the sonnet:

GWEN: These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.

TZARA. Ay, Madam.

GWEN: Truly I wish the gods had made thee poetical.

TZARA: I do not know what poetical is. Is it honest in word and deed? Is it a true thing?

GWEN: Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability, and god-like reason to fust in us unused.

and on and on in Shakespearean pastiche. Through the interlacing of texts from Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Travesties, Stoppard suggests that the cutting up and recomposing of texts is not a canceling but a doubling; the intertextual technique "eternalizes" the lines of the sonnet not because it freezes them in some superhistoncal time-frame but because it rewrites them within the realm of human action and perception:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

With Carr, Stoppard moves in and out of Wilde's play while simultaneously plundering texts of Joyce and Lenin, highlighting the primacy of writing within human experience, preserving the canon through the act of deviation. Employing a wide range of kinds of writing—the memoir, oratory, limericks, puns, Gilbert and Sullivan wit—all of which perform like "an infinite number of converging vectors," he insists on the logocentric core of theatrical play. John Wood, the British actor who played Carr in the 1974 London production, put it this way:

in Tom's play the word is all. The word is beating back against the silence, beating back the darkness. Thought is all we've got, says Tom, otherwise the dark, the jungle will close in on us.

For Sammells, Travesties exemplifies Stoppard's drama at its best, a drama which "earns its liberty ... by means of a critical engagement with the demands of conformity." It is in reference to this standard of an "aesthetics of engagement" that Sammells judges Stoppard's next play, The Real Thing (1982), as a contradiction or betrayal of such an aesthetics. The Real Thing, in Sammells' opinion, reveals a playright whose work has hardened into "a militant conservatism that is both aesthetic and political and which denies his distinctive achievements as a dramatist." Sammells claims that The Real Thing elevates form to the level of content by demonstrating "not just the necessity of saying things correctly, but of saying the correct things."

Sammells' provocative study is a important contribution in that it requires us to evaluate the moral and political content of Stoppard's plays in relation to their formal ingenuity. It is this very interconnection between morality and play, however, that makes Stoppard less easily classifiable than Sammells suggests. Within the almost classical structure of the romantic comedy, The Real Thing, like Travesties, continues to pose the dangers threatening the autonomy of the author and the centrality of the word in human history. A humanization of the themes of Travesties, The Real Thing demonstrates what happens when the anchor of logocentricity is unmoored in two spheres of discourse: revolutionary rhetoric and theatrical dialogue. In this play, as in Travesties, drama as a commentary on something else in life affirms that The Real Thing in life, love, and art and its various verbal and written realizations are inseparable.

Henry, a playwright, is in love with Annie, an actress. The Real Thing opens on a scene from one of Henry's plays, House of Cards, in which Henry's wife Charlotte appears together with Annie's husband Max. During the scene, the theater audience is convinced that they are watching the "real" play— Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. Only in Scene Two do they begin to discover that they have been drawn into a series of plays within plays: not only Henry's play, but Strindberg's Miss Julia, Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Shakespeare's Othello, and a leftist play by one Bill Brodie, a Scottish soldier who has used the wreath of the Unknown Soldier to set fire to the Cenotaph in a burst of radical bravado. In their search for The Real Thing in love, Henry and Annie divorce their spouses and marry. Most of the play is taken up with Annie's subsequent efforts to convince Henry to "cut and shape" the rough language of Brodie's television play, which he wrote in order to generate support for his release from prison. The complications of the plot (echoes of Moliere, Congreve, Feydeau, and the Marx Brothers are purely intentional) provide Stoppard with ample opportunity to play with notions of the role of language in human action—both in love and in politics. Which is the real thing? The language of romantic idealism? Witty badinage? Revolutionary rhetoric? Amateur plays with words that go clunk? The language of Shakespeare, Ford, Strindberg, and Henry James? Reverberating in every scene of the play, this question points up the many difficulties facing the writer— including the writer of The Real Thing—who attempts to connect the word with human interaction.

Sammells' criticism of the aesthetic and political conservatism of The Real Thing bases itself on the identification of Henry, a playwright, with Stoppard himself, surely an understandable and easily supportable view. Henry, like his creator Tom Stoppard, praises "good writing" and affirms the worth of the word "beating back against the silence." Moreover, Henry draws audience attention and approval like a magnet; equipped with a ready intelligence and even readier wit, he is easily the most attractive character in the play. What is less readily acknowledged, however, is the self-parody inherent in the flawed Henry who, as the Last Romantic (in the words of his first wife, Charlotte), sees words as sacred and innocent and who "cannot write love'' because it is so "unliterary." If Henry is Stoppard's mirror, he is also the reflection of the playwright's own foibles.

While Stoppard employs the drama of the intertext in Travesties to reaffirm the validity of art in a time of political upheaval, in The Real Thing he explores the same theme further by using intertext to highlight the flawed attempts of human beings— both Brodie and Henry—to tie words to human action. The interlacing of Miss Juha, Othello and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore with Stoppard's play is not meant only, as Sammells charges, to "measure and confirm the distance between 'good stuff and rubbish.'" The choice of these plays was surely not arbitrary. Miss Julia, almost the paradigmatic play of social upheaval in modern drama, examines the various levels of discourse in the language of sexual attraction between a well-born young woman and a servant; Othello investigates the role of language in the attractions and the blindnesses of power, 'Tis Pity the connections between the erotic and the political in the convoluted language of palace intrigue. If Stoppard does use these plays as "touchstones of literary excellence," as Sammells disparagingly charges, he does so not in order to have some of their famous aura rub off on him but rather in order to establish contrasts to the bumbling efforts of Brodie to use words to evoke revolutionary sincerity as well as to the slicker, but not necessarily more successful, efforts of Henry to "write love."

While Brodie's attempt at propagandist drama is meant to be The Real Thing—history, power politics, oppression ("ANNIE: Brodie ... really has something to write about, something real'')—it succeeds in being more ahistorical, more self-enclosed— in short, more unreal—than art has ever been. Mary and Bill meet on a train:

"I'm glad to make your acquaintance, Mary.''

"I'm glad to make yours, Bill."

"Do you know what time this train is due to arrive in London?" …

"At about half-past one, I believe, if it is on time.''

"You put me in mind of Mussolini, Mary. People used to say about Mussolini, he may be a Fascist, but at least the trains run on time. Makes you wonder why British Rail isn't totally on time, eh?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean it's a funny thing. The Fascists are in charge but the trains are late as often as not."

"But this isn't a Fascist country."

"Are you quite sure of that, Mary?''

Can this be The Real Thing? Stoppard asks. Can one separate individual action from the rhetoric which tries to obfuscate moral accountability? Critic Roger Scruton has astutely focused on the empty center of such linguistic camouflage:

Nothing speaks from it, nothing comes out of it, besides itself. By posturing as The Real Thing, the thing outside art, it loses the aid which art can bring. It too becomes self-referential. But unlike art, which strives always to make room in its centre for the individual experience, the jargon-ridden language of revolution makes room only for itself. Its self-reference is of a more deadly kind, it is like a blind drawn down on our only window on the world, where we stand hopelessly looking for that elusive thing, the self.

Like the Leninist rhetoric in Travesties, Brodie's language exhibits an avoidance of human feeling. Moreover, like Tzara' s brusquely eloquent negation of the artist, Brodie's revolutionary monosyllables deny the creative presence behind autonomous discourse. Finally—and this is the ultimate hole in the facade of Brodie's anarchist pretensions—we discover that the original motive for his actions was simply to impress Annie, an attractive woman he met on a train.

"That one I would have known how to write,'' says Henry, when he finds out what is (or rather what is not) behind Brodie's braggadocio. Stoppard, however, does not allow us to accept Henry's assessment of his own ability to discern The Real Thing. The question which the play poses is whether Henry, the playwright, can provide an option to counter the Brodies of the world. More cogently presented than the polemics of Brodie, Henry's ideas are nevertheless a problematic alternative, leaving us still with an unsatisfactory equivalent for The Real Thing. The speech most often presented as demonstrating the Stoppard/ Henry identity, and the much touted answer to Brodie's ranting, is the cricket bat speech of Scene Five. Annie has just charged Henry with jealousy: "You're jealous of the idea of the writer," she says."You say he can't write like a head waiter saying you can't come in here without a tie. Because he can't put words together. What's so good about putting words together? … Why should that be it?" Henry's response is designed to show why putting well-chosen words together should be it —the real thing:

This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel

Writing as arbitrary masculine fiat (cricket, bottles of stout, fly-fishing: ladies need not apply): the linear, ejaculatory movement from word (a click of the tongue to indicate a clear line of projection)— to thing. Henry naively thinks that such control can be achieved without dishonoring the pristine innocence of the word. Referring to the hot air which passes for language in Brodie's lexicon, Henry says:

Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos.

Brodie may be a lout with language, but Henry has become an even odder creature—a male chauvinist aesthete. Despite his insistence on building bridges across incomprehension, Henry, like Brodie, has isolated language from human action; this is why he has so much trouble writing love, "it's so unliterary." Words, as most of the other characters in the play realize, can never be innocent and sacred, nor can they be neutral and precise. Annie's first huband, Max—insignificant, pathetic Max—may lack Henry's command of words, but he shows a deeper understanding of life and love. "You've got something missing," he tells Henry. "You may have all the answers, but having all the answers is not what life's about." For Max, life's about "messy bits of good and bad luck, and people caring and not necessarily having all the answers." His words echo Charlotte's perceptive comment in the previous scene, when she tells Henry: "Having all the words to come back with just as you need them. That's the difference between plays and real life."

Shakespeare, Ford, Strindberg, and James succeeded in forging a language which included not only the answers but also the eloquent silence of those moments of human interaction when clearly defined, precise answers are not forthcoming; none of these great writers divorced language from its roots in passion, suffering, and history. Stoppard's use of the intertext in The Real Thing is not intended to secure his place in the literary cannon but to demonstrate, through Henry, the dangers of seeing language as "innocent, neutral, precise.'' The steamy dialogue between incestuous lovers in Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (sections of which are presented verbatim in the very next scene, ironically revealing a real-life affair between Annie and Billy, her co-actor) intertwines the language and the ambiguities of passion as the witty badinage of Henry's House of Cards does not.

BILLY: I think you love me, sister.

ANNIE: Yes, you know I do.

BILLY: I know't indeed. You're very fair.

ANNIE: Nay, then, I see you have a merry sickness.

BILLY: That's as it proves. The poets feign, I read, That Juno for her forehead did exceed All other goddesses, but I durst swear Your forehead exceeds hers, as hers did theirs

ANNIE: 'Troth, this is pretty!

BILLY: Such a pair of stars As are thine eyes would, like Promethean fire, If gently glanced, give life to senseless stones

ANNIE: Fie upon ye!

BILLY: The lily and the rose, most sweetly strange, Upon your dimpled cheeks do strive for change Such lips would tempt a saint, such hands as those Would make an anchorite lascivious.

Similarly, the theater references in Strindberg's Miss Julia obscure the distinction between theater and life and thus show that" having all the words to come back with just as you need them'' can camouflage a subtext of lust and seduction:

HENRY [helping Annie rehearse by reading the part of Jean]: 'You flatter me, Miss Julie.'

ANNIE: 'Flatter? I flatter?'

HENRY: 'I'd like to accept the compliment, but modesty forbids. And, of course, my modesty entails your insincerity. Hence, you flatter me.'

ANNIE: 'Where did you learn to talk like that? Do you spend a lot of time at the theatre?'

HENRY: 'Oh yes I get about, you know.'

ANNIE: 'Oh, Hen. Are you all right?'

HENRY: 'Not really. I can't do mine. I don't know how to write love.'

The drama of the intertext in The Real Thing thus has a double-edged function; it demonstrates, by contrast, the empty core of Brodie's language which implies a similar emptiness in his ideas, and it demonstrates the different but not more successful attempts of Henry to connect word and thing in both House of Cards and in life. Through Max's discovery of a stained handkerchief in Annie's car, Stoppard brings in the Othello intertext with striking force. The handkerchief is both theater prop (a real thing) and word. As such it points accusingly at Henry within the text of The Real Thing and at the same time out towards Othello, a play in which word and deed, discourse and love, are inextricably intertwined. In the words of Othello's touching account of Desdemona's initial attraction to him, she returned again and again and "with a greedy ear / Devour[ed] up my discourse." Surely one of the great themes of Othello is that words are neither neutral nor precise, the tale of passion, deception, and blindness in both politics and love is rather a story, in Max's far more banal idiom, of "messy bits of good and bad luck, and people caring and not necessarily having all the answers."

Finally, the title of Stoppard's play deserves some comment, because it, like the title of Travesties, is both The Real Thing and its opposite. In an 1892 work called "The Real Thing," Henry James tells the story of a professional book illustrator who discovers that Major and Mrs. Monarch, the "real" gentleman and lady he has hired as models for his ("unreal") paintings of aristocrats, are far less convincing (that is, "real") than the rather scruffy (by society's standards,"unreal") Miss Churm and the "scrap of a lazzarone," Oronte. Early in the story, the first-person narrator admits "an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one" and supports his bias with the tautological, and therefore incontrovertible, logic that "the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation." By the end of the story, however, the "defect of the real one"—that quality which made Major and Mrs. Monarch so unsuitable as models—is countered by the quiet strength and dignity of their behavior as they submit to "the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which The Real Thing could be so much less precious than the unreal." As in Henry James' tale, the drama of the intertext in Stoppard's plays glorifies representation without ignoring its potentially divisive ability to cut off language from human action. Moreover, if a play is not to be an end in itself but a consideration of such action, the act of writing must be central. "Who decides?" asks Guildenstern regarding the alternative of "just desserts" or "tragic irony" when it comes to a specific character's death. "Decides?" asks the Player unsmilingly. "It is written": the debt to other texts is not a constraining factor, but a force liberating dramatist and audience from the limbo of pure play which is the flip side of logocentric drama. Stoppard, in fact, reaffirms not only a logocentric but also a graphocentric impetus behind Western drama. "It is written." This perhaps is his greatest debt to the paradigmatic contaminator, Shakespeare, whose exuberant plundering of prior written sources sparked the creative power of worlds of play that provided, in Stoppard's words, a powerful and convincing commentary on something else in life.

Source: Kinereth Meyer,"'It is Written'; Tom Stoppard and the Drama of the Intertext," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 105-19.

Tom Stoppard as Master Game Player Travesties and After

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3286

The strong affiliations between games and the theatre are obvious. Even observers outside strictly artistic fields, like Johan Huizinga, have explored the instinct of mankind for "play." Today's pragmatic playwright views drama as an ideal vehicle for exposing games we play, while plays also can express the terror-filled, ridiculous lives we lead in our current existential setting. In an existential mode, Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame cleared new paths; in turn they have been followed by the convoluted games of Genet, the absurd charades of Ionesco, and the opaque conundrums of Pinter.

Quite possibly the most ingenious game-playing dramatist of our time, however, is Tom Stoppard His Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) first revealed not only how effectively a drama could be constructed around a game core, but also how much playful fun could result. More specifically, Stoppard has perfected the intriguing "Spin Off" technique. In this innovative process, he selects a well-known literary work or a host historical incident and then fabricates a plot around one segment of the source to provide a "Spin Off" play of his own. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entertainingly impresses with a plot built around the lives and dilemmas of two marginal figures in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Subsequently, Stoppard was to work with other inventive game techniques—plays-within-plays, circus-like settings, and so on—in The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Jumpers (1972), and Dirty Linen/New-Found-Land (1976). It is with Travesties (1974) that Stoppard may have carried verbal game playing nearly to its artistic limits. For there he has concocted a mixture of verifiable fact and fabrication, by melding historical figures together in an echo-plot patterned identifiably upon Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

By casting the real-life revolutionaries from the realm of art and politics into a framework derived from Wilde's classic, Stoppard formulates a tantalizing "Spin Off" game. And that game furnished a vehicle for provocative polemics regarding the values of art and geopolitics.

The first thing to note about Travesties is that, like Stoppard's other pieces, it is dominated by verbal acrobatics rather than kinetic action. Divided into two acts, Travesties is an elaboration of a footnote in history whose substance is thickened with large doses of coincidence and speculation. In the prologue discussion and in additional notes to the text, Stoppard states that, coincidentally, James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara all happened to be living in Zurich at the same time in 1918. Futhermore, it was possible all three studied in and perhaps wrote some of their respective works in the Zurich Public Library. Add to this situation the historical fact that a lower echelon British diplomat named Henry Carr, then also residing in Zurich, was approached by James Joyce to act the part of Algernon in a local production of Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. From there, Stoppard's teeming imagination provided the needed catalyst.

Verifiable records reveal that Joyce and Carr ultimately had a falling out and that each ended up riling legal actions against the other. That Lenin, Tzara, and Joyce ever had met or knew each other cannot be confirmed, but Stoppard shapes Travesties as though they had. Additionally, the playwright arranges matters so that Carr's sister—whom he names Gwendolen, like Wilde's heroine—is pursued by Tzara (made to resemble Jack Worthing), while Carr (Algernon) eventually will marry Cecily, the librarian at the Zurich Library. Beneath this sketchy romantic subplot in Travesties is seen the scaffolding of Wilde's famed comedy which brought Joyce and Carr together in the first place.

Stoppard proves himself a master at implanting one play's character "refugees" in another play's circuitry. In Travesties. Tristan Tzara wants to court Carr's sister Gwendolen. But he takes on the name of "Jack" Tzara and pretends to be Tristan's younger brother, when it is clear that Carr does not approve of Tristan and his radical beliefs. In Act Two, Carr contributes to the device of mistaken identities by passing himself off as "Tristan" Tzara to the librarian Cecily. He begins his charades in order to spy for information regarding Lenin, the Russian revolutionary whom Cecily is assisting at the Zurich library; but eventually Carr seriously woos Cecily who later will become his wife. Thus the multiple confused identities correlate with the prototypes from Wilde's play.

Ultimately, the true identities emerge, and the aged Carr and Cecily—long married to each other—close out Travesties with her calling him to task for exaggerating his centrality to important historical events from the 1918 period:

Old Cecily: You never even saw Lenin.

Carr: Yes I did. Saw him in the cafes. I knew them all. Part of the job.

Old Cecily (small pause): And you were never the Consul.

To make his correlative game even more evident, several times Stoppard introduces dialogue taken directly from The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr first greets Tzara in this fashion:

Carr: How are you, my dear Tristan. What brings you here?. . .

Tzara (ebulliently): Plaizure, piaizure! What else? Eating ez usual, I see 'Enri? …

But this interchange promptly is interruped by the entrance of James Joyce and Gwendolen. Stoppard here employs his time "Slip" device, permitting a new greeting between Tzara and Carr:

Carr: How are you, my dear Tristan? What brings you here?

Tzara: Oh pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring anyone anywhere? …Eating and drinking as usual, I see, Henry?

Such "Spin Offs" will be recognized as closely following the initial encounter between Algernon and Jack Worthing near the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest:

Algernon: How are you, my dear Ernest? What brings you up to town?

Jack: Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? Eating as usual, I see, Algy!

Stoppard conveys his story mostly as the enacted reminiscences of his narrator, Henry Carr. But it is an aged Carr with a slipping memory who sits in his apartment, one of the two main settings for the play, recollecting his younger years in Zurich and his unhappy encounter with the Irish novelist James Joyce. Act One, by far the longer of the two acts, mostly takes place in Carr's quarters where he is attended by a servant named Bennett and by his sister Gwendolen. As he is visited there by Tzara and James Joyce in reenacted flashbacks, Carr utters brilliant observations concerning the writings of Joyce and Tzara.

Act Two, both shorter and more problematic than the first, generally takes place in the Zurich Library where all three writers have been working. But in Act Two, most of the attention is directed to Lenin and Cecily, his assistant. Extended sections of that act are given over to long-winded narration and explication of Lenin's Marxist positions on social, political, and artistic issues.

Stoppard's total design allows for a series of games of illusion to proceed. Especially prominent by virtue of the play's overall structuring, e.g., witnessing the action as seen through Carr's recaptured memories, is the game of Time Slippages. Within a stage direction, Stoppard specifies his intentions with respect to this device: "A note on the above: the scene (and most of the play) is under the erratic control of Old Carr's memory, which is not notably reliable, and also of his various prejudices and delusions. One result is that the story (like a toy train perhaps) occasionally jumps the rails and has to be restarted at the point where it goes wild.''

The particular episode Stoppard alludes to is begun six separate times and develops differently each time. In each case, the interchange begins with Bennett the butler announcing to Carr, "I have put the newspaper and telegrams on the sideboard, sir," to which Carr responds uniformly, "Is there anything of interest?'' But before Bennett can fully answer, a "Time Slippage" occurs in Carr's recollecting narrative to force the "Derailment" Stoppard indicates. When taken in sequence from several pages of the dialogue, Bennett's several answers underscore the remarkable fluidity of exposition attained through the "Time Slippage'' method. What Stoppard's cited textual note does not indicate is that each time, Bennett answers with details of events moving incrementally in history and time. In this ingenious manner, Stoppard can move along his plot exposition without committing himself to any one version of the encounters.

Audiences and readers of Stoppard's earlier plays are acquainted with his masterful employment of the interrogation routine. In Travesties a remarkable tour de force results in an interchange between Joyce and Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism. In addition to the verbal sparkle of the moment, Stoppard permits an incisive look at each man's views of letters and art:

Joyce: Describe sensibly without self-contradiction, and especially without reference to people stuffing bread rolls up their noses, how the word Dada was discovered.

Tzara: Tristan Tzara discovered the word Dada by accident in a Larousse Dictionary. It has been said, and he does not deny, that a paper-knife was inserted at random into the book. In French dada is a child's word for a hobbyhorse. In German it denotes a simpleminded preoccupation with babies.

This specific confrontation concludes with Tzara and Joyce insulting one another, each accusing the other of misconstruing the true function and aim of art:

Tzara: By God, you supercilious streak of Irish puke' You four-eyed, bog-ignorant, potato-eating ponce! Your art has failed You've turned literature into a religion and it's dead as all the rest, it's an overripe corpse and you're cutting fancy figures at the wake. It's too late for geniuses! Now we need vandals and desecrators, simpleminded demolition men to smash centuries of baroque subtlety, to bring down the temple, and thus finally, to reconcile the shame and the necessity of being an artist! Dada! Dada! Dada!

. Joyce responds with:

You are an over-excited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of your natural gifts. This is not discreditable. Neither does it make you an artist. An artist is the magician put among men to gratify—capriciously—their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art.

Even as he plays his games in an episode such as the one above, Stoppard also raises for our consideration the rather important issue of art in society as advanced in two major artistic currents of this century.

Much of the second act of Travesties —the very title of the piece connotes a form of game—deals with Lenin's writing and life in Zurich before he took the fateful train ride back to Russia. So that audiences better comprehend Lenin's hard-line position concerning the classes of society—and especially the role of art—in his ideally conceived society, Stoppard turns extended portions of Act Two into an illustrated slide lecture. At times, Lenin is allowed to lecture, at other times, persons such as Cecily or his wife articulate Lenin's viewpoints. But in each instance, Stoppard employs Lenin's own documented words, which are adamantinely anti-intellectual:

Today, literature must become party literature. Down with nonpartisan literature! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social Democratic mechanism. I dare say there will be hysterical intellectuals to raise a howl at this. Such outcries would be nothing more than an expression of bourgeois-intellectual individuals.

Publishing and distributing centres, bookshops and reading rooms, libraries and similar establishments must all be under party control. We want to establish and we shall establish a free press, free not simply from the police, but also from capital, from careerism, and what is more, free from bourgeois anarchist individualism!

At least one sustained, serious question flows through Stoppard's otherwise merry game sequences in Travesties. What function and value does Art have in society? Stoppard provides no simplistic response. He allows his key characters to voice positions accurately mirroring the actual figures from history. In the interchange earlier cited between Tzara and James Joyce, we heard Tzara's iconoclastic rantings representing the consciously avant-garde of the time, countering those were Joyce's views of a mystical Art leading to spiritual fulfillment for all mankind. Further, the quoted passage from Lenin explicitly subordinates the role of Art in society to that of being handmaiden to political objectives.

Interestingly, it is Henry Carr in Travesties, the fourth and only non-famous figure among the play's lead characters, who is cotter pin in Stoppard's intricate mechanism. Carr views Art more "normally" than any of the protagonists. For him, Art indeed is important in life, but he cannot support the other extreme tenets posited by the historical figures he encounters. It is Carr who, during one of their frequent, flamboyant debates, debunks Tzara's exquisite defense of total artistic liberty:

Tzara: Doing the things by which is meant, Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat.

Carr: … Don't you see my dear Tristan, you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean, but I do not accept it. … The easiest way of knowing whether good has triumphed over evil is to examine the freedom of the artist.

In Act Two, Carr elicits a heated argument with Cecily over the topic of art and society. Cecily, whom Stoppard creates in part as a mouthpiece for Lenin's notions sounds a strictly Marxist chord. "The sole duty and justification for art is social criticism ... we have been given an entirely new kind of responsibility, the responsibility of changing society."

Because Carr's stance is located somewhere between the radical dogmas of Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara, Stoppard is able to rehearse the multifaceted purposes of art for audiences of Travesties. No ultimate conclusion is advanced, however, and he closes the play with the same enigmatic teasing which characterized an early work like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Travesties ends with the spotlight fading on Carr (as it does on Guildenstern at the conclusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), who grumbles about the significance of his chance meeting with the greats during his younger years in Zurich. All is left open-ended:

Carr: Great days … Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds, I knew them all ... I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary. I forget the third thing.

In his immediately subsequent works, Dirty Linen/New-Found-Land (1976), Stoppard draws initial inspiration from contemporary news accounts of misdemeanors by Parliament members and deftly "Spins Off" the rollicking charades involving the fabulous Maddie Gotabed. Then, rising to the challenge suggested by Andre Previn in 1974, Stoppard concocted Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (whose title reflects the mnemonic E. G. B. D. F., well known in musical circles), a drama with a full orchestra as a central agent in the story.

Here, as well as in Travesties, Tom Stoppard opens up new but hardly imitable channels for later playwrights. One legitimately can question where his merry pranks ultimately will lead. A partial answer is emerging in Stoppard's continued play output. Furthermore, the very latest zags in his writing career are not wholly unanticipated. In an interview from 1976 he declared: "Most of Travesties —not as a structure and a play but speech by speech—still seems to me as good as I can ever get. It's slightly worrying actually. A lot of things in Travesties and Jumpers seem to me to be the terminus of the particular kind of writing which I can do." Then he adds, "I don't see much point in trying to do it again, though I probably will, for want of being able to do anything else "

Although Stoppard's most recent plays continue to engage comically, they do suggest a changed tonality reflecting the more sober thematic interests preoccupying him more and more. Admittedly, his work never has been devoid of a more serious understructure. At the outset of Stoppard's international career, however, most observers were more dazzled with his imaginative comic arsenal. But more recently, the strands of thoughtful issues in his comedies have become increasingly apparent. Thus, by 1972 and his wild play Jumpers, Stoppard already was giving ample indications of serious motives being imbedded in his games. Not all his signals were interpreted as expressions of a single argument or thesis on his part; yet the seriousness itself was recognized.

Critical grasp of Stoppard's later intentions is informed both by past patterns and more precisely by his announcesd recent objectives. An incubating television play he spoke of in 1976 became Professional Foul. A compelling television drama, broadcast in 1978, Professional Foul dealt with Czechoslovakia—Stoppard's birthplace—and with the abuse of human rights there today. Viewers struck by the force of that television piece were also aware of Stoppard's entirely realistic format. And that style in large measure is repeated in Night and Day, his most recent drama which opened in London late in 1978. Benedict Nightingale, in an article captioned "Have Pinter and Stoppard Turned to Naturalism?" comments that this latest work marks "a new departure'' for Stoppard, because Night and Day is "more true-to-life, more 'naturalistic' than the work that preceded."

What also is evolving with Stoppard—now in his 40's and highly successful as a playwright—is the gnawing personal issue called by Ronald Hayman his "private anxieties about the uselessness of art." Effects of those anxieties surface in Travesties, the conclusion of Act One offering an effective case in point. There, a rambling monologue by the aged, forgetful Henry Carr is voiced about his spat with James Joyce. Carr, the epitome of a strait-laced, "follow orders" Britisher of the 1920's, closes the act with reminiscences of his grudge with Joyce. "Art with Responsibility,'' Joyce's personal motto, galls the chauvinistic Carr: "I dreamed about him, dreamed I had him in the witness box, a masterly cross-examination, case practically won, admitted it all, the whole thing, the trousers, everything, and I flung at him—'And what did you do in the Great War?" I wrote Ulysses,' he said. 'What did you do?' Bloody nerve." Here is the unresolved question concerning what an artist's dues should be to society. This longstanding tension in Stoppard is shifting in balance with a concomitant change in his dramaturgy.

Though the road is not perfectly straight, Tom Stoppard's career as a master game player proceeds according to a more discernible design. The unsympathetic attitude of totalitarian authority toward the oppressed implied in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern splices together with the conundrums concerning rational thought found in Jumpers, the follies of authority in Dirty Linen, the duty of Art in Travesties, the brutality of tyranny in Professional Foul and E.G.B.D.F., and the dangers of a too-powerful press in Night and Day. Still, with a fertile intellect and innovative imagination like Stoppard's there can be no guaranteed path mapped for the future. More plausible for us to expect is continued use of the "Spin Off" design as we have seen it used in Travesties. For Stoppard seems to have employed some versions of that method consistently in his works, regardless of the didactic quotient of then-contents.

Source: C.J. Gianakans, "Tom Stoppard as Master Game Player; Travesties and After," in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, 1980, pp. 11-18.

The Art of History in Tom Stoppard's Travesties

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2738

In his profile of Tom Stoppard for the New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan, pursuing a biblical distinction, divides contemporary British dramatists into two camps:

On one side were the hairy men—heated, embattled, socially committed playwrights, like John Osborne, John Arden, and Arnold Wesker, who had come out fighting in the late fifties. On the other side were the smooth men—cool, apolitical stylists, like Harold Pinter, the late Joe Orton, Christopher Hampton, Alan Ayckbourn …, Simon Gray, and Stoppard.

Stoppard himself said in 1974, "I think that in future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application [found in Jumpers]. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions." This is not to say that Stoppard's stylistically dazzling plays are devoid of substance or lack themes. Indeed, one of his favorite issues in Travesties as well as a number of his preceding works is the definition of art and of an artist's social obligations. But Travesties is also a history play, a fact that may seem surprising given the playwright's avowedly asocial, therefore ahistorical, perspective. As historical drama the play is not unlike such other contemporary works as Weiss's Marat/Sade, Camus' Caligula, or Kopit's Indians—each represents history as a random and mysterious course of events rather than as a logical, easily understood narrative. Nor is Travesties out of line with Stoppard's earlier plays, for it extends the discussion of art and the artist's social responsibilities to include history, first defining the subject and ultimately determining the historian's function.

The absence of absolutes has been another longstanding concern for Stoppard. In the plays before Travesties the relativity of everything from word meaning to political stances and philosophical arguments is illustrated dramatically. The way one looks at things is always a question of point of view, an idea expressed first by Stoppard in the 1967 radio play Albert's Bridge, in which the character Fraser suddenly finds life tolerable when he joins the painter Albert atop the Clufton Bridge:

So I climb up again and prepare to cast myself off, without faith in angels to catch me—or desire that they should—and lo' I look down at it all and find that the proportions have been re-established. My confidence is restored, by perspective.

Stoppard relates this theme to the subject of art and its legitimacy. For him the products of his profession, literary works, are not inviolable, as he shows when he rewrites Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and when he parodies the convolutions of British detective stories in The Real Inspector Hound. In Travesties, too, Stoppard works in the tradition of literary imitation. Beyond echoing great modern dramatists from Ionesco and Beckett to Brecht, the obvious source for imitation is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Travesties contains a play within a play in that four of Stoppard's characters act out (without knowing it) the roles of the confused quartet in Wilde's comedy. Henry Carr is Algernon; Tristan Tzara, Jack Worthing; Cecily and Gwendolen, their namesakes.

The dialogue in the play includes, moreover, travestied limericks and Shakespearean sonnets. And Stoppard parodies less poetic but nonetheless well-known wordgroups: Carr repeatedly turns cliches on end—e.g., "my art belongs to dada" and "post hock, propter hock." As this last snippet of rewritten Latin illustrates, the playwright does not stop with parodies of English. By choosing more than one way of saying something—"Pardon! … Entschuldigung! … Scusi! … Excuse me!"— Stoppard makes Ionesco's point about the arbitrary relationship of word form and meaning. What is more, Stoppard dramatizes the fact that word meaning is relative; even when speaker and listener use the same language, the meanings they assign a word vary, a point demonstrated by Carr and Tzara's argument over the meaning of the word artist. Responding to Tzara's loose construction of the term, Carr counters:

If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. Don't you see my dear Tristan, you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean, but I do not accept it.

Carr's diehard absolutism notwithstanding, he cannot convince others to abide by his (belief in) precise denotation; they have their own points of view.

It should come as no surprise that works of literature and their medium, language, are presented as malleable in a play that has Dadaism as one of its central concerns, since the absence of absolute or rational explanation is what Dada is all about: "Dada! down with reason, logic, causality, coherence, tradition, proportion, sense and consequence." What is more extraordinary is the application of the tenets of this artistic and literary movement to historical events. Tzara acts out the Dadaist credo when he creates a poem by arbitrarily pulling lines out of a hat. Significantly, he extends the theory of random choice: "To a Dadaist history comes out of a hat too."

A sign of Stoppard's own attention in Travesties to larger historical patterns is the long monologue delivered by Cecily at the beginning of Act II. "Cecily's Lecture," as it is termed in the text, is a Brechtian newsreel of the historical events providing the backdrop against which the action of the play takes place. This indication of conventional historical narrative aside, events are reviewed in a piecemeal fashion that disorients audiences used to thinking of history along such orderly lines as chronology or progression. The play provides no linear design allowing for easy assimilation of historical fact. It moves forward by fits and starts and often circles back to one event time and again—e.g., the repeated allusions to Carr and Joyce's dispute over the cost of the trousers the former wore in Joyce's Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Travesties does provide, however, if not a readily understandable presentation of historical fact, a lesson about the recapitulation of history. Stoppard's point, of course, is that the unorthodox, convoluted structure of his play is more mimetic than the tidily sequential and causally related chain of events in which historical records are frequently served up.

But the playwright's point of departure—a questionable occurrence, the meeting of Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara while they were in Zurich concurrently— makes it clear that he, too, is shaping an historical account. Again, it is a subjective question of point of view. Speaking of his own dramatic piecing together of Shakespeare's personal history, Stoppard's contemporary, British playwright Edward Bond, writes:

Of course, I can't insist that my description of Shakespeare's death is true. I'm like a man who looks down from a bridge at the place where an accident has happened. The road is wet, there's a skid mark, the car's wrecked, and a dead man lies by the road in a pool of blood. I can only put the various things together and say what probably happened.

Likewise, Stoppard's history play dramatizes a view from the bridge, as his earlier Alberts Bridge did literally. Somebody stands back and plays the role of investigator or detective, whose job it is to reconstruct the events. History, then, does have a pattern, not one rising naturally from events under scrutiny but one imposed inevitably by the person recounting what happened.

A minor character in most accounts, including Joyce's Ulysses, in which he is found in a footnote, Henry Carr becomes in Travesties the reconstructer through whom the stories of three great men are channeled. Drama does not require an onstage narrator of events, but Stoppard has provided one and in so doing has found a visual means of underscoring the creativity of the history-teller. Beyond being a conspicuous raconteur, Carr is a conspicuously eccentric source of information. His recollections of the way things were in Zurich include not only remembrances of public events and great men but also those of a distinctly personal nature, and he makes no attempt to integrate the two. For example,

You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank in up to the knees in a pair of twill jodhpurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on—the sixteen ounce serge, the heavy worsteds, the silk flannel mixture—until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambs-wool dyed khaki in the yarn to my own specification. I tell you, there is nothing in Switzerland to compare with it.

The reader of Travesties is told directly that Carr's account is idiosyncratic: Stoppard explains in a stage direction at the outset of the play that "the story (like a toy train perhaps) occasionally jumps the rails and has to be restarted at the point where it goes wild." He then gives these derailments a name, "time slips," and makes suggestions for their staging. The viewer of the play also knows that Carr's perception of the past is not always lucid or concise. By the character's own admission in the dialogue: "... I digress. No apologies required, constant digression being the saving grace of senile reminiscence."

Moreover, Stoppard structures his work so that it is obviously a memory play, even though he resorts to no such apparent device as the tape recorder used by Beckett in Krapp's Last Tape. Aside from the parody of Wilde's play, Travesties contains in a second sense a play within a play, the inner performance equaling the psychodrama of Carr's retrospection. Carr, in fact, splits into two onstage characters, Old and Young Carr. At the conclusion Stoppard moves forward to the present time of the play as Old Carr and Old Cecily argue about how things went.

Old Cecily: And I never helped him write Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. That was the year before, too. 1916.

Carr: Oh, Cecily, I wish I'd known then that you'd turn out to be a pedant! (getting angry) Wasn't this— Didn't do that—1916—1917— What of it? I was here. They were here. They went on. I went on. We all went on.

This exchange nicely points up how stories are influenced not just by personal interests but by less conscious factors as well, such as forgetfulness and the inability to sort out what is important.

Carr's manner of speaking further emphasizes the fact that a person is in control of the history he tells. First, the pace of Carr's story is noticeably uneven. Sometimes he so deletes or compresses information that the audience is left behind; sometimes he is circumlocutory to the point that the narrative virtually comes to a halt. His language, too, draws attention to itself as in this passage:

'Twas in the bustling metropolis of swiftly gliding trains and greystone banking houses, of cosmopolitan restaurants on the great stone banks of the swiftly-gliding snot-green (mucus mutandis) Limmat River, of jewelled escapements and refugees of all kinds, e.g. Lenin, there's a point … Lenin As I Knew Him ... To be in his presence was to be aware of a complex personality, enigmatic, magnetic, but not, I think, astigmatic, his piercing brown (if memory serves) eyes giving no hint of it.

Here he relies on the stock formulas of the oral storyteller ("'Twas in the...") as well as his own uniquely additive syntactic patterns and ability to turn a phrase ("mucus mutandis").

Despite his own acknowledgment that he digresses, Carr believes that his "memory serves." As his debate over semantics with Tzara illustrates, Carr believes, most fundamentally, in objectivity and absolutes. And he believes in order; throughout his reminiscences, for example, he resorts to labels as a device to give structure to his discourse: "Memories of James Joyce," "The Ups and Downs of Consular life in Zurich During the Great War: A Sketch," "Lenin As I Knew Him." Of course, all that he does and says belies his principles—he is a living reminder of the erratic subjectivity of the history-teller and the relativity of his product.

Accordingly, audiences cannot take all that Carr recounts and preaches seriously. But Stoppard means for the man himself to be taken seriously, and he is. Carr's idiosyncrasies and ways of putting things are arresting, and even his sartorial obsession is, after all, a humanizing vanity. Finally, he—not Tzara, Lenin, or Joyce—is the focal character of the play. His arguments negating Tzara's nihilism are more persuasive than the pontifications of the Dadaist, and he can effectively counter the Marxist rhetoric and Joycean banter when in the situation to do so. In short, Stoppard leads audiences to support Carr and his story; Old Cecily's nitpicking attention to correcting details at the end of the play is silly. Since history comes "out of a hat," Carr might as well be doing the pulling. His account is as good as any... and better than many, for as we have seen, it implicitly but strongly points up the fact that creation is involved in marshaling historical facts into narrative.

Old Carr sums up his documented legal battle with Joyce over Carr's theatrical costume and concludes:

I dreamed about him, dreamed I had him in the witness box, a masterly cross-examination, case practically won, admitted it all, the whole thing, the trousers, everything, and I flung at him—"And what did you do in the Great War?" "I wrote Ulysses," he said. "What did you do??"

In this passage Joyce, sounding like Stoppard demanding the courage of his lack of convictions, cooly asserts art pour l'art, a position Carr would condone despite personal squabbles with the writer.

But elsewhere, in a speech whose importance Stoppard now dwells on, Joyce defends the artist against Tzara's attacks on the grounds that he is the recorder and shaper of history:

An artist is the magician put among men to gratify— capriciously—their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist's touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A minor redistribution of broken pots.

Even though Carr would not be quick to second this opinion, Joyce's comment in effect sums up what the bit player dramatizes in Travesties, for Carr performs the function Joyce assigns to the artist. Through his characterization of Carr, Stoppard yokes the roles of artist and historian: he goes beyond the travesty of existing histories, affirming through Carr the importance of history and of the individual "making" it.

In much of his subsequent work Stoppard shows that he learned the lesson his history play teaches. The plays that immediately follow TravestiesDirty Linen and New-Found-Land —are social comedies in that they both depict the practices of bumbling British politicians, in the House of Commons and a local Home Office respectively. But his more recent works—the television drama Foul Play, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, and Night and Day—are plays that truly represent social engagements on Stoppard's part: these plays face squarely such issues as governmental restriction of individual freedom. In characteristic fashion Carr lists at the conclusion of Travesties the things he learned in Zurich:

I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary.

I forget the third thing.

What he has forgotten but Stoppard has learned is that the two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and thus the playwright has gone on to show he has the courage to state his social convictions on stage.

Source: Carol Billman, "The Art of History in Tom Stoppard's Travesties," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 12., No. 4, Fall 1980, pp. 47-52.


Critical Overview