The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Travesties opens in the Zurich Public Library in 1917. Among tall bookcases, James Joyce and Gwendolen work on Ulysses (1922), Lenin writes, and Tzara cuts up words he has written and randomly rearranges them. As he declaims the resulting poem, librarian Cecily enters and tries to quiet him. Both women leave, accidentally (and obviously) switching folders of Lenin’s and Joyce’s work. Nadya brings Lenin news of the revolution in St. Petersburg, they converse in Russian, and eventually all leave.

The scene changes to Carr’s room, with Old Carr perhaps playing a downstage piano to cover the set change. He recalls his days in the Consular office and acidly comments on Joyce and a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895) that Joyce helped manage. From this point on, some of the lines, names, and action will recall Wilde’s play. Old Carr’s 170-line monologue shifts to Lenin, then to Dada. He is obviously rambling and occasionally inaccurate. Suddenly he removes hat, dressing gown, and large carpet slippers and becomes the dapper Young Carr. Bennett enters and the conversation moves erratically to a series of comments on the war, Tzara, and the Russian Revolution. Bennett, with more facts and more intelligence, bets on Lenin.

Tzara enters, speaking with a Romanian accent, followed by Joyce and Gwendolen. The dialogue becomes a rapid series of limericks as the characters meet each other and Joyce asks for money. Gwen, Tzara, and Joyce leave, but Tzara returns, without accent, and a travesty of Wilde’s dialogue ensues. The discussion shifts to the war, which Carr remembers in terms of trousers ruined in the trenches. Tzara leads the conversation to the Dadaist concept of art controlled by chance, but Carr returns it to the war. The lights dim, then raise, and Tzara’s entrance is played a third time, with the conversation again focusing on art.

Since all the dialogue is controlled by Old Carr’s memory, there are many jumps rather than a logical completion of any train of thought. Carr and Tzara talk of Joyce and Ulysses, of Cecily and her devotion to Lenin’s cause, of Tzara’s interest in Gwendolen, and of the relationship between art and labor. Tzara’s ranting is interrupted by the reentry of Joyce and Gwendolen. Joyce offers Carr the part of Algernon in an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The costumes interest Carr, and he and Joyce exit to look...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Travesties is a “memory play,” controlled by Old Carr’s erratic and inaccurate recollections. Old Carr (in the mid-1970’s) inhabits exactly the same room in Zurich that Young Carr does. The library sometimes becomes a place for political lectures and at other times functions realistically as a library, depending on how Carr is remembering events. Frequently there are repeated attempts to start a dialogue or present an entrance; each start lets conversation and action go in a slightly different direction. Lighting is occasionally used to signal Old Carr’s mental lapses. Lights dim, then come back up as the conversation starts over.

There is very little physical action. Tzara breaks some crockery; Carr and Cecily disappear behind the desk; Old Carr becomes young by removing some clothes; Cecily may move a bit to “The Stripper.” Almost nothing is made of the exchange of the folders containing Joyce’s and Lenin’s work. One of the theatrically best scenes is Joyce’s series of magic tricks with Tzara’s hat. Most of the action is mental, and consists of heated arguments. Occasionally, there are long monologues.

The title suggests an important device—the travesty or parody. The speeches of Joyce and Lenin are in the two men’s sharply contrasting styles; this can be seen if one reads part of Ulysses and some of Lenin’s writings. Joyce was also fond of limericks, and part of a scene is done in that form. The main takeoff is of The Importance of Being Earnest. Stoppard’s two creations, Gwendolen and Cecily, are named after Wilde’s heroines. Many lines are quoted or paralleled. Some scenes, such as Tzara’s proposal or the women’s argument, recall Wilde’s originals. The actual production of Wilde’s play in Zurich keeps intruding into recollections of major events.

Old Cecily Carr tries to correct some major errors in Carr’s memories at the end. Trivia, such as Joyce’s misrecorded middle name, and major points, such as Carr’s slanted opinion of Joyce, plus the intermingling of fictitious and real people help create a shifting surface that is intellectually challenging.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In the 1970s, structuralism, a type of literary criticism concerned with the structures of language, became...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Stoppard constructs Travesties as a farce that focuses on a travesty of the main characters' style with the...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1917: On November 6, the Bolshevik revolution begins in Petrograd, Russia. Government offices are seized, and the revolutionaries take...

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Read two or three poems by Tristan Tzara. What elements in the poems do you think reflect dadaism as espoused by the character of Tzara in...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Henry Carr and James Joyce met during a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Stoppard borrows the comic...

(The entire section is 123 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive, Review in New York Times, October 31,1975.

Bigsby, C.W.E., "Tom Stoppard," in...

(The entire section is 275 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Anchetta, Richard A. Tom Stoppard: An Analytical Study of His Plays. Chicago: Advent, 1991.

Bigsby, C. W. E. Tom Stoppard. Harlow, England: Longman, 1976.

Cahn, Victor L. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979.

Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick. Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Gabbard, Paquet Lucina. The Stoppard Plays. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1982.

Gitzen, Julian. “Tom Stoppard: Chaos in Perspective.” Southern Humanities Review 10 (1976): 143-152.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard. New York: Grove-Atlantic, 1996.

Harty, John. Tom Stoppard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1987.

Hayman, Ronald. Tom Stoppard. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Londre, Felicia Hardison. “Tom Stoppard.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Whitaker, Thomas. Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove Press, 1984.