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Last Reviewed on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

In Travesties, Tom Stoppard uses different styles of narrative, disagreements between characters, and the protagonist's failing memory to make points about art, war, and love.

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Henry Carr narrates the story as an elderly man in 1974, looking back at the events of 1917. He's the very definition of an unreliable narrator; at the end of the play, for example, his wife corrects him and reminds him that Bennett, not Carr, was the British consul in Zurich. Also, despite his familiarity with Lenin in the play, she says they were never close.

Knowing that Carr is an unreliable narrator forces a reader to question everything. For example, did Joyce really pull a rabbit out of his hat? Did Cecily climb onto a table to shout Marxist sayings before Carr and Cecily made love? It's impossible to know what's real and what's false—a situation which, in many ways, mirrors the discussions the characters have about themselves and the world around them during the play.

People are also "false" in Travesties. Carr is spying on Lenin; Tzara pretends to be a man named Jack on his library card. Gwendolen and Cecily accidentally switch folders and cause an upheaval in their budding romantic relationships with Tzara and Carr because of it. Joyce wants Carr's help with the play he's producing, but ultimately they go to court over the proceeds.

The characters spend a great deal of time exploring the nature of art. Carr believes it should be beautiful. Tzara believes it should expose society's attempts to create order. Lenin thinks it should support the aims of the revolution. Joyce thinks art can make things immortal. The different views of art help explain the characters' actions throughout the play. Joyce is writing his classic work Ulysses. Tzara is working to found the Dada movement and create art. Lenin is attempting to get back to Russia and foster the aims of the revolution. Carr spends most of the novel reacting to the people around him: he feuds with Tzara over his interest in Carr's sister, fights with Joyce over the play proceeds, and intervenes, albeit unsuccessfully, to stop Lenin from reaching Russia.

The play itself is written in several forms, which bring to mind the types of art the characters produce and discuss. For example, Joyce at one point begins speaking many of his lines in limerick form. He says,

An impromptu poet of Hibernia
rhymed himself into a hernia.
He became quite adept
at the practice except
for occasional anti-climaxes.

Another part of the play is performed as if it's a musical. Often the characters speak nonsense that is impossible to follow, or they repeat words, such as when Tzara repeats "Dada" over and over more than ten times.

This style of writing was undoubtedly used by Stoppard to highlight the various styles of art discussed in his play. They also add an element of comedy to a play that's very dialogue-heavy and doesn't have a lot of physical action.

Ultimately, Travesties uses these devices, the discussions of the characters, and the failing memory of the elderly Carr to convey Stoppard's narrative and the exploration of several themes.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033

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...

(The entire section contains 3689 words.)

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