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...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)