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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

Historical Context

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In the 1970s, structuralism, a type of literary criticism concerned with the structures of language, became popular in academic scholarship. Structuralism began in the science of linguistics, especially in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. This theory depends on a theory of language as a sign system whose individual components can be understood only in relation to each other and to the system as a whole. Meaning is determined by how language fits within literary conventions. Structuralism...

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challenges the view that a literary work reflects a given reality or that it reflects the emotions of its author. Stoppard's continuous and witty word play inTravesties reflects the structuralists' attention to the constructs and the effects of language.

Marxist Criticism
Marxist criticism is another literary school that was popular at the time Travesties was published. This theory is based on the economic and political doctrines of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist literary scholars examine the economic and social pressures on authors and how those pressures are reflected in their works. The literature most highly regarded by this school mirrors and critiques social realities. Extreme Marxist critics call on authors to construct their works to express and promote party doctrine. Less strident followers of this school, however, focus their attention on how authors show their characters suffering under rigid social and economic ideologies, especially those produced under a capitalistic system. The Hungarian Georg Lukacs was the most widely influential Marxist critic in the twentieth century, especially after his Writer and Critic and Other Essays was translated into English in 1970.

The Lenin in the play represents the extremist Marxist view in his essay, "Literature and Art," written during the first Russian revolution in 1905. In this essay, Lenin insists that contemporary literature "must become party literature" by becoming "a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social democratic mechanism."

Cecily supports and extends Lenin's point of view in her conversation with Carr. She tells him "the sole duty and justification for art is social criticism." When Carr disagrees, Cecily counters by insisting that since society is governed by economics, the people must take responsibility for change, and that change can be promoted through party literature. She ends the arguments with Carr by stating,"Art is a critique of society or it is nothing.''

Dada was a nihilistic movement in art and literature started in Zurich in 1916 by the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara along with Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, and Richard Huelsenbeck in response to the widespread disillusionment engendered by World War I. The founders meant dadaism to signify total freedom from ideals and traditions concerning aesthetics and behavior. The most important concept of dada is the word nothing. In art, dadaism produced collage effects as artists arranged unrelated objects in a random fashion. Dadaism in literature produced mostly nonsense poems consisting of meaningless, random combinations of words, which were read in public cafes and bars. These constructions in art and literature stressed absurdity and the role of the unpredictable in the creative process. This group came into vogue in Paris immediately after the First World War Tzara carried the school to England and America where its influence became apparent in the poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and in the art of Ernst and Magritte. By 1921, dadaism, as a movement, was modified into surrealism. However, its influence continued for many years in literature and art.

During his conversations with Carr in the play, Tzara explains the tenets of dadaism. He insists 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." After Carr criticizes him for speaking "nonsense,'' Tzara argues, "it may be nonsense, but at least it's not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else, by the war." During a discussion of the role of the artist, Tzara insists that art was corrupted as "it began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the pay-master." He claims that now with or without art, man is a "coffee-mill,'' following a daily pattern of monotony, which is the message of dada. Carr describes dada as a "historical halfway house between Futurism and Surrealism ... 'tween the before-the-war-to-end-all-wars years and the between-the-wars years." He suggests that dadaists cry "down with reason, logic, causality, coherence, tradition, proportion, sense and consequence."

Another literary school of thought that was popular during the later part of the nineteenth century, aestheticism focuses on the analysis of the beautiful or tasteful. An aesthete appreciates the beautiful in art, music, and literature. Its tenets included the point of view that art is self-sufficient and should serve no other purpose than its own ends. One of the catchphrases of the movement was "art for art's sake." Thus art should not endorse any political or moral position. Followers devoted themselves to a search for beauty and a promotion of the idea that beauty has independent value.

The movement originated in the work of several German writers of the Romantic period, including Kant, Schelling, Goethe, and Schiller. They all advanced the philosophy that art and the artist must be autonomous and therefore should be considered superior. The movement became a reaction against the materialism and capitalism of the late Victorian period. Oscar Wilde became the aesthetes' "cult hero."

Carr voices the aesthetes' position in Travesties. In a conversation with Tzara, he claims,"revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class,'' and "an artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted.'' Later he insists, "it is the duty of the artist to beautify existence."

Literary Style

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Stoppard constructs Travesties as a farce that focuses on a travesty of the main characters' style with the exception of Lenin's monologues. He parodies the modernist, fragmented, and obscure style of Joyce's Ulysses, the randomness of dadaist verse in Tzara's poetry, and the aesthetic wit and comedy of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Nonsense dialogue, limerick form, and musical numbers also add to the comic effect.

Stoppard borrows the structure and plot devices from The Importance of Being Earnest while he raises complex questions on the relationship between art and politics. Characters in the two plays share the same names, the same conflicts, including mistaken identities and misunderstandings, and pieces of the same dialogue. As a result of this comic interplay, no one point of view becomes dominant.

Point of View
The play's action is related through the sometimes faulty memory of Henry Carr. 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." Stoppard notes that in these instances the story "jumps the rails and has to be restarted at the point where it goes wild."

Compare and Contrast

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

1991: On December 17, president Mikhail Gorbachev orders the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a new Commonwealth of Independent States is formed by the countries that formerly made up the U.S.S.R.

1914: World War I begins and lasts until 1918, the largest war to date. Approximately ten million are killed and twenty million are wounded.

1973: The United States signs a peace agreement with North and South Vietnam ending the Vietnam War. The United States faces worldwide protest over its involvement in the war.

2001: The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians heightens in the Middle East.

1922: James Joyce has a difficult time finding a publisher for his novel Ulysses due to its sexually explicit passages and what many consider to be its vulgarity. The novel is eventually published by a small Parisian press.

1973: Erica Jong's Fear of Flying provides an explicit exploration of a woman's sexual experiences, which shocks the reading public. Nevertheless, the book becomes a bestseller.

Today: Sexually explicit novels are published on a regular basis.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Bigsby, C.W.E., "Tom Stoppard," in British Writers, Supplement 1, British Council, 1987, pp. 437-54.

Brater, Enoch, "Parody, Travesty, and Politics in the Plays of Tom Stoppard," in Essays on Contemporary British Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Hueber, 1981, pp. 117-30.

Doll, Mary A., "Stoppard's Theatre of Unknowing," in British and Irish Drama since 1960, edited by James Acheson, Macmillan Press, 1993, pp. 117-29.

Hampton, Wilborn, Review in New York Times, April 23, 1974.

Kalem, T E, "Dance of Words," in Time, November 10, 1975.

Rodway, Allan, "Stripping Off," in London Magazine, August—September, pp. 66—73.

Rusinko, Susan, "Chapter 8: Travesties. Caviar to the General Public," in Twayne's English Authors Series Online, G K Hall, 1999.

Scruton, Roger, "The Real Stoppard," in Encounter, Vol. LX, No. 2, February 1983, pp. 44-47.

Wright, Anne, "Tom Stoppard," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 13: British Dramatists Since World War II, Updated Entry, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 482-500.

Gianakaris, C. J., ''Travesties Overview," in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed , edited by D. L Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Gianakaris's article focuses on the play's style and concludes that it "may not excel as total theatre, but it has few rivals as an exhibition of hilarious verbal gymnastics."

Jenkins, Anthony, The Theatre of Tom Stoppard, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Jenkins presents a thorough study of the techniques and themes in Stoppard's plays.

Kelly, Katherine E., Tom Stoppard and the Craft of Comedy Medium and Genre at Play, University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Kelly explores Stoppard's use of comedy in his plays.

Sammells, Neil, Tom Stoppard; The Artist as Critic, Macmillan, 1988.
Sammells focuses on Stoppard's treatment of the artist in his plays.