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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...

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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.

The Play

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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 over the play. Tzara offers Gwen a Dadaist rearrangement of William Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet and eventually slips into a parody on the proposal scene from The Importance of Being Earnest. Gwendolen leaves to tell Carr of the proposal, while Joyce enters, grabs Tzara’s hat, and leaves.

Joyce quickly returns, covered with bits of sonnet that were in the hat, and discusses Dadaism with Tzara. During the discussion, Joyce pulls various things out of the hat while countering Tzara’s statements. He finally produces a rabbit, then leaves. Tzara joins Gwendolen offstage while Old Carr returns to reminisce about the lawsuit against Joyce that he lost. He recounts a dream in which he tried to shame Joyce by asking what he did in the war, only to be answered, “I wrote Ulysses.”

The much shorter second act opens in the library, the set now including Cecily’s desk or counter, on which people occasionally stand to make speeches. Cecily, spotlighted, waits downstage for the audience to return from the intermission so she can begin her lecture on Marxism, communism, Lenin, and Russian history. (Tom Stoppard’s stage directions allow for cuts but specify that the lecture must start by the time Cecily talks of the war and the Lenins’ arrival in Switzerland.) Lights come up, and Lenin and Nadya repeat the Russian conversation from act 1 while Cecily translates.

Tzara had earlier used the name Jack, so Carr enters into a parody of Wilde’s plot, presenting himself to Cecily as Tristan. The scene now mixes Carr’s repeated luncheon invitations to Cecily, details of Lenin’s plans to travel in disguise to Russia, and discussions of art’s relation to society and of the war as economic opportunism.

Cecily perceives that subconsciously Carr is more interested in her underwear than her arguments. Stoppard suggests that she here climb onto the desk, under colored lights, with “The Stripper” playing softly as she continues lecturing. With lights back to normal, Carr declares his love and they disappear behind the desk as Nadya enters to tell the audience about further plans to get Lenin to Russia. Tzara returns, and Nadya’s narrative is interwoven with a travesty of Wilde’s third-act meeting between Algernon and Jack. The sound of a train announces Lenin’s departure just as Carr decides he should be stopped.

Everyone else leaves, and Lenin returns, climbs on the desk, and lectures on the writer and socialism. His statements are eventually intercut with Nadya’s comments on his literary and musical tastes. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata covers a set change to Carr’s room, where Gwendolen and Cecily speak in a parody of the music-hall song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” as they drink tea and chat about events so far in the play. They argue over their claims to Tzara until Carr arrives, followed by Tzara, and is identified by Gwendolen. Both women berate the men for their deceptions and exit.

Bennett tells the men about critical responses to the production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Joyce enters, and the argument over money for tickets sold and the cost of Algernon’s trousers is recapitulated. Joyce discovers that part of his Ulysses manuscript is missing. When the switch of folders in act 1 is resolved and the manuscript restored, the men and women embrace. Carr and Cecily dance off and, as Tzara and Gwendolen leave, return as the old Carrs. She corrects his recollections: He never met Lenin; the production of Wilde’s play took place in 1918, not 1917; Bennett was the British Consul. Carr ends the play with a bumbling remark on the desirability of being an artist or a revolutionary.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 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 in Travesties 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.


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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.

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