Themes

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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

The Nature of Art, the Purpose of Language, and the Conflict Between Dadaism and Aestheticism

The main themes in Travesties are the nature of art, the purpose of language, and the conflict between Dadaism and aestheticism.

In the play, Carr and Tzara argue about language and the nature of art. Carr criticizes Tzara for his flexible definition of art; he argues that a legitimate artist is known by his ability:

CARR: 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. If there is any point in using language at all, it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas.

Carr prefers a consistent, uncompromising definition of art and language, while Tzara prefers individuals to define art according to their predilections, worldview, and principles. Tzara's Dadaist sympathies are clear in the play. He views art as a form of rebellion, a means of demolishing dangerous traditions:

TZARA: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom, king and country, brave little Belgium, saucy little Serbia—and honor—all the traditional sophistries for waging wars of self-expansion and self-interest, set to patriotic hymns. Music is corrupted, language conscripted. Words are taken to stand for their opposites. That is why anti-art is the art of our time.

Tzara argues that the definition and purpose of both art and language must adapt to political and social changes. He accuses Carr of being dogmatic. Later in the play, Lenin echoes Tzara when he proclaims that literature is only relevant when it supports pivotal revolutions:

LENIN: . . . Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social Democratic mechanism. Publishing and distributing centers, bookshops, and reading rooms, libraries and similar establishments must all be under party control. We want to establish and we shall establish a free press, free not simply from the police, but also from capital, from careerism, and what is more, free from bourgeois anarchist individualism!

Like Tzara, Stoppard's Lenin eschews what he calls non-partisan literature. To Lenin and Tzara, literature is relevant only when it aids in the destruction of the capitalist power structure. Lenin and Tzara argue that literature and art must propel the right sort of change in the world; both view Carr's intrinsic aestheticism and dogmatic ideals as incompatible with the idea of freedom. Lenin proclaims that "socialist literature" should reject the "greed and careerism" inherent in the capitalist economy.

However, Lenin and Tzara's narrow definitions of art and language may prove every bit as dogmatic as Carr's. Stoppard's play is unique in the sense that it highlights a range of worldviews regarding art and language, perhaps making the most important point of all: that true freedom is possible only when there is freedom of expression.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

Art and Politics
One of the mam questions Stoppard raises in Travesties is whether there should be any relationship between art and politics. His characters have divergent opinions on this topic. Stoppard's inclusion of contradictory points of view results in none being privileged over the other. Lenin insists that art be didactic, not beautiful. In his "Literature and Art," which Carr reads, Lenin argues that contemporary literature should address the concerns of the Communist Party by becoming "part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social democratic mechanism."

Cecily adamantly supports Lenin's point of view. In a conversation with Carr, she claims that literature must serve as a social critique or it is worthless. Justifying her position by citing an historical perspective, Cecily presents a strong argument that since corrupt economic forces shape current society, the people must take the responsibility of enforcing change and that change can best be accomplished through great literature.

Carr and Joyce contradict the arguments presented by Lenin and Cecily often in very logical discourse. In a counter to Cecily's statements, Carr defends art that is not didactic, that has no discernable function, claiming that it is valuable because "in some way it gratifies a hunger that is common to princes and peasants." When she insists art should change society, he disagrees, claiming the reverse is true, that society changes art.

Joyce's position supports Carr's but insists that great art does serve a purpose. In his opinion, art should not change society by promoting political dogma. However, it does justify and record history by reconstructing from its ruins "a corpse that will dance for some time yet and leave the world precisely as it finds it".

Art and the Artist
As the characters respond to the question of the relationship between art and politics, they explore the nature and function of art and the artist. Again, Stoppard's inclusion of various points of view on a topic result in none being clearly privileged. Thus, the reader never comes to a clear understanding of the author's stance on these issues. Tzara offers the most radical point of view on the relationship between art and the artist through his explanation 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." He constructs his poems through a random selection of words; thus the final work is designed by chance. In a discussion of the role of the artist, he comments, "Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does " He clarifies this statement with an example: "A man … may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat," which is basically what he has done when constructing a poem.

Joyce and Carr disagree with Tzara's concepts. In Carr's assessment, 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." He tells Tzara he does not accept "that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean'' and that "it is the duty of the artist to beautify existence."

Tzara criticizes Joyce's highly structured and obscure prose, claiming that "making poetry should be as natural as making water." He then condemns Joyce, insisting that through his work, he has "turned literature into a religion'' that is "as dead as all the rest." He calls for "vandals and desecrators" to smash the notion of the superiority of the artist. Joyce, echoing his discussion of art and politics with Cecily, counters with his claim that artists are magicians who should be praised for their ability to immortalize men and history through their art. He notes, "if there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art."

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