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.

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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 and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

Travesties is primarily about revolution in politics and art, and the role of the artist. At times the discussion of art becomes philosophical in tone as Tzara advances the Dadaist concept that chance rules all. Carr, by contrast, believes that the artist is someone special, although he resents that a bit. Lenin is primarily interested in the way art can serve revolution. He and Cecily see it generally in practical terms. Joyce, conversely, thinks of art for art’s sake, regards himself as a shaper of material, and considers his work a high calling. Interwoven with these discussions are comments on World War I,...

(The entire section contains 1590 words.)

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