Friday, June 10, 2011


Travesties is not really a play at all but an intellectual vaudeville, frothier and more stuffed with factual arcana and philosophical inquiry than even Stoppard's Jumpers, to which it bears a certain stylistic resemblance. Its strength is not in its narrative (there isn't much) or characters (they're conceits), but in Mr. Stoppard's literate gags and glittering cerebral syntax, which finds or creates correspondences in the most hilarious places.

Stoppard's comedy is rooted in history here, although the roots don't go too deep. While World War I raged across Europe, a remarkable collection of uninterested or conscientiously objecting figures assembled in Zurich, in the still center of the storm: a brooding Russian named Lenin; the Romanian-born poet Tristan Tzara, who was fomenting revolution of a different kind, doodling up the texts that would define (rather vaguely) the Dada movement in art; and James Joyce, embarking on a magnum opus that would shake the literary world to its foundations, Ulysses.

Mr. Stoppard's imagination was arrested by this odd footnote in European history, and in "Travesties" he created a mad tea party with all three in attendance, presided over, in memory, by Carr, a minor consular official who lived in Zurich during the same period. Carr came to know Joyce when the Irish writer founded a theatrical troupe that staged a single performance of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, with Carr as Algernon Moncrieff.

This last, curious occurrence provides the narrative glue that holds together - just - a freewheeling romp through an encyclopedia's worth of artistic and intellectual concepts. Stoppard exploits this historical fact in large and small ways, making his entire play a parody of the plot and style of Wilde’s Earnest, and making a running joke out of one odd moment in the Carr-Joyce relationship. Unhappy with his recompense for playing Algernon, Carr apparently sued The English Players for the cost of the trousers he had purchased as part of his costume. Joyce then countersued Carr for the price of the complimentary tickets he had been given. When the dispute went to trial, the judge rendered a split decision; when Stoppard worked the moment into Travesties, by way of a frustrating dream Carr has, Joyce win hands down:
"…I dreamed about him, dreamed I had him in the witness box, a masterly cross-examination, case practically won, admitted it all, the whole thing, the trousers, everything, and I flung at him — “And what did you do in the Great War?” “I wrote Ulysses,” he said. “What did you do?”
Bloody nerve."
Turning Wilde's subversive style on these proud subversives, to often hilarious effect, Mr. Stoppard allows his characters to intersect with actual or approximated scenes from Wilde's peerless comedy of manners. In the second act, for example, Lenin gives an inspirational oration to the masses that concludes with a swipe from Lady Bracknell: "To lose one revolution is unfortunate. To lose two would look like carelessness!"

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