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The Importance of Henry Carr

Unlike the other the major characters in Travesties, the real Henry Carr holds little claim to fame. Stoppard learned about Carr and became intrigued by a real-life incident mentioned in a biography of James Joyce. In Zurich during World War I, Joyce worked with an English theatre to produce Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Joyce cast a mix of professionals and amateurs, including Henry Carr, an Englishman living in exile, as the lead role of Algernon. Apparently, Carr gave an enthusiastic performance, but afterwards, a small financial dispute with Joyce escalated into dueling lawsuits. Carr sued Joyce for reimbursement on clothes he bought as his costume; Joyce counter-sued Carr for money owed on five tickets. Carr lost his case and was further punished by Joyce when he named an unlikeable character in Ulysses after Carr. Stoppard knew little more about the real Henry Carr while writing Travesties; however, after its 1974 London premiere, a surprise letter from Carr's widow provided more details of the real man's life.

Henry Wilfred Carr (1894-1962) was born and raised in Northeast England. At 17 he moved to Canada and worked for a bank, then volunteered for military service with the Royal Highland Canadian Infantry during WWI. He was wounded while fighting in France, then captured as a prisoner of war by the Germans. He was sent, along with approximately 700 British prisoners, to recover in Switzerland, in accordance with an agreement made by the International Red Cross allowing soldiers from all over Europe to recover in Switzerland. Carr's infamous encounter with Joyce occurred in spring of 1918, and he left Zurich when the war ended that November. Carr's post-war life was unexceptional. He worked for a department store in Montreal in the 1920s, then moved back to England with his second wife, Noël Bach, in 1933. He worked for a metal factory in Sheffield and commanded a Home Guard in Warwickshire during World War II. He died of a heart attack in 1962, leaving no children. In his introduction to Travesties, Stoppard writes: "I am indebted to Mrs. Noël Carr for these biographical details, and, particularly, for her benevolence towards me and towards what must seem to her a peculiarly well-named play."

Stoppard's Travesty of "Earnest"

Throughout Travesties, Stoppard uses characters, plot points, and quotations from The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's renowned 1899 comedy. Beloved for its witty dialogue, the farce follows the antics of bachelors Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing. Both men create alter egos named Ernest to escape their lives and pursue the hearts of Cecily and Gwendolen, who are each determined to marry a man named Ernest. Jack is unable to win the approval of Gwendolen's imperious mother, Lady Bracknell, after revealing he was found in a handbag at as a baby. A complex tangle of deception and mistaken identities ensues-including the women's rivalry over the same "Ernest"-until misperceptions are cleared and the couples are united. Wilde satirized English society and the Victorian obsession with respectability, but the play remains popular with modern audiences, most recently at Roundabout during its Tony-nominated 2011 revival.

EXAMPLES OF HOW STOPPARD REWORKS WILDE'S DIALOGUE FROM THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST IN TRAVESTIES

In his travesty of "Earnest", Stoppard has Henry Carr stand in for Algernon, the role he played in Joyce's 1918 production.

The Importance of Henry Carr

Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties

Stoppard imagines Tristan Tzara in the role of Jack, although Tzara was not in the Zurich production.

The Importance of Henry Carr

Seth Numrich as Tristan Tzara in Travesties

Stoppard transplants his own versions of Wilde's Cecily and Gwendolen into Travesties. (Fun Fact: Sarah Topham who now plays Cecily in Travesties, played Gwendolyn in RTC's production of Earnest).

The Importance of Henry Carr

Sara Topham and Scarlett Strallen as Cecily and Gwendolyn in Travesties

Stoppard imagines James Joyce in the role of imperious Lady Bracknell, perhaps a nod to Joyce's artistic differences with Tzara and economic battle with Carr.

The Importance of Henry Carr

Peter McDonald as James Joyce in Travesties


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