The Travesty of Travesties

By: May. 21, 2018
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At first glance, Travesties may seem to be a nearly impossible work to crack. Traversing literary styles and references, delving headfirst into the history of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and pitting dense intellectual arguments on the meaning and purpose of art against each other, Tom Stoppard's absurdist and avant-garde play can seem hopelessly out of reach for anyone who isn't an expert in these particular topics. But Stoppard has created a roadmap that allows his audiences to untangle the characters, plotlines, and references of Travesties as they watch, and his first clue for doing so is provided in the title of the play itself. What exactly, then, is a travesty?

"Travesty" may just be one of the most misused words in the English language. Often erroneously used as a synonym for "tragedy" or "disaster," the word "travesty" is actually defined as "a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something" and is close in meaning to "mockery," "parody," or "farce." Travesties, then, is comprised of exactly that: an assortment of parodies or "distorted representations" of historical and literary figures and events. With this as a point of entry into the genre and tone of the play, we can parse out who and what is "travestied" in Travesties -- and why.

The Travesty of Travesties
Henry Carr's discharge certificate

Set in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I, Travesties follows former British soldier Henry Carr(based on a real-life soldier of the same name who fought in World War I) as he, as an old man, recounts a series of meetings he claims to have had with three historical figures: communist revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Vladimir Lenin), Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara, and renowned author James Joyce. While in Zurich, Lenin learns of the Russian Revolution and attempts to find safe passage back to Russia; Tzara defends Dadaism against more traditional forms of art; and Joyce casts Carr in a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, for which he is the business manager. Though all of these events did really happen and all four of these people were present in Zurich during this time, the idea that all four of them met at the same time and that all their stories interwove in some way is purely the invention of Carr's failing and fanciful memory. It is the breakdown of Carr's mental faculties and his desire to cast himself as a more important figure in these stories than he really was that warps these historical events and people into outlandish travesties.

True to the play's title, then, Carr's unreliable narration takes these fictionalized meetings to their farcical extremes, and the characters become over-the-top, almost cartoonish parodies of their real-life counterparts. Adding to the distortion is Carr's occasional inability to separate his own story from the production of The Importance of Being Earnest in which he performed for James Joyce; hence why Carr includes the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily from Oscar Wilde's play in his memories and sometimes even frames supposedly real-life events as scenes from Earnest, which are themselves often twisted and expanded nearly beyond recognition.

The resulting web of conflicts, storylines, and clashing philosophies in Travesties becomes, with Carr's inconstant memory as a catalyst, an explosive dramatization of the many and varied cultures, ideas, and nationalities that could theoretically have bumped up against each other in neutral Zurich during World War I. The play becomes a bit of a blender of conflicting ideologies and caricatures, but this is Stoppard's intention, and there's nothing to fear if it all throws us a bit off-balance. "[T]here is very often no single, clear statement in my plays," Stoppard has said. "What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leap-frog." It's only natural, then, that Travesties might leave our minds doing that exact same thing as we leave the theatre.

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