This post is for my students from 2011-2012. In the fall, the senior English majors and I worked together on James Joyce’s Ulysses, and in the spring the students in ENGL 362: 20th Century British Drama studied Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (among other things). I got the chance to speak at Plays and Players Theater in Philadelphia earlier this June about the Stoppard play Travesties, and I saw all kinds of cool stuff thanks to the discussions I’d had with my students in the months before. Here are some of my comments about the play from that talk, focusing on the connections it makes among Wilde, Joyce, and Stoppard.
If you haven’t seen Travesties and this sparks your interest, it’s up until June 23rd! (Shoot me an email for discounted tickets.)
Why Joyce and Stoppard?
Stoppard’s play Travesties tells the story (sort of) of Henry Carr, a minor figure from James Joyce’s life who shows up as a character in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses to harass Stephen Dedalus. In actuality, Joyce and Carr met when the not-yet-famous author arrived in Zurich in 1917 to wait out the First World War and get some work done on Ulysses; the chronically destitute Joyce got a job as the business manager for a new theater company called The English Players. The group decided to put on Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and cast Carr (a member of the British Consul invalided out of the war) as one of the leads, Algernon Moncrieff. Joyce, being sort of a litigious bastard, got entangled in a lawsuit with Carr, who demanded the company reimburse him the cost of some trousers he purchased for his costume. Stoppard did a lot of research into Joyce’s life, relying heavily on the “Zurich” section of Richard Ellmann’s biography.
Travesties references all of this — most spectacularly in how almost all of Act Two is practically a word for word retelling of Earnest — but keeps a lot of it in the background. Stoppard’s play uses Carr as a frame narrator, and the story is supposedly told through his (possibly very unreliable) perspective and memory. The play’s main interest is in a counterfactual: Joyce, V. I. Lenin, and the Dada artist Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich in 1917. There’s no evidence they met, but what if they had? Stoppard takes this and uses it to play out what he’s called a “high comedy of ideas” (Arcadia would be this too). Each of the three figures, filtered through Carr’s senility, gets to make an argument for the purpose of art. I think Stoppard has the most sympathy with Joyce (he even lets his Joyce character be the one with the magic tricks — literally — so clearly he thinks he’s the coolest).
The play is densely allusive, mentioning not just Joyce (including most episodes of Ulysses) and Wilde but also T. S. Eliot, William Wordsworth, Shakespeare (a whole love scene is generated from lines from the sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and plays including Much Ado about Nothing and Othello), and World War One writing. All of Lenin’s lines are taken right out of his actual journals, and a lot of Tzara’s bits are hijacked from the Dadaist Manifestos. There are different voices and languages, striptease, dance, singing, newspapers, manifestos — all the bric-a-brac of culture and history. This use of pastiche and parody makes Stoppard seem very Joycean, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not just random, like cutting bits out of great literature, throwing them into a hat, and seeing what you get when you pull the fragments out (a very Dadaist trick). The bits really do create a matrix of meaningful ideas, and speak not just to one another but back to their source texts.
I see deep affinities between Stoppard and Joyce. Stoppard’s play itself isn’t necessarily experimental, although it is pretty meta while also being interested in putting three revolutionary figures in conversation with each other at a moment of great historical and cultural upheaval. Rather, I see Stoppard’s “high comedy of ideas” as Joycean (Ulyssean?) in spirit. I’d go further and say it’s a high comedy of ideas with a lot of humanity (like Arcadia, like Jumpers). There’s some influence from George Bernard Shaw, but where Shaw gives us a thesis to work on through four acts so that by the fifth you can’t help but agree (think Pygmalion), Stoppard presents idea after idea in all their forms and implications, only to undercut them. He calls this “A minus A”: what I love about Stoppard, though, is this “A minus A” doesn’t leave you with nothing. There is always something to put back: love, humanity, curiosity, discovery, wonder. And the process of dismantling dogma is pursued with integrity.
You might see some Samuel Beckett there, too (think Waiting for Godot), and Stoppard has counted Beckett as an influence. Stoppard says the thing he loves about Beckett is you see a man holding firm to an idea in one moment, and then an instant later he stands surrounded by the wreckage of his convictions. There’s even a little echo of Beckett at the end of Travesties: Carr says, “I was here. They were here. They went on. I went on. We all went on.” — Only to have his wife contradict him: “No, we didn’t. We stayed.”
I don’t see only the negations of Beckett, though — I see the exuberance, the playfulness, the play of body, mind, language, space and time that you also get in Joyce. I see the perfectly comfortable and comic juxtaposition of the epic and banal, of the historic and the inconsequential. There is a rejection of dogma for exploration and openness — there is no closing off of possibility even as you work your way through the assorted logics of the arguments. In Travesties, you don’t want the nihilistic anti-art of Tristan Tzara and Dada even as you relish its absurdity. You don’t want the dogma of Lenin, even though you value political commitment. When Henry Carr says at the end of the play: “I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary…I forget the third thing.” You want that third thing open. You never want to close out the dialectic. You want to keep the dialogue going, and that’s what Joyce gives us, too: a sense of possibility to see into the deeper things of life. Stoppard gives Joyce the most important speech at the end of Act One and a magic show to boot because art is magic, and for Stoppard that manifests itself in the craft of the stage, the interplay of idea and performance.
While Joyce was more political than Stoppard presents him in Travesties, the novelist always believed that art should provide a spiritual benefit for people. (Stoppard does accurately allude to some of Joyce’s political writing in the play, specifically his writing for the “neutralist press” in Zurich and his political parodies.) Art should empower the individual, and offer the possibility of absolute freedom for pursuing aesthetic aims. Joyce thought art could foster liberty, and could only be made in a society that cherished liberty and freedom, because that’s the only way people can fulfill themselves as individuals. I think ultimately Stoppard agrees (as we might see from his human rights work in the 1980s and 90s); originally Travesties was only supposed to feature Lenin and Tzara, but once Stoppard discovered the comedy of errors involving Carr and his performance for The English Players in Wilde’s play, he realized he could use The Importance of Being Earnest as an intertext and narrative frame, AND that he could give Joyce the last word on art.
Stoppard has said that “art provides the moral matrix, the moral sensibility, from which we make our judgments about the world” — and that’s why art is important. I think Joyce would agree, and this is the deepest affinity between the two authors. For more, go see Travesties yourself! Info at playsandplayers.org.