Friday, June 8, 2012

Travesties by Tom Stoppard

In his play Travesties, Tom Stoppard lets his imagination run wild with a moment of 1917 in which several titanic figures of the early twentieth century found themselves in Zurich. At the intersection of Lenin just before his return to Russia, Tristan Tzara conceiving Dada, and James Joyce working on Ulysses, this is a moment just before the revolutions, political and artistic, are primed to explode.

Stoppard draws this crowd together in the memory of Henry Carr, a real figure given fictional life. As a memory play drawn from the mind of the now-elderly Carr, Stoppard subjects the action to the stops and starts and meandering direction of recollection. Conversations wander off subjects before resetting and trying again, a reflection on the tenuous hold the present has on history. Carr met Joyce through a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the action frequently slips into mimicry of Wilde’s comedy, not only supplying a neat format trick, but also suggesting that a reality that made these figures into such unlikely neighbors can be as amazing as a handbag for a mother.

The most interesting conflict is that between Tzara and Joyce’s views on the role of art, illuminated in a series of cleverly written arguments. Tzara and his Dada movement present art as a series of gestures so abstracted as to sap their meaning. Reacting to the First World War, the aim was to highlight the impossibility of claiming to understand any meaning when faced with its horrors. Joyce meanwhile turned inwards, attaching the highly specific personal to the monument of myth. Both seek a new direction as the world changes momentously. The chaos of Carr's memory in which they play out the conflict brings an immediacy to the historical conditions forcing their reaction.

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