top of page

Jere, Dale, and I saw *Travesties* on 6/14/18.  It's a play from 1975 by Tom Stoppard, this is the first time it's been revived on Broadway since then (it won the Tony for Best Play back in the day).  It takes place in Zurich in 1917.  Stoppard's jumping-off point was this: James Joyce was in Zurich at the time and started an English-language theatre company.  He did a production of *The Importance of Being Earnest* and cast Henry Carr as Algernon.  Carr complained that Joyce's payment to him didn't cover the cost of his costumes, asked for a share of the profits and compensation for the trousers, hat, and gloves he had bought to wear onstage.  Joyce told him that he would not be paid for the costume, as they were ordinary clothes that he could wear on the street after the show had closed.  Carr threw some choice words at Joyce.


Joyce filed two suits against Carr: one for the 25 francs that Carr owed him for tickets he had promised to sell, and another suit for libel.  Carr countersued for 450 francs: his share of the profits and compensation for the cost of the clothes he had bought.  The case was heard six months later and Carr was ordered to pay Joyce 60 francs, plus 39 francs for court costs.  Joyce had further revenge by creating an unlikable character in *Ulysees* and naming him Henry Carr.


Stoppard took Carr, at most a footnote in 20th century literature, and built a play around him, making him the central character.  He created your typical Stoppardian grab bag of interests, influences, and intrigues: the other characters are Joyce, naturally, and two other revolutionaries living in Zurich at the time: Vladimir Lenin (who soon went back to Russia to lead the October Revolution) and Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of the "anti-art" movement Dada).  And since a play is always more fun with a few biological females, he added Lenin's wife and Gwendolyn and Cecily from *The Importance of Being Earnest.*  Also Bennett, the butler from *Earnest.*


There are many quotes from *Earnest* - - Joyce at one point walks in on Tzara and Gwendolyn and says, "Rise, sir, from that semi-recumbent posture!", Lady Bracknell's show-stopping line.  But more impressively, Stoppard takes scenes from *Earnest* and rewrites them with the characters on hand.  The production, directed by Patrick Marber, was high energy, bristling with wit, madcap!  The actors, led by Tom Hollander as Carr, were all extraordinary.  Nearly all of them gave a tour de force performance.


The lights went up at intermission and Jere said, "Where is it all going?"  I said, "Stoppard is often stimulating but not what I would call dramatic."  "But," Jere said, "isn't that kind of the point of writing a play?"


Stoppard in general and *Travesties* in particular give the audience an opportunity to feel very clever and superior to people who wouldn't understand the show or see the humor or genius in it.  Again, is that really what we want from a play?  It works for me, and this production definitely found the ideal balance of wit and warmth, but the after effect is a little smug.  Quoting Jere again: "It's a lot of words going by very quickly."  Which is impressive, but is it satisfying?  It was for me, but it seems notable that I would still ask the question.

bottom of page