Travestiesby Tom Stoppard
A speculative portrait of what could have been the meeting of three profoundly influential men—James Joyce, the Dadaist founder Tristan Tzara, and Lenin—in a germinal Europe
Travesties was born out of Stoppard’s noting that in 1917 three of the twentieth century’s most crucial revolutionaries—James Joyce, the Dadaist founder Tristan Tzara, and Lenin—were all living in Zurich. Also living in Zurich at this time was a British consular official called Henry Carr, a man acquainted with Joyce through the theater and later through a lawsuit concerning a pair of trousers. Taking Carr as his core, Stoppard spins this historical coincidence into a masterful and riotously funny play, a speculative portrait of what could have been the meeting of these profoundly influential men in a germinal Europe as seen through the lucid, lurid, faulty, and wholly riveting memory of an aging Henry Carr.
The play is set in Zurich, in two locations: the drawing room of Henry Carr’s apartment (“THE ROOM”), and a section of the Zurich Public Library (“THE LIBRARY”). Most of the action takes place within Carr’s memory, which goes back to the period of the First World War, and this period is reflected appropriately in the design and the costumes, etc. It is to be supposed that Old Can has lived in the same apartment since that time.
The ROOM must have the main door Centre Upstage: most of the entrances would be weakened seriously if they occuned from the side. Double doors would be best. However, there is also at least one side door. There is a centre table with a good chair on each side, and a side table, apart from other furniture.
The LIBRARY suggests a larger scale—tall bookcases, etc. In Act Two Cecily (the librarian) requires a counter or desk, which need not necessarily be in view at the beginning of the play. Some of the entrances, e.g. Nadya’s, are probably through a door rather than from the wings.
The LIBRARY in the Prologue and the Second Act does not necessarily have to be presented from the same angle.
We begin in the LIBRARY.
There are places for JOYCE, LENIN and TZARA.
GWEN sits with JOYCE. They are occupied with books, papers, pencils . . .
LENIN is also writing quietly, among books and papers, TZARA is writing as the play begins. On his table are a hat and a large pair of scissors, TZARA finishes writing, then takes up the scissors and cuts the paper, word by word, into his hat. When all the words are in the hat he shakes the hat and empties it on the table. He rapidly separates the bits of paper into random lines, turning a few over, etc., and then reads the result in a loud voice.
TZARA: Eel ate enormous appletzarakey dairy chef’s hat he’ll learn oomparah! Ill raced alas whispers kill later nut east, noon avuncular ill day Clara!
CECILY (Entering): Sssssssh!
(Her admonition is to the Library in general. She enters from one wing, not through the door, and crosses the stage, leaving by the opposite wing, moving quite quickly, like someone who is busy. No one takes any notice.)
JOYCE (Dictating to GWEN): Deshill holles eamus . . .
GWEN (Writing): Deshill holles eamus . . .
JOYCE: Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.
GWEN: Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.
JOYCE: Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa!
GWEN: Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa!
JOYCE: Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa!
GWEN: Likewise thrice?
(By this time TZARA has replaced the bits of paper into the hat. He takes out a handful, and reads the words one at a time, placing them into the hat as he reads each one.)
TZARA: Clara avuncular!Whispers ill oomparah!Eel nut dairy dayAppletzara “” Hat!
CECILY (Re-entering): Ssssssh!
(CECILY has come in with a few books which she places by LENIN.) (TZARA leaves the Library through the door.) (It is now necessary that the audience should observe the following: GWEN has received from JOYCE a folder. CECILY receives an identical folder from LENIN. These folders, assumed to contain manuscripts, are eye-catching objects in some striking colour. Each girl has cause to place her folder down on a table or chair, and each girl then picks up the wrong folder. In the original production, GWEN dropped a glove, etc., etc., but it is not important how this transference is achieved, only that it is seen to occur.)
(GWEN is now ready to leave the Library, and does so, taking Lenin’s folder with her.) (CECILY also leaves, not through the door but into the wings.) (NADYA enters as GWEN leaves; they bump into each other, and each apologizes, GWEN in English, NADYA in Russian.) (NADYA enters in an agitated state. She looks round for her husband and goes straight to him. Their conversation is in Russian.)
LENIN: Shto takoya? (What is it?)
NADYA: Bronsky prishol. On s’kazal shto v’Peterburge revolutsia!
(Bronsky came to the house. He says there’s a revolution in St Petersburg.)
(At this point JOYCE stands up and begins to walk up and down searching his pockets for tiny scraps of paper on which he has previously written down things he may wish to use. While the Lenins continue their conversation, JOYCE fishes out, one by one, these scraps of paper and reads out what he finds on them.)
JOYCE (Regarding his first find): “Morose delectation . . . Aquinas tunbelly . . . Frate porcospino . . .” (He decides he doesn’t need this one. He screws it up and throws it away, and finds a second . . .) “. . . Und alle Schiffe brucken . . .” (He decides to keep this one, so re-pockets it. He takes out another.) “Entweder transubstantiality, oder consubstantiality, but in no way substantiality. . .” (He decides to keep this one as well. Meanwhile, the LENINS have been continuing in the following manner):
LENIN: Otkuda on znayet? (How does he know?)
NADYA: Napisano v’Gazetakh. On govorit shto Tsar sobiraet’sia otretchsya ot prestola! (It’s all in the papers. He says the Tsar is going to abdicate!)
LENIN: Shtoty! (No!)
NADYA: Da! (Yes!)
LENIN: Eto v’gazetakh? (Is that in the newspapers?)
NADYA: Da—da. Idiom damoi. On zhdyot. (Yes—yes. Come on home. He’s waiting.)
LENIN: On tam? (Is he there?)
NADYA: Da! (Yes!)
LENIN: Gazetakh u nievo? (He brought the paper?)
NADYA: Da! (Yes!)
LENIN: Ty sama vidyela? (You saw it yourself)
NADYA: Da, da, da! (Yes, yes, yes!)
(JOYCE’s voice, however, has dominated this passage. He now encounters a further scrap of paper which is lying on the floor: LENIN has inadvertently dropped it. JOYCE picks this paper up. NADYA is leaving the Library, through the door, LENIN saying in Russian . . .)
LENIN: Idyi nazad y skazhee y’moo shto ya prichazhoo. Tolka sobieru svayi b’magi. (Go home ahead of me. I will collect my papers and follow.) (LENIN is gathering his papers. JOYCE is examining the dropped paper.)
JOYCE: “Lickspittle—capitalist—lackeys—of imperialism.” (LENIN recognizes these words. He pauses, and approaches JOYCE.)
LENIN: Pardon! . . . Entschuldigung! . . . Scusi! . . . Excuse me!
JOYCE (Handing him the paper): Je vous en prie! Bitte! Prego! It’s perfectly all right! (LENIN leaves. JOYCE is alone now.)