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.)
“Mind-bending splendor . . . a prismatic text . . . The hilarity comes fast and frequent throughout.”—New York Times (2016)
“[A] brilliantly zany, effervescently erudite comedy about writers, artists, and revolutionaries holed up in neutral Zurich during the First World War . . . Stoppard crafts what is at once a hilarious riff on The Importance of Being Earnest and a playful, poignant memory play.”—New York
“A gushing waterfall of wordplay, a fine-tuned literary torrent that only begins by covering love, sex, war, memory, and Marxism. Also James Joyce, Dada, the fine art of men’s tailoring, and The Importance of Being Earnest.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Set during World War I in Zurich, the famously neutral city that in 1917 counted among its residents author James Joyce, revolutionist Vladimir Lenin and poet Tristan Tzara, a founder of the freethinking artistic movement known as Dada. Only a playwright as brilliantly inventive as Stoppard could put all that together to come up with an uproarious work that seriously questions the nature of art.”—Newsday
“Both a zany celebration of wit and theatrical verve, and a deeper meditation on the purpose of art, the responsibility of artists, and the nature of genius.”—New York
“[R]azzlingdazzling effervescence of language that erupts and bubbles throughout the evening . . . It is as iridescent as a rainbow glimpsed in a dirty puddle and almost as surprisingly elusive . . . It is also a play that is clever, adroit and, partly because it succeeds so well in being both, ultimately moving . . . It is so pleasant to go to the theater for once when the entertainment offered is not just illuminating, but is actually dazzling.”—New York Times (1975)
“Travesties provides a cultural guidebook to the post-Great War zeitgeist as seen through the eyes of a playwright who, like Wilde, interweaves the classicist and the clown.”—Chicago Tribune
“The external brilliances in Travesties, its manic virtuosity of language, its diabolical manipulation of time and notion, cannot elude any visitor to Tom Stoppard’s achingly funny verbal prank . . . It’s brilliant, stunning, a miracle!”—New York
“Travesties is a brilliant, theatrical masterstroke. Crunchingly witty with a thousand laughs and nine hundred thoughts.”—Newsweek
“A knockout! Travesties is a brilliant, dazzling play.”—New York Daily News
“Travesties glows as Tom Stoppard’s best.”—New York Post
“[Travesties is] a Dadaist collage, a word-drunk dance and a political argument . . . [it] is also a frothy comedy of manners . . . a real achievement . . . dazzling.”—Washington Post
“Travesties is an intellectual tease, a perfect mind-bender of a play.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Has there ever been a more genially erudite entertainment than this manic gloss on The Importance of Being Earnest, this nutty disquisition on politics and war and, most especially, art? I think not . . . The real fun of this play is in the details, the vaudeville routines that not only punctuate the script but often, in uncanny and inexplicable ways, advance it.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“A dazzling pyrotechnical feat that combines Wildean pastiche, political history, artistic debate, spoof reminiscence, and song-and-dance in marvelously judicious proportions. The text itself is a Joycean web of literary allusions; yet it also radiates sheer intellectual joie de vivre, as if Stoppard were delightedly communicating the fruits of his own researches.”—Guardian (UK)
“Tom Stoppard’s Travesties is witty, playful and wise. Forty years on, it is starting to look timeless as well.”—Sunday Times (UK)
“It is a champagne cocktail, compounded of a balletic nimbleness of invention, a bewildering intricacy of design which reaches the sublime heights where mathematics merge with poetry, and the audacious juggling of a master conjuror.”—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Exuberant, extraordinary jeu d’esprit . . . an intellectual workout on a dramatic trampoline.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“A multi-layered confection of art, song, literature and pastiche . . . [a] dazzling intellectual pantomime.”—Spectator (UK)
“Humongously funny . . . [Stoppard has a] peerless gift for word games.”—Arts Desk
“Brace yourself. Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play achieves the near impossible. Set in Zurich, 1917, when Switzerland, or the ‘still wheel of war,’ was brimful of artists, writers and revolutionaries, it mashes together the ideas that shaped much of the last century and, at the same time, has fun. Yes, fun.”—Jewish Chronicle (UK)
“Drop-dead brilliant.”—Express (UK)
“Prime early, funny Stoppard . . . the perfect Stoppardian mix of the intellectually heavy and the soufflé-light.”—Financial Times (UK)