British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard is known for his pyrotechnic interplays of themes of philosophy, human rights, and society. Author of such prominent plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, and The Real Thing, Stoppard also co-wrote the screenplays for Brazil and Shakespeare in Love, among others. His work has earned him an Academy Award and four Tony Awards.
In his 1974 play Travesties, winner of the Tony Award for Best Play and now in revival on Broadway, Stoppard imagines a fictional interaction between famed Irish author James Joyce, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dada (a radical, nihilistic movement in the arts)— all of whom were actually in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1917 during the First World War, though they never met.
The plot of the play revolves around the character of Henry Carr, a low-level British official who was also a real historical figure in Zurich at the time and actually knew Joyce (who later gave him a brief — and unflattering — mention in Ulysses, his famous novel.)
Each character has a different view of the role of art in human society and hotly debate their perspectives with each other.
In his review of the revival in The New York Times, Ben Brantley writes: “What makes Travesties so deeply engaging — and hilarious and touching — isn’t its flashy erudition but its author’s rapt fascination with the workings of the human mind and its enduring relationship with art…..one of the sweetest, sauciest and strangest defenses of art ever to land on a stage.”
The following excerpts highlight the points of tension that existed among these characters––many of which are emblematic of conflicts that persist to this day.
Henry Carr and Tristan Tzara debate the “duty of the artist” in society:
TZARA: Oh, what nonsense you talk!
CARR: It may be nonsense, but at least it is clever nonsense.
TZARA: I am sick of cleverness. In point of fact, everything is Chance.
CARR: That sounds awfully clever. What does it mean?
TZARA: It means, my dear Henry, that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about. And it is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch at the delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expression of apparent cause.
CARR: It is the duty of the artist to beautify existence.
TZARA (Articulately): Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada.
CARR (Slight pause): Oh, what nonsense you talk!
TZARA: It may be nonsense, but at least it’s not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else, by the war.
Tzara and Carr on what makes an artist
TZARA: Well, I daresay, Henry, but you could have spent the time in Switzerland as an artist.
CARR (coldly): My dear Tristan, to be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. To be an artist in Zurich, in 1917, implies a degree of self-absorption that would have glazed the eyes of Narcissus. When I sent round to Hamish and Rudge for their military pattern book, I was responding to feelings of patriotism, duty, to my love of freedom, my hatred of tyranny and my sense of oneness with the underdog––I mean in general, I never particularly cared for the Belgians as such. And besides I couldn’t be an artist anywhere––I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.
TZARA: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat.
CARR: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.
TZARA: I see I have made myself clear.
CARR: Then you are not actually an artist at all?
TZARA: On the contrary. I have just told you that I am.
CARR: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted.
Tzara and Carr on the role of the artist in society
TZARA: As a Dadaist, I am the natural enemy of bourgeois art and the natural ally of the political left, but the odd thing about revolution is that the further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art.
CARR: There is nothing odd about that. Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it is absurdly overrated by everyone else.
TZARA: Because man cannot live by bread alone.
CARR: Yes, he can. It’s art he can’t live on. When I was in school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called Labour––weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that kind of thing; but if you had a chit from the Matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the Art Room. Labour or Art. And you’ve got a chit for life? (Passionately) Where did you get it? For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.
TZARA (Hard): Yes, by Christ!––and when you see the drawings he made on the walls of the cave, and the fingernail patterns he one day pressed into the clay of the cooking pot, then you say, My God, I am of these people! It’s not the hunters and the warriors that put you on the first rung of the ladder to consecutive thought and a rather unusual flair in your poncey trousers.
CARR: Oh yes it was. The hunter decorated the pot, the warrior scrawled the antelope on the wall, the artist came home with the kill. All of a piece. The idea of the artist as a special kind of human being is art’s greatest achievement, and it’s a fake!
Joyce speaking to Tzara on what makes an artist
JOYCE: You are an over-excited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of your natural gifts. This is not discreditable. Neither does it make you an artist. An artist is the magician put among men to gratify––capriciously––their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the field of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities. What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist's touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A minor redistribution of broken pots. But it is we who stand enriched, by a tale of heroes, of a golden apple, a wooden horse, a face that launched a thousand ships––and above all, of Ulysses, the wanderer, the most human, the most complete of all heroes––husband, father, son, lover, farmer, soldier, pacifist, politician, inventor and adventurer . . . It is a theme so overwhelming that I am almost afraid to treat it. And yet I with my Dublin Odyssey will double that immortality, yes by God there's a corpse that will dance for some time yet and leave the world precisely as it finds it––and if you hope to shame it into the grave with your fashionable magic, I would strongly advise you to try and acquire some genius and if possible some subtlety before the season is quite over. Top o' the morning, Mr Tzara!
(With which JOYCE produces a rabbit out of his hat, puts the hat on his head, and leaves, holding the rabbit.)
Cecily (representing Lenin's point of view) and Carr (impersonating Tzara) on art and politics
CECILY: The sole duty and justification for art is social criticism.
CARR: That is a most interesting view of the sole duty and justification for art, Cecily, but it has the disadvantage that a great deal of what we call art has no such function and yet in some way it gratifies a hunger that is common to princes and peasants.
CECILY: In an age when the difference between prince and peasant was thought to be in the stars, Mr Tzara, art was naturally an affirmation for the one and a consolation to the other; but we live in an age when the social order is seen to be the work of material forces and we have been given an entirely new kind of responsibility, the responsibility of changing society.
CARR; No, no, no, no no––my dear girl!––art doesn’t change society, it is merely changed by it.
(From here the argument gets gradually heated.)
CECILY: Art is a critique of society or it is nothing!
Carr on Joyce's artistic legacy
CARR: Well, it was a long time ago. He left Zurich after the war, went to Paris, stayed twenty years and turned up here in December 1940. Another war . . . But he was a sick man then, perforated ulcer, and in January he was dead . . . buried one cold snowy day in the Fluntern cemetery up the hill….I dreamed about him, dreamed I had him in the witness box, a masterly cross-examination, case practically won, admitted it all, the whole thing, the trousers, everything, and I flung at him––'And what did you do in the Great War?' 'I wrote Ulysses,' he said. 'What did you do?'
Excerpts from TRAVESTIES, copyright © 1975 by Tom Stoppard. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited.
(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)