Last night I went to see Tom Stoppard's play "Travesties," at the Open Theater Company, one of my favorite theater companies in Los Angeles at their small space in Hollywood. Open Fist did a wonderful job on Stoppard's 1974 play about the meetings in 1917 Zurich between Dada poet Tristan Tzara, Communist leader Lenin, Irish novelist James Joyce, and bourgeois pro-war minor British consular employee named Henry Carr. Stoppard's play recreates a time when modern artists such as Tzara were passionately anti-war and even revolutionary. It's good to remember that when modernism in arts is often seen as part of some non-political museum.
The story is told by Henry Carr, a minor British consular figure, who was in Zurich in 1917. The play starts with Carr in 1974 writing his memoirs of the famous people he knew in Zurich in 1917, and as we find out Carr's memoirs are highly inaccurate. Throughout the play Carr portrays himself as head of the British consulate in Zurich with a servant named Bennett who is a radical, but we found out toward the end of the play Carr has been untruthful. In reality Bennett was the head of the consular service while Carr was a minor figure there. Stoppard's postmodernist play asks what is real? How truthful or how much of a liar is the elderly Carr's memoirs about 1917?
In history Carr did know Joyce in Zurich. The two were involved in Zurich with a production of Oscar Wild's play "The Importance of Being Earnest," where Carr played the lead Algernon and Joyce was theater manager. Historically after the play Joyce and Carr argued; then both men sued each other in the Zurich courts. Joyce made Carr into a stupid figure in his novel Ulysses he was writing at the time. In Stoppard's play Joyce and Carr start arguing and suing each other as this part of the play follows history. But Stoppard has taken huge hunks of Oscar Wild's comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest," and brilliantly adapted it to his play about 1917 Zurich, so Stoppard's play is a demented version of Wild's play. So Stoppard is using postmodernist appropriation in his play.
In the first section of the play Carr, who was proud of fighting in the trenches of the war until he was invalided, argues with Dada poet Tristan Tzara who is against the war. Here Carr is the bourgeois voice of rationality, patriotism, and belief in fighting for King and country. Carr defends his fighting for one's country while Tzara said that the causes of the war were all lies. So this play questions the reasons for fighting in a war. In the second part of the play Carr argues with Joyce over money from the play as well as arguing over the war. Carr still defends his fighitng in the war and asks Joyce what is he doing during the war. Joyce answers, "I wrote Ulysses." Also Joyce and Tzara argue over art. Joyce believes in the artist genius who revolutionizes art while Tzara attacks art as a category that is rationalist dealing with truth or beauty.
The final section deals with Lenin who hears about the Russian Revolution and plots his way to get back to Russia. It turns out that Carr never knew Lenin and Lenin left by train before Carr ever talked to him. In this section Lenin's wife talks about the art that Lenin liked which was mostly 19th century art like Beethoven. According to Lenin's wife Lenin was opposed to most modern art and even when going to see Gorky's The Lower Depths, a left-wing play about poor people in Russia, detested the new modern acting style. Carr argues that as a bourgeois who also detested the modern in art he had much in common with Lenin who also disliked the modern in art. Surprise surprise.
Stoppard uses the postmodern style to reclaim that period of 1917 when one could take sides: pro-war or anti-war. Artist or revolutionary or revolutionary artist. Again, when postmodernism is seen as some weird elitist art practice, it's good to look at Stoppard's brilliant thought-provoking play.