‘What did you do in the Great War?.’ ‘
I wrote Ulysses...What did you do?’
Ageing diplomatic attaché Henry Carr is desperate to recount the events of Zürich in 1917, where amidst the First World War, revolutionary minds collided: modernist author James Joyce, communist revolutionary Lenin, and founder of Dadaism Tristan Tzara.
Fizzing with limericks, razor-sharp wit, and parodies of Oscar Wilde, Travesties tells of political and artistic rebellion through the fractured reminiscences of a man on the side-lines.
Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary tumble through fact and fiction is brought to life in an energetic new production by University of Oxford students. In a post-truth world, Travesties’ bold exploration of the appeal of fiction could not be more fitting.
Sir Tom Stoppard on Travesties
This year is an especially exciting one to bring Sir Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary tumble through history, Travesties, to the Oxford Playhouse. Since he is currently Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St. Catherine’s College, we had the chance to hear him talk about the play and ask him a few questions. We found ourselves faced with the tantalising, thrilling, but also slightly terrifying question: what on earth do you ask your favourite playwright?
Talking to Stoppard, we were hit with the same incisive wit his work is so renowned for. A distinctively experimental author, his plays explore philosophy, politics, and the building blocks of language itself. Even the idea of intention, he reminded us, could not be taken for granted. In fact, the first question we asked him ‘pre-supposes that I had an intention in this regard.’ ‘In reality’, he went on, ‘I was just pushing on from scene to scene with my fingers crossed.’
Travesties combines a fantastical form of resetting scenes and sudden shifts into things like limericks, Shakespeare, or song, framed around a tragic story, that of an old man who is losing his memory. We couldn’t help but wonder which was at the forefront of Stoppard’s mind when writing - playing with form, or bringing out the poignancy of Carr’s story? ‘I think it’s true that “playing with form” was at the front of my mind,’ he told us. ‘This does not exclude “poignancy”, but the acting and direction have more to do with that.’
However, the many flights of fancy in Travesties have their foundations in fact. The plot follows Henry Carr, a former British diplomat, reminiscing about the historically unique and peculiar time when modernist author James Joyce, Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin were all simultaneously present in wartime Zürich, 1917. Fascinatingly, some of the events Carr recounts did happen: Joyce business-managed a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Carr acted in it, and the pair really did fall out. Joyce got his own back by making Carr the namesake of the rather unpleasant Private Carr in Ulysses, an argumentative and obscenely rude English soldier who punches Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's literary alter-ego).
What were the challenges of writing characters based on such larger-than-life cultural figures? ‘Regarding Joyce and Tzara, I did not think of them as my creations, but as caricatures of the real people, using their historical selves in a heightened or satirical way - accommodating, however, what I took to be their views and attitudes,’ Stoppard told us.
For Lenin, residing in Zürich prior to his leading role in the 1917 October Revolution, Stoppard had a different approach, using the writing of Vladimir’s wife, Nadya Lenin, and other historical artefacts to give Lenin ‘only words he [Lenin] had spoken or written.’ Indeed, ‘there was also an element of nervousness about sending him up,’ he admitted. The amount of speech lifted from these sources has been reduced in recent revisions, blurring the lines between Lenin’s story and Carr’s story a little more: ‘there turned out to be too much “straight” Lenin speech, and I ended up trimming it to keep a balance. In the latest production [Patrick Marber’s] I even gave him a Wildean sentence.’
Travesties continues to undergo a process of development. In Stoppard’s final talk as Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre here at Oxford, held in conversation with Patrick Marber, the pair discussed the idea of editing texts, with Marber wryly suggesting that a play is only really finished after a playwright is dead. What was clear from our interview with Tom Stoppard is that Travesties, originally published in 1974, is indeed still evolving. With this in mind, we are even more exhilarated at the prospect of bringing our production to the Oxford Playhouse from the 2nd - 5th May, with a few twists of our own.
Written by Tom Stoppard
Presented by University of Oxford Student Company Pigfoot Theatre
Age guideline 14+