Travesties, by Tom Stoppard, is largely set in Zurich in the middle of the First World War. The turbulence of the period, reflected in a chaotic cast of characters swirling around British diplomat Henry Carr – a somewhat self-centred and unremarkable man, playing counterpoint to the larger-than-life figures of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin. Although a minor player in history, Carr is both the narrator and the main character in this story, the play following the path of Carr’s reminiscences in his old age. His memories of his life in Zurich, it soon becomes clear, are somewhat – inconsistent to say the least. They are all confused and intertwined with scenes and characters from the Importance of Being Earnest, in which he played Algernon in a production in Zurich back in 1917.
Travesties is a whirligig of action, emotion, and witty repartee, but it often crunches to a halt under the weight of Carr’s confusion. In this production, a physical ensemble representing Carr’s consciousness frames his storytelling excellently, providing energy and vividness; but the ensemble also resets the scene whenever it stretches beyond Carr’s memories (or imaginings). They begin again, with the scene altered in ways both dramatic and mundane.
Travesties is a whirligig of action, emotion, and witty repartee
I enjoyed a sneak preview of two scenes – one wild and erratic, somewhat confused and full of only-just harnessed energy, as Carr’s older self begins to narrate the story and we watch his younger self interacting with his butler, with the scene resetting every few minutes and Carr taking on a slightly different persona, as though old Carr can no longer remember what he was like as a young man, what he said and did – or perhaps he, like Algernon in the Importance of Being Earnest, has always had a flair for exaggeration and dramatic mood swings.
Instability of character is the cornerstone of this play, and we see it once again in a scene between Cecily and Gwendolyn, which follows the pattern of the famous ‘afternoon tea’ scene from the Importance of Being Earnest. In this scene, Cecily and Gwendolyn slip from Zurich in 1917 into an alternative, Wildean world with exaggerated elegance, poise, and witty repartee – but only Gwendolyn becomes her Wildean character, leaving Cecily puzzled by Gwendolyn’s strange manners, floundering uncertainly as she tries to copy the awkward speech patterns. The pair’s comic timing is excellent, with the exaggeration and confused mimicry spot-on. But as I laughed at Cecily’s befuddlement, I also shared it. What exactly was going on, and why?
Afterwards, the director spoke about how they feel everyone in the play is false, with the possible exception of the older versions of Carr and his wife. Although it is easy to assume this is simply because Carr is old and confused, perhaps suffering from dementia, we all wear masks in social situations. Travesties, through its over-exaggeration and surrealism, points to how we are all performative in our own lives, concealing our flaws from both ourselves and others. Whenever the memory resets, or characters change character within the play there are specific noises to help the audience keep track – but in real life, when we shift personas, or re-imagine a conversation we’ve already had, things aren’t nearly so clear cut.
Travesties, through its over-exaggeration and surrealism, points to how we are all performative in our own lives, concealing our flaws from both ourselves and others.
This play is a somewhat precarious balancing act, as it explores themes not only of memory and truth, but also asks what the value of art is, and whether it should be more or less important in times of war. It is a comedy of two forms, being both Stoppardian and Wildean, part-parody, part-homage to the airy witticisms of the latter. The use of audio-visual clues to point out when characters change personas, or when memory fails causing scenes to reset, along with the physical ensemble to frame Carr’s words, means the audience should have a fighting chance of understanding what’s going on as it happens, but if you’re not an English Lit student I suggest you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. It is charming, funny, and undoubtedly thought-provoking; in the occasional quiet moment within the ricocheting action, it may even be relaxing. But this surrealist comedy with rapid-fire dialogue has so much to say, it remains to be seen whether it can make itself understood.