A Night with Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara: Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties”

On the evening of October 21st, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, performed by the Department of Theatre here at UIUC. In addition, the play was part of a slew events happening this semester as part of the Ten Days that Shook the World, Ten Days that Shake the Campus series organized by various departments to observe the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that spawned seven decades of Soviet communism. Stoppard’s play centers on the character Henry Carr, a real-life British diplomat who resided in Zurich during the First World War. The play is told in flashbacks of blurred memory, as Carr, already an old man, recalls his time in Zurich when his path crossed with the modernist writer James Joyce, the artist and founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, and none other than Vladimir Lenin himself. As it happens, these figures were actually in Zurich during this time, and Henry Carr acted in Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. As the play progresses, elements of Wilde’s play start to find their way into old man Carr’s memories of his life.

The stage at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

I had little idea of what to expect when I decided to see this play. I’d decided that I wanted to attend more theater productions, and since this one featured Lenin as a character, I was intrigued. I found myself completely swept away for three hours, and I left the theater with lingering thoughts about art, revolution, and modernity. Stoppard’s versions of Joyce and Tzara are more concerned with art and literature than with the war. Meanwhile, Lenin doesn’t seem to understand the world he’s trying to revolutionize, preferring more traditional forms of art over the contemporary movements that have cropped up all over the world. Stoppard highlights the junctures where art and politics overlap, meet, or run parallel, leaving just enough space for us to draw our own conclusions. Since the play is filtered through the memories of one man, it also takes on a more personal, individualized bent. The grand narrative of history, as it were, becomes the hilariously faulty memories of an aging former diplomat.

When I think about the world today, with all the political and social upheaval, I find myself thinking once again about these junctures between art, politics, and the individual’s role in everything. I wonder how these junctures pertain to my own life and the lives of others around me. To some extent, maybe we can’t help but be like Carr, arrogantly placing ourselves in the middle of world events that would otherwise sweep us by. Perhaps we can be one of the few whose art causes ripples for decades to come, or one of history’s “great men.” Chances are we won’t even make the footnotes. I’m starting to think that Carr’s way of thinking has a bit of merit. As the saying goes, we’re the protagonists of our own stories, and Stoppard’s version of Henry Carr becomes the eye of the political and cultural storm brewing in Europe during the 1910s. A hundred years have passed since then, and there are new storms brewing. Unlike Carr, maybe we can try to understand these events that are happening around us, the way the world is changing and why, instead of clinging to the past. I guess we can also go to theater every once in a while, too, and get a good laugh.

Alejandra Isabel Otero Pires is a PhD Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research focuses on Soviet film and literature. More broadly, her other interests include the visual arts, science fiction, and horror.

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