TRAVESTIES by Tom Stoppard Menier Chocolate Factory 4 October, 2016
The play starts with chaos: a setting littered with pages of books liberated from their bindings; the Dadaist Tristan Tzara creating a poem by pulling words out of a hat; James Joyce dictating ‘Ulysses’ to his secretary; the Lenin’s speaking in Russian. No moment of sense is intelligible, although there is clear intention in each of these acts. There is, in short, no meaning.
Which is a perfectly comfortable way to start a play by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is the Devil’s Advocate for the very idea of meaning. His plays turn on verbal word play, wit, pun, and double entendre. The action in his plays can repeat and repeat (hilariously), from the coin toss in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,’ to the collisions in ‘Jumpers.’ He plays with perceptions of reality (‘The Real Thing’), time (‘Rock and Roll’), and language (‘Dogg’s Hamlet / Cahoots MacBeth’). In the worlds Stoppard creates, things mean precisely what they appear to mean – until the moment when they don’t. He is constantly unraveling ‘The Hard Problem:’ in a world of perceptions and stimuli, where sense may or may not be present, how do we come to understand anything? It is no wonder then that Stoppard finds an infuriating muse in Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, an artistic movement born out of the carnage of World War I and dedicated to embracing chance and chaos, eschewing order and meaning. It is also a very happy reunion for Stoppard with Tzara – along with James Joyce, Lenin, and Oscar Wilde - in the current revival of ‘Travesties’ at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed with sparking acuity by Patrick Marber.
The events of the evening are seen through the hazy (and probably senile) memory of Henry Carr, a member of the British Consulate serving in peaceable Zurich in the middle of war ravaged 1917. Fully British, Carr is the perfect Bourgeois, a potato of a man sitting on the edge of climactic change. Carr has an ability to root out banality in the most elevated moments of life: his memories of performing in Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ revolve around what he wore and his reviews. It is of note, that the particular production of ‘Earnest’ which he is recalling was produced by James Joyce as a sort of exercise for Ex-Pats in exile in Switzerland, where Carr served as financier. This part of ‘Travesties’ is historically accurate, but Carr’s retelling freewheels ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ and uses the scenes as a sort of Jacob’s Ladder which folds over and recreates itself time and time again, a series of fractured ‘rehearsals’ for the play where Lenin, Joyce and Tzara (all residents of Zurich 1917) take on roles. The scenes build and vanish, starting over again and again, always with Carr dizzily in between. These ‘Earnest’ rehearsals act like the crystal in a chandelier, bending and refracting the light generated by the brilliant minds in the room. Perhaps the refractions are beautiful, perhaps they are random, but they are everywhere, filling the room with a dazzling profusion of thought.
What is refracted in all that kaleidoscope-like display? Art, Revolution, Creation, Society, and
above all the rest, Meaning. Each of the characters struggles with Meaning. After all, what meaning can be gleaned from the carnage of war? What can be understood from being an artist, a creator, in the midst of chaos (a preoccupation which ‘in Switzerland, in 1917’ requires ‘self-absorption which would glaze over the eyes of Narcissus’)? Small wonder Tzara embraces the senselessness readily, discarding meaning and liberating words from sense:
CARR: You are asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it. TZARA: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like Patriotism, Duty, Love, Freedom…
In a war which, as Tzara points out, can be traced to an accidental assassination, a Grand Duke who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the mechanisms of senselessness have high stakes. Absurdism, in the age after World War I is not a concept: it is a reality.
There is a larger sense of Meaning at stake in ‘Travesties’ as Lenin, Tzara, and Joyce all try to build meaning out of the carnage of war about them, through constructs of Social Order, or Politics, or Revolution, or Art: Each is an effort to create connection of idea to action, of thought to actuation. In the end, there is little difference between Art and Politics, and the work of each is as meaningful or senseless as the relevance they carry. While Tzara’s view of the artist as vandal seems snide, and Lenin’s work to co-opt meaning, cynical; it is the order which Joyce lends to his world which comes closest to magic:
JOYCE: 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 fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities.
Of course Carr, the perfect Bourgeois, is in the middle of this, his perceptions muddled (his time line as well, it would appear), simply trying to tell his tale as flickers of sense and time dim and glow about him.
Much to the credit of the Menier Chocolate Factory production, it is a tale very clearly told. The ideas are huge and well-articulated, and it is a joy to watch the cast play with thought and construct so nimbly, with Freddie Fox as Tzara and Claire Foster as Cecily taking particular delight and joy in the energy of the evening. Of course, the flashing wit belies the danger of the ideas cast about. It is truly sobering to see Tom Hollander as Carr have the deep and sudden realization that World War I may indeed be a senseless and hero-less carnage, singing 'We're here...because we're here...because we're here' as Tzara conducts; likewise, it is chilling to hear Lenin (Forbes Masson) carry the idea the idea of uniformity of vision to its Totalitarian extreme. The evening I attended, the audience seemed unsure of what to make of speed and glimmer of this play and production, and, to be fair, ‘Travesties’ is a dizzying evening. The play requires staying on top of artistic conceptualizations and political dogma, all the while having a more than handshaking acquaintance with the plot, central characters, scene structure and best lines of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ Staying in the room with this outstanding revival of Stoppard’s ‘Travesties,’ with concepts like Art, Revolution, Politics, War, Meaning whizzing about, is like learning to juggle razor blades.
Stoppard and Marber gleefully toss the blades about, and It is very refreshing that they do, since if you don’t learn how to juggle razor blades… they have a nasty habit of slicing your hand right off.