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  • Travesties: Tom Stoppard’s Joyce and Other Dadaist Fantasies, Or History in a Hat
  • Ira B. Nadel (bio)

The original impulse for this essay was to examine the gaps between biographical fact and character in Travesties.1 I was then going to expose the historical incongruities within the play and argue that Tom Stoppard’s redaction of lives and events was demanded by the conditions of dramatic performance. Such an explanation would not ease the anxieties of those who are literally minded, but then I remembered Oscar Wilde. In Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, Wilde remarks that biography is “the mesh through which our real life escapes. I was said to have walked down Piccadilly with a lily in my hand. There was no need. To do it is nothing, to be said to have done it is everything.”2 A few lines earlier, Wilde corrects A. E. Housman’s belief that a newspaper report of an inquest is truthful: “On the contrary,” Wilde replies, “it’s only fact. Truth is quite another thing and is the work of the imagination” (Love 93).

Imagination’s link to the truth makes acceptable the fissures and disruptions found in Travesties. In this context, Stoppard’s realignment of the habits and characteristics of James Joyce or Tristan Tzara or Vladimir Lenin, found in Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, Hans Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art, or Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, bothers us less.3 Stoppard has never hidden his sources and, in fact, takes pride in listing his reading and the origins of his ideas. But much remains out of sync in the play that still nags audiences, alternately increasing their pleasure and calling into question the play’s success.

The treatment of time is a starting point. The calendar of the play and that of history do not match, and many have amused themselves by working out the discrepancies. But facts and dates always mislead, and Stoppard himself dispenses with them in his work as well as in his life. He prefers to juggle history so that historical characters meet, although no actual record of such encounters exists. He thinks nothing of putting Lord Byron into a mysterious situation in Arcadia or depicting gatherings among a host of early Russian revolutionaries that may or may not have happened in The Coast of Utopia.4 [End Page 481]

But does historical accuracy matter? Stoppard would be the first to say “no.” What matters is the imaginative encounter, the possibility that these figures might have met and what they could have said. Truth is not only imaginative but irregular. As Sophie explains in Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase, “part of what there is to celebrate is the capability of the artist.”5

Discrepancies, however, do matter, and one of the most important is the exchange of identities between the key figures, one character absorbing the habits and attitude of the other. This osmosis gives Dadaesque qualities to Joyce, Joycean qualities to the Dadaists, and Stoppardian qualities to Lenin. In Travesties, a constant crossover occurs: Lenin offers views on art, Tzara on revolution, and Joyce on everything. The limericks of Tzara match those of Joyce, while Henry Carr’s conservative views of art match Lenin’s. Tzara then challenges Carr on art, and Carr refuses to accept that “the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean”; Tzara replies, “Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom . . . brave little Belgium, saucy little Serbia” (Travesties 21). Art and politics, sense and nonsense (a Dada quality) merge.

Identities and meanings in the play are unstable, echoing Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, but at the end of that play, identity is comically reclaimed and reassembled.6 In Travesties, this never quite happens. Confronted with his library card issued in the name of Jack, Tzara admits to Carr that “my name is Tristan in the Meierei Bar and Jack in the library” (Travesties 27). Carr accepts this, saying that to draw words out of a hat under one name and appear at the Public Library under another is a reasonable precaution (Travesties 27...


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pp. 481-492
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