Notes on Tom Stoppard’s Travesties
As Ryan pointed out recently, the school year is now officially underway. In recognition, I thought I’d share with you my first set of notes.
As some of you know, I always take notes while I’m reading and when I’m finished with a text I like to sit down and free-write my initial ideas. I’ve shared my notes with Blake (after reading Ever), with Shane (after reading Light Boxes), and a few other people. They are by no means conclusive or fancy or anything. They just sort of serve to help me puzzle things out, and in this case help prepare me for class discussion.
Anyway, one of my first assignments (in my “Theorizing Modernism” class) was to read Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s a crib from the back cover:
Travesties was born out of Stoppard’s noting that in 1917 three of the twentiieth centruy’s most crucial revolutionararies – James Joyce, the Dadaist founder Tristan Tzara, and V.I. Lenin – were all living in Zurich.
From there hilarity ensues.
If you’re interested, you can see my notes after the break…
Notes on Tom Stoppard’s Travesties
Repetition of tension between political engagement / aesthetic engagement
Henry Carr represents the political
Tzara & (less trenchantly) Joyce represent the aesthetic
First instance, I noticed, of this dynamic comes on pg. 20 when Carr reprimands Tzara for being an artist in Switzerland during wartime.
Tzara (pg. 21): “Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat.”
This raises Arthur Danto’s position, namely: “That with modernism art ceases to be art, and becomes philosophy, because now art’s mode of existence takes the form of a philosophical question: “What is Art?” [Gerald Bruns (On the Anarchy of Poetry & Philosophy) suggests that post-modernism is simply the answer to that question – which might seem to align with Ranciere’s position in The Politics of Aesthetics?]
Stoppard seems to be obsessed with this one particular aspect of Dada/Tzara – the words in a hat thing – he repeats this action numerous times throughout the play: at the beginning we see Tzara doing it, later he chops up a Shakespeare sonnet and offers the hat to Gwen (pg. 35)
Tzara (pg. 22): “Music is corrupted, language conscripted. Words are taken to stand for their opposite. That is why anti-art is the art of our time.”
Both of Tzara’s lines raise this notion of Modernism as a kind of “conceptual self-questioning,” a Heideggerian position which Bruns attributes to Danto’s interpretation of Heidegger’s project of rethinking the question of Being.
Modernism not as historical period but rather as attitude or attribute: conceptual self-questioning.
Carr represents pre-modern position when he says (pg. 21) “If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas.”
The “Importance of Being Earnest” allusion in which Carr pretends to be Tristan’s younger brother, which is particularly ironic given that Carr represented the politically committed role in Act One and now in Act Two must represent the aesthetic position (Dada/art for art’s sake).
In Act One, Carr’s philosophical commitment to political engagement does not include class considerations – on pg. 13 he jokes about “classes” – his commitment seems to be limited to duty, patriotism, honor, freedom.
In Act One, pg. 16, when Joyce gets the foreground, the scene is presented in Limerick form, which could be read as a nod to the Modernist inclination toward foregrounding form over or equal to content.
Interesting exchange between Joyce/Tzara on pg. 38-41.
Cecily refers to Tzara as a “decadent nihilist”
Cecily “The sole duty and justification for art is social criticism.” (pg. 49)
Lenin on Art & Literature (pg. 58-59)
Interesting/telling remark on pg. 66: Carr & Lenin say: “Expressionism, futurism, cubism…I don’t understand them and I get no pleasure from them.” The mistake they are making is in assuming that those kinds of works are meant to be understood – thus, they lack the faculty to experience pleasure from them because they misunderstand the premise from which those kinds of art/lit. are functioning, which is not the same premise (or set of assumptions) applicable in pre-modern works. They conceive of language as an instrument of communication, a tool – not as an entity in and of itself, not as a material object – in other words, not in the modern sense.
Various moments in both Act 1 & 2 of fracture/repetition – (Stoppard calls them “time slips” on pg. 11)
in Act One Bennett brings in the papers
in Act Two Carr approaches Cecily in the library
Final lines of the play do good job of summarizing the main issues: Carr: “I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary…I forget the third thing.”
BUT, this is a false binary because Tzara is both revolutionary and artist, although perhaps not revolutionary in the strictly political sense that Lenin is, but certainly revolutionary in terms of aesthetics.