‘Travesties’ By Tom Stoppard Essay, Research Paper
The play “>Travesties”> concerns the relationship between art and politics. The three major historical figures in the play – James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara – represent contrasting views on the issue, views that Stoppard juxtaposes with one another within the comic framework of the play. Henry Carr, a genuine historical figure, is somewhat overshadowed by the notoriety of the men around him and his opinions are often overlooked. Yet the debate occurs within Carr’s memory, and the play makes it clear that the events presented are highly coloured by Carr’s remembering them. Indeed, Carr’s introductions of each of the other three participants in the debate emphasise their status as products of his memory: ‘James Joyce As I Knew Him’, ‘Lenin As I Knew Him’, ‘”>Memories of Dada by a Consular Friend of the Famous in Old Zurich: A Sketch”>’. Furthermore, Carr takes his own position on the aesthetic-political issue, a position that he defends against the opposing views of Tzara, Joyce and Lenin. By contrast, Joyce and Lenin never argue directly with each other in the play. Carr, then, provides a controlling perspective and actively participates in the debate embodied in “>Travesties”. A careful examination of the scenes in which Carr’s views conflict with those of Tzara, Joyce and Lenin will reveal both Carr’s centrality to the aesthetic-political debate and a clearer picture of the position he adopts. In Act One, Carr’s views are contrasted with those of Tzara and Joyce. The contrast appears first, in caricatured form, in the scene where Tzara and Joyce behave in a nonsensical exaggerated fashion and the dialogue takes the form of a series of limericks. This scene establishes the basic position that each of the characters will develop later. Tzara complains about the artistic tradition represented by Joyce; he is scornful of ‘culture and reason’ and rejects ‘the classics – tradition’. Joyce asserts the value of his own work – he calls himself ‘a fine writer who writes caviar/for the general, hence poor’ – and he asks for money. Carr takes the middle ground. He accepts neither Joyce’s valuation of traditional art for its own sake nor Tzara’s outright rejection of traditional art; instead, Carr comments that ‘H.M.G. is considered pro-Art’ and considers the possibility of scoring diplomatic points against the Germans by means of the play that Joyce proposes to produce. On the whole, Carr’s approach might be characterised as practical, even if his selection of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “>Iolanthe”> as the prime representative of British culture reveals the limits of his vision. In the following scene the interchange between Carr and Tzara constitutes the first extensive discussion of aesthetic and political issues in “>Travesties.”> Tzara’s argument is that the war has made a mockery of the values and the schemes of logic and causality which have served as the basis for traditional art. Without logic, art must be nonsense, and Tzara rejects all attempts to present art as anything other than nonsense: TZARA: I am sick of cleverness. The clever people try to impose a design on the world and when it goes calamitously wrong they call it fate. In point of fact, everything is Chance, including design. CARR: That sounds awfully clever. What does it mean? Not that it has to mean anything, of course. TZARA: It means, my dear Henry, that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about. And it is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch at t he delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expansion of apparent cause. Tzara wants to redefine art: ‘Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does’. By means of this redefinition, Tzara apparently hopes that art can regain the importance it once had as an improver of the human condition:> When the strongest began to fight for the tribe, and the fastest to hunt, it was the artist who became the priest-guardian of the magic that conjured the intelligence out of the appetites. Without him, man would be a coffee-mill. Eat – grind – shit. Hunt – “> eat<- “fight “>grind<”> – saw the logs – ” shit”>. The difference between being a man and being a coffee-mill is art. Thus, in spite of his rejection of traditional art forms, Tzara sees art itself as a superior kind of activity. In this regard, he chides Carr, who has escaped the war by coming to Switzerland, for spending his time as a diplomat rather than as an artist. Carr’s position develops out of the interchange with Tzara. In the first place, Carr disagrees with Tzara’s account of the demise of traditional values and of logic and causality. He claims vehemently to have gone to war out of a sense of duty, for the sake of patriotism and love of freedom, and he dismisses Tzara’s more cynical interpretation – that war is ‘capitalism with the gloves off’ – as being mere phrasemaking. Furthermore, Carr’s view of the war gains credence from his actually having served in the trenches. While he admits to having forgotten what the causes of the war were, still he maintains that the war had causes and therefore cannot be pointed to as proof of the inapplicability of causality to human affairs. Also, he undercuts Tzara’s rejection of cleverness by pointing out that the rejection itself is cleverly phrased. Secondly, Carr refuses to accept Tzara’s redefinition of art. As before, he insists that Tzara’s reassigning of labels cannot change the reality of the things labelled; just as to call a pedestrian activity ‘flying’ does not lift one off the ground, so to call a nonartistic activity ‘art’ does not make that activity artistic. Carr himself defines art in a more traditional way: ‘An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted’. Like much of Carr’s thinking, this definition lacks brilliance but possesses a certain aura of practicality or common sense. Finally, Carr assigns to art a much lower valuation than Tzara does. To be an artist, according to Carr, is to abandon more serious concerns, such as those of the political realm: ‘to be an artist “>at all”> is like living in Switzerland during a world war’. The business of the artist is ‘to beautify existence’, and while this purpose has some importance, it does not have the overwhelming importance that has been assigned to it by artists: CARR: Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it is absurdly overrated by everyone else. TZARA: Because man cannot live by bread alone. CARR: Yes, he can. It’s art he can’t live on. . . . What is an artist? For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard, who’s the artist. . . . The idea of the artist as a special kind of human being is art’s greatest achievement, and it’s a fake! In conclusion, Carr seems to consider art a form of clever nonsense, capable of providing amusement and even beauty to human life, but not deserving the kind of esteem that has been bestowed on it either for its contribution to the improvement of the human situation, as Tzara would have it, or for its own sake, as Joyce will argue. The discussion between Carr and Tzara ends inconclusively, and Joyce enters with Gwendolen. The remainder of Act One deals primarily with Joyce’s views and the reactions of Tzara and Carr to them. Joyce’s arguments with Tzara serve to establish Joyce’s status as defender of the traditional approach to art as an activity of great importance. In the main, the interaction between Carr and Joyce in Act One focuses on Joyce’s proposal to mount a production of “>The Importance of Being Earnest”> and his invitation to Carr to take part in the production. Little overt discussion of contrasting views of art and politics takes place between Carr and Joyce, but a criticism of Joyce’s position is contained in the version of their interaction which is supplied by Carr’s memory. In the first place, Carr cannot remember Joyce’s name; he calls the Irishman Doris, then Janice, then Phyllis. Of course, this misnaming serves in part to show up the limits of Carr’s intelligence. Carr attempts to show his knowledge but does not, in fact, even know who the Prime Minister is. Still, the device of misnaming must also suggest that the one whose name cannot be remembered is, to some extent, insignificant, lacking an important or memorable identity. The picture of Carr that emerges from this conversation is not especially admirable. As before, Carr asserts his preference for the dramatic entertainments of Gilbert and Sullivan, and he seems to object to “>The Importance of Being Earnest”> primarily because of the moral reputation of its author. Joyce persuades him to take the part in the production by appealing to Carr’s vanity in matters of dress. In sum, Carr appears to be a silly, prudish and vain . In Act Two, a disguised Carr seeks out Cecily in the library and argues with her about Lenin’s views on the relationship between art and politics. Cecily maintains that art is not valuable except for the sake of the political ends it might serve: ‘The sole duty and justification for art is social criticism’. Furthermore, she relegates to the realm of decadence all non-political art, including both Joyce’s traditional and Tzara’s revolutionary forms. A few scenes later, Lenin expresses the same opinions in his speech to the Russian crowd: Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog in the Social Democra tic mechanism. . . . Given the close correspondence between Lenin’s views and Cecily’s, Carr’s argument with Cecily can be taken as a confrontation between his aesthetic position and that of Lenin; Cecily serves as Lenin’s spokesperson. Although Carr shares Lenin’s low estimation of the intrinsic value of art, he does not agree with the complete subordination of art to political ends. Lenin’s position, like Joyce’s and Tzara’s, constitutes an idealistic extreme, and Carr again chooses a more practical, middle position. He points out to Cecily that her assertion about social criticism being the sole duty of art contradicts practical experience; in fact, much of what is called art has no socially critical function. While Cecily claims to be”>describing”> the purpose of art, she is actually attempting, Carr notes, to “>redefine”> art, and her proposed redefinition suffers from the same shortcomings as Tzara’s. What Carr demands is that any definition of art correspond, not to the ideological goals of the definer, but to the phenomenon of art as it has been experienced historically. He rejects Cecily’s definition because of the existence of Victorian high comedy and, especially, of Gilbert and Sullivan. At this point, particularly in his defence of Victorian high comedy, Carr seems to have come around in support of Joyce’s aesthetic position, for Victorian high comedy has been associated in the play with Joyce, and Carr has not previously seemed much in favour of it. In the conversation with Cecily, Carr makes clear his rejection of Lenin’s aesthetic position. Later, he further undercuts Lenin’s insistence on the social utility of art by reminding himself that Lenin’s personal tastes in art did not coincide with his public pronouncements about art. The Lenin that Carr remembers liked Chekhov’s “>Uncle Vanya”> and Beethoven’s “>Appasionata, “>neither of which functions as social criticism. As a whole, then, Act Two focuses on pointing up the contrast between Carr’s view and Lenin’s, just as Act One set up oppositions between Carr and Tzara and between Carr and Joyce. In the final analysis, Carr supports none of the views represented by the three major historical figures. Instead, he presents an independent position of his own, a position which rejects the various idealisms of Tzara, Joyce and Lenin in favour of a practical consideration of what art has been and what it has accomplished. In this respect, Carr’s position is as worthy of consideration in its own right as any of the others that the play presents. Of course, Carr does not win the debate. Stoppard creates a balance among the four opposing aesthetic viewpoints presented in the play, a balance that does not tip in Carr’s favour even though his memory controls most of the events in the play. First, there is Carr’s relatively minor status as a historical figure by comparison to his better-known opponents, and Stoppard’s comic treatment of him as excessively vain about his personal appearance and inordinately fond of Gilbert and Sullivan. Second, none of the other participants ever acknowledges the validity of Carr’s ideas; the various arguments inevitably end as standoffs. Third, even in his own version of the events, Carr must acknowledge that he has been neither as artistically successful as Joyce nor as politically effective as Lenin. Finally, the play closes with Old Cecily reminding Carr and the audience that, however convincing Carr’s arguments may have seemed, the situations that stimulated them never really occurred.