Smile Politely

Travesties explores the nature of art and politics

It’s tough to tell from the title what Tom Stoppard’s Travesties is about. The University of Illinois Theatre Department will be staging the performance beginning October 19th, so, here is a bit of background on this extraordinary play.

Stoppard has used historical events many times as the center of his plays. But what is unique about Travesties is that he takes a minor event of a minor British consular official, and wraps an entire historical text around him. His name was Henry Carr, and if you have not heard of him, don’t worry — almost no one has.

Stoppard ran into Henry Carr reading Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce (pictured below left). Carr was a minor consular official in Zurich, Switzerland, during the later stages of World War I. Joyce was also living in Zurich then and they collided when Carr was cast in production Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The result was a well received production (in English) of this great play — and mutual lawsuits.

Carr, in particular, was praised as Algernon Moncrieff, but that was not enough for him. He presented Joyce, the Business Manager of this theater group known as The English Players, with a bill for one pair of trousers. Carr claimed he has purchased the trousers especially for this part; Joyce countered by say they were trousers that could be worn in one’s daily circumstances.
Carr could have left it there, but he called Joyce a cad and swindler, and that prompted a counter suit by Joyce against Carr for slander. A judge ruled in favor of both of them and no one was happy. From that minor event, Stoppard created a masterful narrative of history, word play, limericks, constant references to “The Importance of Being Earnest” and even a lengthy spoof of the vaudeville song, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”.
Stoppard adds to that his further discovery that Dada founder, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin were in Zurich at the same time. They may or may not have encountered Henry Carr, but they weave in and out of “Travesties”, and fun just gets better.
As Stoppard said in the introduction to his script:
“From these meagre facts about Henry Carr — and being able to discover others — I conjured up an elderly gentlemen still living in Zurich, married to girl he met in the library during the Lenin years, and recollecting, perhaps not with entire accuracy, his encounters with Joyce and the Dadaist Tzara”
In fact, the history of these four men does not quite chronologically match, but Stoppard compresses and rearranges the facts through his main character. Stoppard uses the rambling monologues of an 80-year old Henry Carr, whose hold and focus on facts is more than questionable. Carr naturally muddles facts, chronologies, and the plot of Wilde’s play with his personal history in Zurich.
The result is a challenge to audience members’ knowledge of history, theater, and linguistics. As Stoppard’s wit permeates almost every scene, he still has one more message for his audience to consider: Buried massively in the subtext is an extended essay on the nature of art and politics.
I asked guest director, Laura Hackman, what attracted her to this great, but complex play: “Frankly I can’t imagine ever turning down the opportunity to direct one of Stoppard’s plays, and I think this represents Stoppard at his best.”
OK, but any issues with a student cast? She said: “There are multiple reasons I was excited to direct this challenging piece with students at the University of Illinois. The university has provided a longer rehearsal process than we could have had at a professional theatre, which is a great advantage for such a complex play”.
The lengthy role of Henry Carr (picured right) has long monologues, one longer than 150 lines. Did you have a problems casting that role or any others?
“The actors are a fabulous combination of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as Chris Sheard, a professional actor who earned his MFA in the program years ago, and he will take on the mammoth role of Henry Carr”.
Ms. Hackman further notes: “Chris walked into the first day rehearsal off book for for all of Act I and much of Act II. So, from day 1, he’s been able to concentrate on the large and difficult task of understanding and embodying the complex character of Henry Carr”.
Travesties opened to critical praise in 1974 and became an instant classic winning awards everywhere, including the 1976 Tony Award for Best Play. In that moment rediscovery of those obscure obscure events in Zurich, Stoppard received a letter from Henry Carr’s widow. Carr had died in London in 1962 of a heart attack. He had no children. Naturally, she more than a bit surprised her late husband , a minor consular figure, had just become a major character in a major play.
Travesties opens October 19th and runs a a weekend schedule through October 29tg at Krannert’s Colwell Playhouse. For further information go to, or call the Krannert box office at 217-333-6280.
Top photo from Krannert’s website.

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