Tristan Tzara and Dada


Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)

Born in Romania under the name Samuel Rosenstock, Tristan Tzara was introduced to the Symbolist art movement by poet Adrian Maniu. Symbolism stood in opposition to realistic art, emphasizing emotions, feelings, and ideas, and often featuring mystic or religious imagery. Together with poet Ion Vinea and painter Marcel Janco, Tzara founded the magazine Simbolul shortly prior to the First World War, when he was just 16 years old. It was during the War that he moved to Zurich, co-founding the Cabaret Voltaire, which became known as the “cradle of Dada.”  Featuring experimental forms of performance, poetry, art, and more, the Cabaret Voltaire was where early Dadaist manifestos were read, many of which were written by Tzara, who could often be spotted sporting a monocle and suit, or even with “DADA” written on his forehead.

In 1919, after the War and the closing of Cabaret Voltaire, Tzara moved to Paris, where he joined the staff of Littérature magazine. Tzara and one of the magazine’s editors, André Breton, often clashed over their shared desire to lead, with Breton eventually breaking away from Dada and speaking out against Tzara in public. In 1923, a production of Tzara’s play Gas Heart provoked fights among those in support and those against Dadaism. Meanwhile, Breton had begun to write manifestos about a new artistic movement: Surrealism. An evolution of Dada that focused on the power of the subconscious mind and dreams, Surrealism grew in popularity, overtaking Dada and eventually winning over Tzara. By the beginning of the Second World War, however, Tzara had decided that being an artist was not an effective way to fight the Nazis. He joined the Communist Party, lived in hiding in France for much of the War, and remained a passionate anti-war advocate until his death in 1963.



With its first manifestos written towards the end of the First World War, Dada is an artistic movement that is often called “anti-art.” Tristan Tzara, one of its founders, famously declared that “art is a private affair, the artist produces it for himself; an intelligible work is the product of a journalist.” Dada sought to defy and destroy artistic conventions by freeing itself from logic, and by using techniques such as simultaneous action and an antagonistic relationship with the audience.

A perfect example of what Dada stood for artistically and politically was the inaugural performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. For the occasion, Tzara and fellow poets Richard Huelsenbeck and Marcel Janco each read poems they had written…at the same time. The cacophony created was meant to “annihilate the language by which the war was justified,” which was key to the movement’s philosophy. If language is what structures our lives and allows us to perpetuate violence against each other, then art needs to undermine language.

Dadaists aimed to derail audience expectations and undermine the meaning of words so that the world could be looked at with fresh eyes. Chance operations, such as cutting up newspapers to create a poem (as seen in the opening of Travesties) were often used to create work towards this end, forcing creators to free themselves from their intentions and ego.

Despite their often-aggressive performances, Dada’s founders were pacifists and believed that the best way to avoid future wars was to destroy pre-existing structures and start anew. While the movement eventually lost momentum to Surrealism, it remains an important example of the intersection of art and politics in a tumultuous era.

Travesties is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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The Importance of Henry Carr


Unlike the other the major characters in Travesties, the real Henry Carr holds little claim to fame. Stoppard learned about Carr and became intrigued by a real-life incident mentioned in a biography of James Joyce. In Zurich during World War I, Joyce worked with an English theatre to produce Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Joyce cast a mix of professionals and amateurs, including Henry Carr, an Englishman living in exile, as the lead role of Algernon. Apparently, Carr gave an enthusiastic performance, but afterwards, a small financial dispute with Joyce escalated into dueling lawsuits. Carr sued Joyce for reimbursement on clothes he bought as his costume; Joyce counter-sued Carr for money owed on five tickets. Carr lost his case and was further punished by Joyce when he named an unlikeable character in Ulysses after Carr. Stoppard knew little more about the real Henry Carr while writing Travesties; however, after its 1974 London premiere, a surprise letter from Carr’s widow provided more details of the real man’s life.

Henry Wilfred Carr (1894-1962) was born and raised in Northeast England. At 17 he moved to Canada and worked for a bank, then volunteered for military service with the Royal Highland Canadian Infantry during WWI. He was wounded while fighting in France, then captured as a prisoner of war by the Germans. He was sent, along with approximately 700 British prisoners, to recover in Switzerland, in accordance with an agreement made by the International Red Cross allowing soldiers from all over Europe to recover in Switzerland. Carr’s infamous encounter with Joyce occurred in spring of 1918, and he left Zurich when the war ended that November. Carr’s post-war life was unexceptional. He worked for a department store in Montreal in the 1920s, then moved back to England with his second wife, Noël Bach, in 1933. He worked for a metal factory in Sheffield and commanded a Home Guard in Warwickshire during World War II. He died of a heart attack in 1962, leaving no children. In his introduction to Travesties, Stoppard  writes: “I am indebted to Mrs. Noël Carr for these biographical details, and, particularly, for her benevolence towards me and towards what must seem to her a peculiarly well-named play.”


Stoppard’s Travesty of “Earnest”

Throughout Travesties, Stoppard uses characters, plot points, and quotations from The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s renowned 1899 comedy. Beloved for its witty dialogue, the farce follows the antics of bachelors Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing. Both men create alter egos named Ernest to escape their lives and pursue the hearts of Cecily and Gwendolen, who are each determined to marry a man named Ernest. Jack is unable to win the approval of Gwendolen’s imperious mother, Lady Bracknell, after revealing he was found in a handbag at as a baby. A complex tangle of deception and mistaken identities ensues—including the women’s rivalry over the same “Ernest”—until misperceptions are cleared and the couples are united. Wilde satirized English society and the Victorian obsession with respectability, but the play remains popular with modern audiences, most recently at Roundabout during its Tony-nominated 2011 revival.

Scenes from Roundabout Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest


Examples of how Stoppard reworks Wilde's dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest in Travesties


In his travesty of “Earnest”, Stoppard has Henry Carr stand in for Algernon, the role he played in Joyce’s 1918 production.

Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties


Stoppard imagines Tristan Tzara in the role of Jack, although Tzara was not in the Zurich production.

Seth Numrich as Tristan Tzara in Travesties


Stoppard transplants his own versions of Wilde’s Cecily and Gwendolen into Travesties. (Fun Fact: Sarah Topham who now plays Cecily in Travesties, played Gwendolyn in RTC’s production of Earnest).

Sara Topham and Scarlett Strallen as Cecily and Gwendolyn in Travesties


Stoppard imagines James Joyce in the role of imperious Lady Bracknell, perhaps a nod to Joyce's artistic differences with Tzara and economic battle with Carr.

Peter McDonald as James Joyce in Travesties


Travesties is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2017-2018 Season, Travesties

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Stoppard on Stoppard


Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Indian Ink

While Travesties is a memory play that deals with the purpose of art in society, it spans across many different topics, including morality, communism, Dadaism, artistic creation, and perception of the past. This play does not stray from the hallmarks of Tom Stoppard’s writing style, which weaves seemingly disparate subjects into one story. Some of his other works touch on such unexpectedly-paired topics as art and colonialism in Indian Ink or mathematics, science, love, and death in Arcadia. At first glance, these plays may feel daunting, but it is important to keep in mind that Stoppard is not writing a textbook or manifesto; he is simply writing a script with characters who have basic human wants and emotions. So even though Stoppard himself has acknowledged that his plays can feel like a game of “infinite leap-frog,” you’ll find that they aren’t as complicated as they may initially seem. It is not necessary to be a Russian historian or professor of Irish literature to enjoy this play. He is using a complex approach to get at the heart of questions that will engage us long after the curtain falls. As theatre critic Anita Gates says: “You can put your brain on red alert, sit up straight and listen intently to all of Tom Stoppard’s clever wordplay … Or you can relax, sit back and allow the play to wash over you, appreciating the verbal gems that come through clearly and letting the others pass.” Here are some statements that Stoppard has made about his own writing, which may give context to anyone grappling with the dramatic acrobatics of Travesties.

Tom Hollander in Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Travesties

“There is very often no single, clear statement in my plays. What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leap-frog. What happens in my plays is a kind of marriage of categories. It’s not my objective in the sense that I calculate it—it just seems to be what I’m doing, the way things come out. But I want to marry the play of ideas to farce. Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that’s the way it comes out.”


“If you consider the mixing up of ideas in farce a source of confusion, well, yes, God knows why I try to do it like that—presumably because I am like that. Plays are the people who write them. Seriousness compromised by frivolity. . . . My plays are a lot to do with the fact that I just don’t know.”


“[Travesties is] about Lenin and Joyce and Tzara in Zurich in 1917, but it’s not a historical play.”


“It’s worth asking whether the artist and the revolutionary can be the same person or whether the activities are mutually exclusive…How would you justify Ulysses to Lenin? Or Lenin to Joyce?”


“I think that art provides the moral matrix from which we draw our values about what the world ought to be like.”


“I write for a fairly broad audience, with me plumb in the middle. I don’t write for rareified audiences. I don’t think of myself as being rareified.”


“Most of the propositions I’m interested in have been kidnapped and dressed up by academic philosophy, but they are in fact the kind of proposition that would occur to any intelligent person in his bath. They’re not academic questions, simply questions which have been given academic status.”


Travesties is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Travesties

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