Tom Stoppard hadn’t planned to write Travesties, his audacious 1974 dramatic musing on art and revolution that put novelist James Joyce, Dadaist Tristan Tzara and Russian iconoclast V.I. Lenin in the same room in 1917 Zurich. As Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s revival of the play runs on apace as the wild card of the Perthshire-based theatre’s summer season of five shows after opening last week, more than forty years on it is clear that Travesties hasn’t lost its multi-faceted mojo. The roots of the play stem partly from Stoppard’s friendship with actor John Wood, and a promise to write him a new play, and partly from reading a biography of Joyce.
“I’d written my play Jumpers for the National Theatre a couple of years before, but John was working for the RSC, so I said to him, never mind, I’ll write you another play,” says Stoppard, who turned a stately 81-years-old this week. “I was reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, and when I came across the fact that Joyce, Tzara and Lenin had all been in the same place, that sounded promising, but I didn’t want John to be part of a three-legged stool. Then I came across the bit part of Henry Carr, and I felt there was more there to explore.”
Carr was a real-life official working for the British consulate in Zurich, who is mentioned in Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. In Stoppard’s play, we see him as a somewhat senile old man who unveils an unreliable memoir that puts him centre-stage in a fantasia of seismic events that frequently lurch into realms of the absurd. This reveals Carr as something of a fan-boy basking in reflected glory as he takes a lead role in an am-dram production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
“It’s the story told by a fantasist,” says Stoppard, “and that gives you a lot of wiggle room in terms of how you present that. I’d always enjoyed doing parody and pastiche from a young age, but I was a bit frightened of doing the Lenin stuff, so I decided to do those bits as documentary.”
Out of this comes a debate on the nature of art, in which Tzara’s cut-ups and Joyce’s own literary experiments end up looking like two sides of the same coin.
“I think I benefitted quite a lot from writing those passages,” Stoppard says. “I remember, if you like, making them up as I went along, and thinking about how to portray a two-way argument. If you take Joyce and Tzara as examples of that, temperamentally I’m a Joycean, but I remember thinking that this wasn’t going to work unless I gave Tzara something to work with. I was quite naïve. I think of myself as a late developer, and these weren’t really arguments that I knew anything about, so it was quite exciting learning about these arguments as I was writing the play.
Travesties may have initially graced the Aldwych Theatre in London in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s original production, but in its playful spirit it looks and feels like a latter-day fringe play. Its mixing and matching of forms too now looks like a pre-cursor to the irreverence of companies such as Kneehigh.
“My impression is that Travesties isn’t one of the three or four plays I’ve written that get done repeatedly,” says Stoppard, citing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Real Thing, Jumpers and Arcadia as more user friendly favourites, “but whenever Travesties has been done, word of mouth has always been that it’s really good fun. When people have written about the play, it all sounds quite intellectual and hard going, when actually it’s much more fun than that suggests.”
This has certainly been the case judging by the success of assorted productions over the years. The 1976 Broadway run of the play saw it scoop Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, as well as a Best Comedy award. Last year, Patrick Marber’s revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London featuring Tom Hollander as Henry Carr and Forbes Masson as Lenin broke box office records and transferred to the west end. In April, Marber’s production opened on Broadway, where it won four Tonys.
Richard Baron’s Pitlochry production is PFT’s current season director’s third stab at Stoppard’s play, following his previous looks at it in Nottingham and at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. All of these, one suspects, have adopted various approaches to the play’s madcap content, something encouraged by Stoppard.
“Whenever I’ve been I rehearsals I’ve always fiddled with it,” says Stoppard. “I imagine Pitlochry are doing the new edition of the play. Patrick Marber was quite inventive, so I let him do what he wanted to do. He didn’t necessarily think that everything that goes on in the play should be part of the text, which is fine by me. I always bang on that theatre is the event, not the text. My plays are never frozen, but I should be around if anyone is going to unfreeze things. You learn that some things can be a moveable feast, and I’m quite grateful when Travesties gets done, because it’s actually rather complicated.”
As time has moved on since Travesties first appeared, judging by Baron’s production, it has become easier to contextualise the play. This is the case both stylistically in terms of a current wave of onstage irreverence by younger companies epitomised by Blood of the Young’s current take on Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Historically too, Travesties seems to have caught up with itself.
“It’s odd,” says Stoppard, “because when I was writing Travesties, the events in the play weren’t yet fifty years old. Now here we are, not far off another fifty years, and so many years have passed that we seem to have almost changed the length of the telescope that we’re looking at it through.”
Travesties, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Saturday, 2pm, July 11 and 14, 8pm, then in repertory until October 10.
The Herald, July 5th 2018