Chance Encounters in Wartime Zurich
Tom Stoppard comedy Travesties, first performed in 1974, is set in Zurich during the First World War. The plot ostensibly revolves around the efforts of Henry Carr, a minor official in the British consulate and an amateur actor, to stage Oscar Wilde turn-of-the-century farce The Importance of Being Earnest. But the glitter of Travesties comes from the portraits of historical personalities who happen to be living in Switzerland at the time, and whose activities are being recalled many years later by an aging, forgetful, and self-congratulatory Carr.
Though Stoppard does not hesitate to mix fact and fancy, it is indeed true that many individuals of historical moment congregated in war-spared Zurich during what was universally called the Great War. Carr reminisces: " Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, and poets, writers, radicals of all kind."★ The Stoppard play centers on three of these figures: a little-known Irish writer, James Joyce; an obscure Russian revolutionary, V. I. Lenin; and a half-crazed Rumanian artist-intellectual, Tristan Tzara, who is fashioning dadaism, an aesthetic brand of nihilism. These exiles go about their business--respectively, writing the great novel, planning the Russian Revolution, and redefining art, politics, and life.
While Wilde's play, redolent of an earlier and less turbulent era, is being rehearsed, the protagonists banter about themes of the modern era. Lenin declares: "Literature must become party literature. . . . As for me, I'm a barbarian. Expressionism, futurism, cubism . . . I don't understand them and I get no pleasure from them." Tzara puts forth his view: "Doing the____________________