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Stoppard's Travesties: parodying and mystifying Wilde's aesthetics.

Oscar Wilde and his works are among the most popular materials that have been again and again re-constructed or re-written by contemporary writers. Peter Ackroyd's The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Terry Eagleton's Saint Oscar, Mark Ravenhill's Handbag, or The Importance of Being Someone, Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw, and Tom Stoppard's Travesties and The Invention of Love are some examples that reflect "the two basic modes of intertextual dialogue with the cultural icon. [...] Wilde's life or his works" (Pfister 359).

Tom Stoppard's Travesties, based on allusion, pastiche and parody, is a rewriting of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. Travesties deliberately draws on the cultural memory and aesthetic views of the Wilde icon seeking to reassert the function of art for its own sake as well as acknowledging its function in cultivating or improving taste. Questions related to the function and nature of art and the role of the artist, according to John Fleming, "form[s] part of Stoppard's internal debate" as he has been recognized as "a flashy, entertaining, apolitical, intellectual artist" (101). While his 1972 radio play Artist Descending a Staircase deals with these artistic arguments, Travesties extends the debate to the relationship between art and politics; an issue that personally concerns Stoppard: "One of the impulses in Travesties is to try to sort out what my answer would in the end be if I was given enough time to think every time I 'm asked why my plays aren't political, or ought they to be?" (Hayman 7). Stoppard tries to resolve "an ongoing debate with [himself] over the importance of the artist" (Wetzsteon 82) by centering Travesties on an intricate argument "whether an artist has to justify himself in political terms at all" (Hudson, Itzin, and Trussler 69).

Constructing Travesties on Wilde's play, at first, is a mere coincidence. Upon a remark of a friend that Dadaist Tzara, Lenin, and perhaps Freud were living in Zurich in 1916, Stoppard decides to write a play "a two act-thing, with one act a Dadaist play on Communist ideology and the other an ideological functional drama about Dadaists" (Gussow 8). As Stoppard digs in history he discovers that James Joyce was also in Zurich during World War I. This changes his attitude towards his initial material. He wants to know "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?" (20-1). The historical figures of Lenin, Tzara, and Joyce are now ready to discuss all these issues related to art, but the narrative is lacking. As John Fleming states, Stoppard "had the characters who could debate his chosen themes, but until he learned of the Earnest production he had no narrative: this sparked the idea of grafting his plot onto Wilde's" (103).

Coincidence or not, Wilde's Earnest, a parody or even a travesty of Victorian "earnestness", functions both structurally and thematically to demonstrate the validity of Wilde's aesthetic, articulated in his The Decay of Lying, that "[l]ying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art" (1091-2). Approaching art from this perspective liberates it from all kind of moral purpose and makes it, in Wildean terms, quite "useless" for any utilitarian purpose and detached from society and ideological intentions. Wilde's art is detached from life and divorced from reality; "his language" is constantly "separating itself from its social background" (Paglia 534). Hence, having lost its ties with life, the relationship between art and life is also inverted so that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life" (Wilde, The Decay of Lying 1082). Wilde believes that nature is imperfect and therefore needs the perfecting aid of art, a role which art performs by its creativity and imagination; hence, fiction or lying.

Wilde's aestheticism provides the basis for Stoppard's stance in the art-politics debate. Stoppard never overtly asserts that art and politics are exclusive. In his play, he rather "wishes to give the impression of straddling the fence in the art-politics debates" (Kelly, Guralnick, Delaney 354). Thus, he juxtaposes the divergent opinions of his characters on Dadaism, Marxism, and modernism and by putting extremely convincing arguments in their mouths, makes the audience consider each side of the topic. Since Tzara, Lenin, and Joyce are also travesties of the real historical figures, whatever is attributed to the real character is inverted or trivialized in the play. The collision of ideas mystifies the topic and creates confusion about the real function of art and the artist. While none of the characters seems to be privileged over the other, critics like Katherine E. Kelly claim that Stoppard "stacks the cards in favor of art (i.e., limericks-pouting 'James Joyce' emerges the clear hero of the play, while 'Lenin' is consigned to a mock-documentary but aesthetically inferior position) (Kelly, Guralnick, Delaney 354). Hence, Wilde's art for art's sake is justified and implicitly reasserted by Stoppard.

My argument here is that Stoppard's play reaffirms Wilde's aesthetics of the autonomy of art. Nevertheless, Stoppard modifies and extends it by paradoxically hinting at the implication that art also functions as a corrective to society since art cannot be divorced from life that easily; the boundaries between life and art are not as clear as we imagine them to be. Though not in Lenin and Tzara's sense, but art might have some revolutionary effects. As Christopher Innes comments about Stoppard's stance on the topic, art functions obliquely and "[t]he revolutionary function of art is aesthetic, creating social change through changing the way reality is perceived" (335). This can be best explicated by another Wildean assertion that "a truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true" (Wilde, Plays, Prose Writings and Poems vii). Hence, this essay will focus on the play as a parodic re-writing of Wilde's premises on art, which mystifies by raising questions rather than providing answers.

Stoppard's Travesties consists of two acts: in the first act, Carr and Tzara argue about the relativity of language and the function of the artist followed up by the discussion of the same topic by Joyce and Tzara; in the second one, it is mostly Lenin's thoughts about art and politics that are presented. After that, the final scene of Earnest (where Jack's real identity is revealed) is parodied in Travesties through the discovery of the "missing chapter" of Joyce's Ulysses. The play begins with the indication that most of the action takes place in Henry Carr's memory, who is also the main character and narrator, but we cannot rely on it since it is defective and amnesic. Carr's illusive memory provides the shifting perspective through which the play becomes the embodiment of parody or travesty as its title suggests. In Bakhtin's terminology parody is double-voiced discourse that uses another text or style to create "a semantic intention that is directly opposed to it" (193). It involves gross distortion and incongruity. Drawing on Wilde's aesthetics of "earnestness" displayed in Earnest, Travesties turns around the question of perception reflected through the distorted memory of Carr and the travestied figures of important historical and literary personalities such as Joyce, Tzara, and Lenin, all of whom have something to say about the function of art. Stoppard's approach in his play can be summed up as a "combination of philosophically significant issues with intellectually trivial theatrical ingredients" that produces the incongruity, while raising or generating significant questions as to the nature of art and its production, the function of art, linguistic ambiguity, meaning and memory, the unsettled debate between fact and fiction, and life and art (Innes 327). Through an ironic prism it tries to touch upon and illuminate these issues by also parodying them.

Travesties confronts life with art by transferring, or fusing, real life characters into a dramatic form filtered through Henry Carr's amnesic memory--himself an actual minor British Consular official based in Zurich during the war. Joyce offers the role of Algernon to Carr when he stagesEarnest in Zurich. Unfortunately, the two men's affair ends in a lawsuit about the payment of tickets and trousers. Joyce takes his revenge by presenting Henry Carr as a drunken soldier in his masterpiece Ulysses.

Lenin, Tzara, and Joyce are the three revolutionaries, the three canons of politics, modern art, and literature that shook the pillars of society and culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Each of the three characters fought against the mediocre middle class ideology and tastes in politics and art, in order to lay the foundations of a better society and expression in art. Set in the "pacific civilian Switzerland of 1917" however, the play reflects conditions "that fostered vain pretenses which later incited political terror, aesthetic absurdities, and literary confusion" (Orlich 372). Underneath the trivial and polished dialogue of the characters lies the selfish and cruel aesthetic, literary, and political ambitions that undermine the stability of century. The characters are displayed as travesty of what they aim to establish.

Taken from life, the four characters are re-inscribed into a dramatic form to become, in Wildean terms, "Art's rough material" by being "translated into artistic conventions" (The Decay of Lying 1091). Through Carr's flawed memory, Stoppard attempts to rewrite history epitomized by these three figures and correct the crimes committed against art. Carr's memories distort facts and present them as fiction. Thus, the audience is offered a travesty of history, as well as, a travesty of canonical figures such as Joyce, Lenin and Tzara whose historical significance is dwarfed and inverted within the play. The play engages in a constant deconstruction of strongly held views and ideals about the function of art and its relationship with revolution by juxtaposing and contrasting characters' views.

Stoppard's historical characters and events are embedded within the plot of Wilde's Earnest. Wilde's play significantly demonstrates his own provocative assertions that the proper aim of art should be lying, which he deliberately uses to signify imagination, since the play revolves around a lie which ultimately becomes the truth at the end of the play. Jack Worthing, who lies about being Earnest, discovers that he has been Earnest all through his life. Wilde's play consciously parodies the Victorian ideals of "earnestness" by making the play lie about sincerity. The meaning of "earnestness" is deconstructed so that it finally comes to mean everything that it is not. Evaluating the centrality of sincerity in the play, Eric Bentley says that it

is about earnestness, that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness which means hypocrisy, priggishness, and lack of irony. Wilde proclaims that earnestness is less praiseworthy than the ironic attitude to life, which is regarded as superficial. Wilde calls The Importance of Being Earnest a trivial comedy for serious people meaning, in the first place, a comedy which will be thought negligible by the earnest and, in the second, a comedy of surface for connoisseurs. (in Orlich 373)

In a similar fashion, most of the action in Travesties, as Stoppard himself emphasizes at the beginning of the play, "takes place within Carr's memory" which is senile. Everything that has been revealed as truth throughout the play becomes a travesty of this truth; nothing but a lie, illusion exposed by Carr's old wife Cecily at the end of the play. Cecily corrects Carr in the coda that Bennett was actually the British Consul of Zurich and Carr was his employee. Carr, however, imagines Bennett as his manservant in the rewrite of the opening scene of Earnest. Eventually, this also casts shadow on the consistency of his representation of Lenin, Tristan and Joyce. He also repeats "Is there anything of interest?" several times in the same scene which signals the "time slips" in the play and merging of real and imaginary: old Carr and his reconstructed past, the historical significance of the three characters and their fictional representation, the real and the dramatic, etc. As Sammells writes, "memory functions in Travesties in the same duplicitous way as the fictionalizing imagination" (79). The play enacts Wilde's assertion that "historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact" while modern artists "present[s] us with dull facts under the guise of fiction" (The Decay of Lying 1073). Stoppard ironically hints at the analogy between memory and the creative imagination (Rayner 136). He also depicts the impossibility of pure reality or truth. All truth is subjective depending on which perspective or prism you are looking at it; hence the ironical significance of the play's earlier title as Prism. Indeed, the ultimate point Travesties seems to make, as many other plays by Stoppard, is that illusion and reality cannot be opposed in a conceptual universe bound with the laws of subjectivity and relativity, where we can speak only of an infinite number of infinitely shifting realities" (Ozdemir 186). Fleming, however, accepts that Stoppard's plays reflect "uncertainty and instability as being central components of human life", but he believes that they "also embrace order, logic, and those things that provide stability in an uncertain world" (257).

A deeper sense in which Travesties engages with Wilde's play involves Wilde's aesthetic, which is based on the principle "that art is 'useless'" (Brown 71). Wilde uses the term useless to indicate that art cannot be reduced to any utilitarian purposes such as conveying useful information or carrying moral responsibility. Art is useless in that it does not bear any simple referentiality to life. In fact, life imitates art more than art imitates life:

All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. (Wilde, The Decay of Lying 1091)

Travesties demonstrates this premise both thematically and structurally. By incorporating elements of Earnest--dialogues, scenes, characters, the dramatic action and plot itself--it absorbs and reaffirms "the ideologically loaded 'uselessness' inscribed in The Importance of Being Earnest as the epitome of the kind of literature Wilde championed in his critical writings" (Ozdemir 188). Life is divided from art in Wilde. According to Camille Paglia, Wilde's Earnest is "divorced from social function" and "society is divorced from practical reality" (554). Lady Bracknell's words about Jack's origins cannot be taken seriously. They are meant to create laughter and the audience laughs at the beauty of her dialogue:

To be born, or at any rate, bred in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume what that unfortunate movement led to? (Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest268)

Paglia argues that this cannot be taken as a criticism of fashionable life. Wilde is not "satirizing" Lady Bracknell, but making her beautiful. She is "beautiful because she is absurd" (554).

Contemplating on art, Stoppard parodies his characters to the extent that finally they become travesties of what they actually represent. Not one of the characters manages to escape Stoppard's ironic twists played on the sincerity of their own creeds and convictions. In the second act, where Lenin is heard speaking in a paraphrase of Algernon and Lady Bracknell, the travestying reaches a climax; it is both ironic and absurd. Stoppard's comedy, here, derives from the beauty of style and wit, rather than content:

Lenin: Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example what on earth is the use of them?! They seem as a class to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility! To lose one revolution is unfortunate. To lose two would look like carelessness! (58)

The ironic effect in Lenin's words develops from his becoming a travesty of Lady Bracknell, the Victorian upper-class matriarch, the ultimate embodiment of what Lenin hates. Moreover, as Fleming states, "Lenin's sentiments on the lower classes are diametrically opposed to the words he seems to say" (105). In a similar fashion, Stoppard offers his audience bits of self-contradiction in Tzara as well. In the first act, Tzara and Carr argue whether the meaning is objective or relative. Each are convincing in their argument. After that, they proceed in a heated argument over the politics of war:

Carr: the nerve of it. Wars are fought to make the world safe for artists. It is never quite put in those terms but it is a useful way of grasping what civilized ideals are all about. The easiest way of knowing whether good has triumphed over evil is to examine the freedom of the artist. The ingratitude of artists, indeed their hostility, not to mention the loss of nerve and failure of talent which accounts for 'modern art', merely demonstrate the freedom of the artist to be ungrateful, hostile, self-centred and talentless, for which freedom I went to war.

Tzara: Wars are fought for oil wells and coaling stations; for control of the Dardanelles or the Suez Canal; for colonial pickings to buy cheap in and conquered markets to sell dear in. War is capitalism with the gloves off and many who go to war know it but they go to war because they don't want to be a hero. It takes courage to sit down and be counted. But how much better to live bravely in Switzerland than to die cravenly in France, quite apart from it does to one's trousers.

Carr: [...] I'll tell you what's really going on: I went to war because it was my duty, because my country needed me, and that's patriotism. I went to war because I believed that those boring little Belgians and incompetent Frogs had the right to be defended from German militarism, and that's love of freedom....

Tzara: Quite right! You ended up in the trenches, because on the 28th of June 1900 the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary married beneath him and found out that the wife he loved was never allowed to sit next to him on royal occasions, except! When he was acting in his military capacity as Inspector General of the Austro-Hungarian army-in which capacity he therefore decided to inspect the army in Bosnia, so that at least on their wedding anniversary, the 28th of June 1914, they might ride side by side in an open carriage through the streets of Sarajevo! (22-3)

Both characters are convincing in their opposing views and both views equally seem to be offering the truth. In this scene, Tzara contradicts himself and his Dadaist views that are based on chance: "causality is no longer fashionable owing to the war" (19). On the other hand, Carr claims that "war itself had causes" (19). Although different from Carr's reasons, Tzara ironically presents "causes" for the war. Fleming interprets the scene as pointing "to a need to minimize the manipulation of language so that events can be seen as clearly as possible" not as suggesting "anti-art and turning everything on its head" as Tzara and his Dadaism declared (110). Another ironic and comic example provided by the inversion of intention is the words Tzara utters while evaluating Lenin's folder of social critique, assuming wrongly that it is Joyce's folder. He says to Joyce:
   Furthermore, your book has much in common with your dress. As an
   arrangement of words it is graceless without being random; as a
   narrative it lacks charm or even vulgarity; as an experience it is
   like sharing a cell with a fanatic in search of a mania. (69)


Actually, Tzara is unknowingly criticizing Lenin's revolutionary views on social change that will be aided by the artist. Tzara's biased thoughts and admiration of Lenin are brilliantly displayed through an ironic prism. Also, it shows Tzara's ignorance about Lenin's views. In a much deeper sense, however, the conflation of Joyce's manuscript of Ulysses and Lenin's politics on art blurs the distinction between "political art" and "art for art's sake" providing, I think, one of the major parodic scenes, as well as, the gist of the play. Reading the folder with the utmost seriousness and strong conviction that it belongs to Joyce, Tzara is deluded. Or, should we interpret it as even the most contradictory theories might contain some common assumptions? The play goes back to its initial postulation that in complicated matters as art, it is difficult to suggest any single solution. A much flexible and humorous perspective seems better than rigid views.

In the argument about the function of art, which takes place between the four characters, Stoppard often stated that he was on Joyce's side, at least he felt closer to him than Tzara. Hinting through the sympathy and admiration the play embodies for Joyce and Wilde and distaste for Tzara and Lenin, it centers around the doctrine of art for art's sake, that art exists for the sake of its beauty and that it need not serve any political, didactic, or other purpose. Also, by travestying all these revolutionaries, Stoppard reflects his dislike for strong ideals and seriousness. He humorously undermines the earnestness of Lenin, Tzara, and Joyce (Orlich 373).

According to Kerensky, what Stoppard did not want with Travesties was the play ending up to be "an inconsequential Dadaist play" (86). Thomas Whitaker asserts that Travesties presents a trickier game than Stoppard's earlier plays "asking us to refract both the content and the style of our playing through an ironic prism that illuminates several large questions: How do we make art? Or revolution? Or history? Or, indeed, any kind of meaning? (The Prism of Travesty 194). Whitaker also identifies the overall style of the play with Joyce, and sees Joyce and Tzara as different representatives of two diverse aspects of modernism. He argues that from Tzara

descends the subversive tradition of 'anti-art' that has emphasized the spontaneous, absurd, and often socially provocative gesture, howl, or happening. From Joyce ... descends the formalist tradition of 'art' that has emphasized the long-mediated, comprehensive, seemingly apolitical and labyrinthine artifice. (Tom Stoppard, 120).

Near the end of the first act we see Joyce and Tzara engaged in a heated argument reflecting their views on art:

Tzara: [...] Your art has failed. You've turned literature into a religion and it's as dead as all the rest, it's an overripe corpse and you're cutting fancy figures at the wake. It's too late for geniuses! Now we need vandals and desecrators, simple-minded demolition man to smash centuries of baroque subtlety, to bring down the temple, and thus finally, to reconcile the shame and necessity of being an artist! Dada! Dada! Dada!

Joyce: You are an over-excited little man, with a need for self expression far beyond the scope of your natural gifts. This is not discreditable. Neither does it make you an artist. An artist is the magician put among men to gratify--capriciously-their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities. What now of the Trojan War if it had been passed over by the artist's touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A minor redistribution of broken pots. But it is we who stand enriched, by a tale of heroes -husband, father, son, lover, farmer, soldier, pacifist, politician, inventor, and adventurer [...] It is a theme so overwhelming that I am almost afraid to treat it. And yet I with my Dublin Odyssey will double that immortality, yes by God there's a corpse that will dance for some time yet and leave the world precisely as it finds it. (41-2) (emphasis original)

Joyce's statement about art emphasizes its function of assigning immortality to the artist while taking the raw material of life and molding it into the perfect forms of art. Without artist's imagination, or lies, life is imperfect and cruel. Also, art is divorced from its utilitarian function of conveying morals; the value of art comes from its correcting the deformities of life and presenting it beautifully. It can equally represent a tyrant as well as a common. Consequently, it becomes an affirmation of Wilde's aesthetic.

Joyce's statement, which remains undefeated in Travesties, also forms a dramatic contrast with Lenin's statement: "Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen!" (58). This speech draws the connection between Dadaist Tzara and Lenin who utter almost the same things. As Tzara character puts it, "I am the natural enemy of bourgeois art and the natural ally of the political left" (45). Stoppard implicitly reminds us the Zurich Dadaists' view that pointed out Lenin as the greatest Dada on earth. As Ileana Orlich notes "Dadaism's political aesthetics is closely related to the program of Leninist ideology formulated in opposition with the bourgeois establishment and aiming at a certain social end" (375). Tzara's speech above anticipates Lenin's militant ideology "whose professed goal was to crash the monsters of imperialism" and their art (376). A travesty of Lenin's views on art as politics is depicted in his fondness for Beethoven's "Appassionata:
   I don't know of anything greater than the Appassionata. Amazing,
   superhuman music. It always makes me feel, perhaps naively, it
   makes me feel proud of the miracles that human beings can perform.
   But I can't listen to music often. It affects my nerves, makes me
   want to say nice stupid things and pat the heads of those people
   who while living in this vile hell can create such beauty. Nowadays
   we can't pat heads, or we'll get our hands bitten off. We've got to
   hit heads, hit them without mercy, though ideally we're against
   doing violence to people [...] Hmm, one's duty is infernally hard.
   (62)


Subtly, Travesties implies the horrors of political extremes contrasting them with the healing and perfecting function of art. It seems that if Lenin had continued to listen to "Appassionata", he would have given up the idea of the revolution completely. More precisely, it points to the abuse and manipulation of art by those in power. Lenin is sarcastically depicted in contradiction to his doctrine of claiming the rights and well being of the oppressed; he himself becomes the persecutor.

Closely related to art and anti-art debate between Joyce and Tzara is the problem of tradition. Issues concerning the importance of tradition in art and the immortality of artistic production are effectively invoked in the scene where Gwendolen recites Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet. Tzara, who is the travesty of Jack in Wilde's play, is after Carr's sister, Gwendolen. She insists that she would marry him only under the condition that Tzara should share her regard for Mr. Joyce as an artist. Joyce, being now a travesty of Lady Bracknell here, requires Tzara/Jack to provide himself with the necessary equipment that would make him an artist: "I would strongly advise you to try and acquire some genius and if possible some subtlety before the season is quite over". (42). It is a paraphrase and replica of the funny scene between Lady Bracknell and Jack in Earnest where she utters the same words about Jack's origin-Lady Bracknell insists that before the season ends, Jack should produce at least one parent. The word "parent" implies the origins of one's own genealogy; it provides a sense of identity, background, and tradition. Drawing on this same speech, Stoppard seems to suggest that tradition in art provides some of the indispensable sources of imagination, craftiness, and subtlety for a true artist.

Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet is the very same poem which Tzara cuts into pieces, puts into a hat and finally recreates at random by picking up the pieced words. Stoppard deliberately shows that no art, even anti-art, can survive without a tradition. Even to claim that you are anti- you have to have a canon, a reference point, to react against. Fleming writes of the significance of the poem in the play as Shakespeare's traditional art and Shakespeare as tradition, being glorified over Tzara's non-intentional, anti-art:
   Gwendolyn recites the entire poem. Not only does the audience hear
   the grandeur and beauty of the original, but Tzara and Gwendolyn
   proceed with a conversation that is composed entirely of excerpts
   from Shakespeare. Here Stoppard's anthology of styles strives to
   show the superiority of conscious craftsmanship and linguistic
   mastery over the random and unstructured avant-garde. (112)


Throughout the play Stoppard creates witty dialogues and situations that reflect Carr's, Joyce's, Tzara's, and Lenin's views on art. By giving equal chance to each one of them, he actually provides different perspectives each with a valid argument that bewilders his audience. According to Christopher Innes, the questions he poses raise significant philosophical issues, which are "a means of challenging the audience to reevaluate their assumptions"(346). It seems, for Stoppard, that this is the way art revolutionizes and conditions people's beliefs. Stoppard's intellectual exercising on the function of art and the artist should not be taken as something inconclusive or open-ended:

While Stoppard's plays are known for stylistic flair, nothing in a Stoppard work is arbitrary; underneath the surface glitter the plays are highly ordered and underpinned with logic and a point of view. Relativity in a Stoppard play is not so much postmodern equivalence, as it is intellectual uncertainty--a hallmark of intellectualism is an open mind, the willingness to see the validity of an alternative perspective. (Fleming 256)

Stoppard gives the three characters equal representation "but not equal weight" (Wetzsteon 82). He has never valued too highly the kind of art represented by Dada. Instead, Stoppard acknowledges that he finds Joyce to be "an artist I can respect and sympathize with" (Eichelbaum 105). He has loaded the play for Joyce because to him "Joyce's evolution means more [...] than Tzara's revolution" (Wetzsteon 82). As Orlich explains "[w]hile holding in his hands the strings of ideology, art, and aesthetic attitudes, Stoppard seems to pull their ends and turn the gigantic body of twentieth-century culture into a formidable marionette" (380). While Dada and Lenin's political art collapsed, the permanence of Joyce's art affirmed the prevalence of art over life. The play reaffirms Wilde's aesthetic that art should be responsible only to itself and that life should imitate art, not the other way round. As Max Beerbohm said about Earnestin 1902,

[b]ut the fun depends mainly on what the characters say, rather than on what they do. They speak a kind of beautiful nonsense-the language of high comedy, twisted into fantasy. Throughout the dialogue is the horse-play of a distinguished intellect and a distinguished imagination--a horse-play among words and ideas, conducted with poetic dignity. (in Barnet, Berman, and Burto 140)

Likewise, in Stoppard's play characters communicate in a kind of beautiful nonsense. Travesties raises questions while displaying serious topics under the apparently trivial surface where characters utter serious things disguised as nonsense. Considered from that perspective, Stoppard is joking in "earnest", he is travestying and maybe satirizing, while also pretending to be playful. Depending on one's perspective, the play appears both as a work of art divorced from reality and as a work of art that implicitly comments on life. Stoppard interacts with both sides of the problematic relationship between art, life, and politics. Fleming argues that his plays reflect both the "uncertainty" of human life and the necessity of "order" and "logic" to provide stability amid this chaos. He states further that "the both/and quality of Stoppard's work allows him to cut across categories and to attract admirers from different critical, theoretical, and ideological backgrounds" (257). In the heated argument about the function of art and the artist, Travesties, as a whole, seems to be echoing Algernon: "The truth is rarely pure, and never simple".

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(1) This essay is an expanded version of the paper "Re-writing and Mystifying Wilde's Art for Art's Sake by Tom Stoppard" presented at INST-KCTOS Conference in Vienna, 2007.
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Title Annotation:Tom Stoppard and Oscar Wilde
Author:Koyuncu, Nevin Yildirim
Publication:Interactions
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Words:5722
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