Housman: But it’s all true.
Wilde: On the contrary, it’s only fact. Truth is quite another thing and is the work of the imagination.
The Invention of Love (1990)
I’ve just found this note, something I wrote down after watching Travesties: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” I didn’t write that. Well, I wrote it down but I didn’t formulate the phrase. I didn’t put those precise words in that precise order. Credit, for that, goes to the eminent historian Patrick Lagrange. I mean Julian Barnes. One of them, I can’t remember precisely who. quod erat demonstrandum et cetera. In short, what I’m saying, or writing rather, is that Tom Stoppard understands that sweet spot of poor memory and poor record-keeping quite precisely. So much so that maybe he forgot he’d written Travesties when he re-wrote it as The Invention of Love.
Look, it’s like this.
A precocious old writer named Stoppard,
Whose oeuvre had rarely a flop, marred
The theatre scene with
A suave, donnish mien
And writing so dazzling you’d pop. Hard.
Sir Tom does whatever he can
To dazzle each woman and man
And verbal legerdemain
In short, once one stops trying to process every single word of the text, trying to verify the scansion of each limerick, trying to glean some semblance of sense from the Russian (untranslated of course) in which Lenin speaks as he engages in rapid door-slamming farce with James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, trying to remember the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest, trying to work out what sinequanon means, trying to, in short, understand the play one finds that it is quite funny.
Travesties is told through the memory of ex-civil servant Henry Carr “not with entire accuracy”. He remembers being in Zurich. There is a war on, Russia is about to revolt, James Joyce is writing Ulysses, Tristan Tzara is founding the Dadaist art movement, Carr is in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest alongside James Joyce, Carr’s sister is in love with Tzara, Carr is in love with a librarian, his sister’s best friend, and the plot of Earnest bleeds into the plot of Travesties.
See figures 1 and 2 for comparative matrices of character connections in The Importance of Being Earnest and Travesties.
Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest is an icon of familiarity in a play that is presumably unfamiliar, possibly to the extent of alienation, to most readers and audience members. The frequent spurts of Russian, extracts from Joyce, entire scenes written as limericks, characters from history whom we are expected to know, the discussions of artistic and political movements: Stoppard makes these clear to his audiences, but they still retain the potential for intimidation. Amid all of this come the familiar cadences of Wildean dialogue.
Wilde was the master of the memorable quote, of lines that could be taken out of context. As he once said, “It is better to be…
actually I can’t remember what he said, something to do with a handbag, but by using some of the most quoted dialogue in literary history in a play about quotation Stoppard is proving his own point, whatever it is.
In short, it’s a macaronic, a tapestry of quotation and mimicry, a Callimachean library text, a masterclass in decontextualisation, a travesty in which the half-remembered buckshot of literature becomes a way of representing historical fact. Words are turned into actions (because Joyce wrote this, he must have done that) and the excuse is the faintness of memory. Fair enough.
Time periods collide onstage, a simultaneous presence but with Carr’s senescent mind muddying the edges, clarity dimmed. Stoppard’s used the technique several times since in Arcadia (1993) and Indian Ink (1993) and The Invention of Love (1997). Time past, the life of the younger Carr, meets time present, the memory of the older Carr and both sit side by side on stage. “You’re not trapped inside the eternal verities of time and space,” was Stoppard’s excuse. “A play like ‘Housman’ or Travesties is a soft option – you can do anything you like because the protagonist is taking the flak for you.” The text becomes a constant struggle between differing claims to legitimacy and truth. What I’m saying, in short, is that Tom doesn’t make much clear.
Stoppard, that is. Tom Hollander on the other hand makes it all abundantly clear as Carr. His transformation, in an instant, from dotage to youth is particularly good, as is his persistent edge of bewilderment as if he recognises the absurdity of the situation he’s in as much as the audience does. And Tim Hatley, the designer, gets it. Carr stands diminished and outdone amid towers of library shelves and loose sheafs. And Marber has stuck a couple of intellectualism-busting song-and-dance numbers in there. And in lurching somersaults, as the package of one’s organs is thrust around its cavity, we move from comedy to profundity. From showing off to delving into the viscera of what art means and is for and who it’s for and why.
 The first.
 The Marxists said ‘no way Jose,
Autocracy is so passé
Poshol na hui, Tsars!
All power should be ours!’
So they started the Bolshie ballet
 A book which some wankers profess
To have read start to end, more or less.
Still, it broke with the times
With unfathomable lines
like “yes I said yes I will Yes”
*Dada (/ˈdɑːdɑː/) or Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century developed in reaction to World War I, which consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. Or, as Tzara has it, “the right to urinate in different colours”.
 This, as it turned out, actually happened. There’s documentary proof. The meagre details of Carr’s life were taken from one footnote in a biography of Joyce, which detailed a litigation and counter-litigation between Carr and Joyce on the subject of a pair of trousers bought for this production of Earnest. Stoppard made up the rest of it from there – cf Lagrange on inadequate documentation/imperfections of memory above.