The time is 1917, the place Zurich, the stage is the Opera House of the Kennedy Center, and the play is "Travesties," by Tom Stoppard. Four characters are discussing art.
Tristan Tzara, who defines the meaning of art to include poems created by drawing words out of a hat, explains Dadaism: "I am the natural enemy of bourgeois art and the natural ally of the political left, but the odd thing about revolution is that the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art."
Lenin says: "The freedom of the bourgeois writer, artist or actor is simply disguised dependence on the moneybag, on corruption, on prostitution. Socialist literature and art will be free because the ideas of socialism and sympathy with the working people, instead of greed and careerism, will bring new forces to its ranks."
James Joyce declares: "An artist is a magician put among men to gratify - capriciously - their urge for immortality . . . 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.
Henry Carr, a subordinate British civil servant, reaches for a definition that will be, at least, just: "An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted."
These characters actually once existed and were in Zurich during World War I, but their meetings and words are all imagined by Stoppard in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] production of "Travesties." Stoppard further enlivens his action through four characters who introduce themselves through limericks. He reworks phrases and scenes from "The Importance of Being Ernest," by Oscar Wilde, whom his Joyce describes as "an Irish Gomorrahist." He turns that comedy's Gwendolyn-Cecily meeting into a duet to the tune of "Oh Mr. Gallagher, Oh Mr. Sheen." Scenes recur, first developed as Carr wanted them to be, then as they happened, more or less.
It is a brilliant, pellmell performance of words, ideas, allustions, mental gymnastics, music-hall nonsense and paradox. It is an absolute, glorious delight. But there is a catch.
Stoppard asks something of his audiences, that they be up on their history, literature and toes, that they share his sense of the absurd and are capable of at least glimpsing if not quite catching his fancies. It's safe to say tyat if you know nothing whatever about Lenin, Dada, Joyce. "The Importance of Being Ernest" and the annonymity of being a government employee, that "Travesties" will pass you by dizzyingly.
For all that, Stoppard has become one of our town's favorite playwrights. His first American performance was at the National Theater here in 1967, a pre-New York opening of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Later, his "Jumpers" packed the Opera House for two months but didn't last that long in New York. What the Kennedy Center has not presented here found a home at St. Albans School, with Shakespeare and Co.'s "Albert's Bridge."
Indeed in the nine-plus years since that memorable National premiere, Stoppard has become an American favorite, ranked fourth (below Shakespeare, Shaw and Coward) for regional theater productions last season, more reproductions than such American runners-up as Neil Simon and Lanford Wilson.
"R&G" was an indicative start, for it presupposed some knowledge of "Hamlet," focusing on two wandering meddlers who mixed fatefully into Denmark's court at a time of considerable activity. Of all the plays written about "Hamlet" (New York's "Poor Murderer" is but the latest), "R&G" probably is the most prankish and, in recent years, the most successful.
Like Bernard Shaw, whose "Caesar and Cleopatra" opens Monday in the Kennedy Center Opera House, Stoppard is a reformed drama critic. As a second-string reviewer for a Bristol (that is, provincial) newspapers, Stoppard perceived he might write better plays than the ones he reviewed.
Stoppard is not a native Englishman (neither was Shaw, a native of Dublin). Born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, Stoppard was 18 months old when his physician-father moved the family to Singapore. Before the Japanese invaded, the father had sent wife and son to India; he himself would be killed by the invaders. Remarried to an English major, the widow and her son moved to England after the war.
So, essentially, Czech-born Stoppard is a product of English culture. His first play, produced on TV in 1963 as "A Walk on the Water," finally reached the stage five years later as "Enter a Free Man." What began as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern." a one-act verse burlesque in 1963 was rewritten to full length with "Are Dead" added to the original title. It captivated the 1966 Edinburgh Festival.
David Merrick's importation of England's National Theater success included the Guildenstern of John Wood; who now stars as the senile Carr, "whose boastful recollections are more wish-fulfilling than truthful."
Its whimsical shifts make it a tremendous part, far more demanding than the Sherlock Holmes Wood gave the same stage two seasons ago. There is only one other actor I'm confident could risk it: Brian Bedford, who showed how to play Stoppard in "Jumpers."
Stoppard cautions how the Old Carr is to turn himself into the Young Carr: "Most of the play is under erratic control of Old Carr's memory, which is not notably reliable, and also of his various prejudices and delusions. One result is that the story, like a toy train, perhaps, occasionally jumps the rails and has to be restarted at the point where it goes wild . . . The effect of these time slips is not meant to be bewildering and it should be made clear what is happening."
Having staged the original, Peter Wood (unrelated to John) has come back for this specially mounted Kennedy Center version. The care is welcome, since "Dirty Linen," Stoppard's farce about parliamentary scandals, suffered somewhat when booked into the Eisenhower Theater in December after its successful run at the more suitably smaller West End Theater.
"Travesties," rich, slippery and brilliant, is quite another matter. Listen, chuckel and be dazzled.