I went to Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory the other evening. It confirmed me in my suspicion that Tom Stoppard is an essayist pretending to be a dramatist. It was pretty heavy going, despite the best efforts of all concerned.
The trouble is Stoppard never makes the slightest effort to engage the audience emotionally on any level. Instead, he tries to educate us. In my view, theatre's first duty is to engage and, once it has done that, it might be able to provoke some thought from the audience. Stoppard prefers to provide us with a potted history of Dadaism and a summary of Lenin's efforts to return Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, (at moments I began to worry that we'd have to sit a test at the end), combined with a bit of philosophical banter and some dreadfully feeble attempts at jokes.
Mind you, there were some very thought-provoking bits in the script - they would have made interesting essays. Here are the ones that I found particularly arresting, but I contend they would have more impact in a written medium - they race past so fast in the theatre, you hardly notice them, let alone get a chance to grapple with the ideas within them, and the actors speaking them are mere mouthpieces for different sides of an intellectual argument, rather than dramatic figures of any kind:
"Henry Carr (the main character - he is a genuine figure, who lived in Zurich and took part in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest put on by James Joyce): My dear Tristan, to be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. To be an artist in Zurich, in 1917, implies a degree of self -absorption that would have glazed over the eyes of Narcissus ...And besides I couldn't be an artist anywhere - I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.
Tzara (a Romanian who was among the founders of Dada): Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat.
Carr: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.
Tzara: I see I have made myself clear.
Carr: Then you are not actually an artist at all?
Tzara: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.
Carr: But that does not make you an artist. 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. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly ... Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn't know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don't you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.
Tzara: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom, king and country, brave little Belgium, saucy little Serbia -
Carr: You are insulting my comrades-in-arms, many of whom died on the field of honour-
Tzara: -and honour - all the traditional sophistries for waging wars of expansion and self-interest, set to patriotic hymns. Music is corrupted, language conscripted. Words are taken to stand for their opposites. That is why anti-art is the art of our time.
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 civilised 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 ..."
"Joyce, addressing Tzara, who has just been explaining Dada: You are an over-excited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond 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 ...I would strongly advise you to try and acquire some genius and if possible some subtlety before the season is quite over."
"Cecily: In an age when the difference between prince and peasant was thought to be in the stars ... art was naturally an affirmation for the one and a consolation to the other; but we live in an age when the social order is seen to be the work of material forces and we have been given an entirely new kind of responsibility, the responsibility of changing society.
Carr: No, no, no, no, no - my dear girl! - art doesn't change society, it is merely changed by it ... Marx got it wrong. He got it wrong for good reasons but he got it wrong just the same. By bad luck he encountered the capitalist system at its most deceptive period. The industrial revolution had crowded the people into slums and enslaved them in factories, but it had not yet begun to bring them the benefits of an industrialised society. Marx drew the lesson that the wealth of the capitalist had been stolen from the worker in the form of unpaid labour. He thought that was how the whole thing worked. That false premise was itself added to a false assumption. Marx assumed that people would behave according to their class. But they didn't. In all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons, the classes moved closer together instead of further apart. The critical moment never came. It receded. The tide must have turned at about the time when Das Kapital after eighteen years of hard labour was finally coming off the press ..."