Commented upon by Gail M. Burns, August 2003
(This is not so much a review as a musing on this play, which has meant a lot to me in my life.)
The last time I saw Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (which was also the first time) was at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City on Tuesday, January 13, 1976 during its original Broadway run. I had turned 19 eight days earlier. Here is what I wrote in my journal the following day:
“Dad took us all to see Travesties last night and from henceforth my ambition is not to be Neil Simon or Woody Allen, now I want to be Tom Stoppard…Travesties is the best show I’d ever seen. Better even than Two Gentlemen [of Verona]! That WAS the ultimate compliment from me, now I have to look for a show better than Travesties. Its all words and all beautiful words and plays on words and plays on plays.
Since then, I have wandered through life – marriage, children, various and sundry day jobs, writing, directing, reviewing – all under the vague mist of this word Travesties and hazy memories of the reality of the play.
“Travesties changed my life,” I would say to people, “I just love that play.” But if you had asked me how my life had changed as a result of that evening at the theatre in 1974, or what actually happened in the play, I would have been stumped.
No other occasion has arisen in the ensuing decades for me to see this play again. This must be true because I have driven very long distances to see shows that I love but which do not have a life-changing aura to them, and I surely would have done the same to see Travesties had it played anywhere in New England.
Imagine my absolute delight and amazement when the WTF announced that Travesties would be the 4th MainStage production of the 2003 season! I dashed off to the box office and paid dearly for two tickets. I wanted to see if the show would change my life again or whether it would make me scratch my head and laugh at my teen-age self. And I wanted to take my 20-year-old son, Tristan, as a kind of guinea pig to see if the play still wrought its magic on the young.
As we sat in the theatre waiting for the opening curtain, I tried to unearth my memories of the play. There was singing in it, I told Tristan, although it was not a musical. And there was a train in the second act. It was about Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) and James Joyce and Tristan Tzara and an obscure British diplomat named Henry Carr – all real people who really had all been in Zurich Switzerland simultaneously for some days in 1917. It was about Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” which I had directed at or just before the time I discovered that I was pregnant with my Tristan. And one of the reasons that he was named Tristan was that the name occurred in this play called Travesties, the one that changed my life, but not as profoundly as he has and continues to do.
The curtain went up and nothing was familiar. I found David Garrison very hard to understand in his opening monologue as the old Henry Carr, and with Stoppard words are everything. “Stop mumbling!” I thought, “I want my son to hear the play!”
I had forgotten everything. I had lived with this word and these snapshot memories in my mind and nothing more. Why had I loved this play so? What had made it a driving force in my intellectual and artistic life if I really knew so little about it? Little bits of the answer trickled slowly into my mind as I watched.
Travesties ironically enough, is a memory play, a story told filtered through the distant memories of the elderly Henry Carr of people and events that may or may not have been real. Stoppard brilliantly recreates the vagaries of the human stream of consciousness in a manner which is probably in keeping with the works of one of his characters, James Joyce. I have never read Joyce – or Lenin or Tzara. In fact I don’t even remember much about The Importance of Being Earnest. But, like Carr, I digress.
This particular production is alternately brilliant and a mess. I was assured in a conversation last month with the lighting designer, that the director, Gregory Boyd, was ‘a genius with Stoppard.’ Boyd has an impressive bio, including an Outer Circle Critics Award and Drama Desk and Tony nominations, but it does not mention his working on any other Stoppard plays. I wonder if he loves this play? Certainly he made choices that I would not have made, and two that I found offensive and unnecessary. When Gwendolen (Lynn Collins) stripped to her skivvies and ravished Tzara (Michael Stuhlbarg), I was amused. When Cecily (Kali Rocha) danced topless on the library desk the first time, I racked my poor old brain for a memory of that occurring at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1976. When she revealed herself the second time, my suspicions that this was neither what Stoppard wrote nor intended were aroused. But when Cecily and Gwendolen both stripped down to 1917 under-draws and engaged in a highly gratuitous food fight after their Gallagher & Shean routine, I turned to Tristan and said “This is NOT in the script!” And it isn’t. You what it is? It is sexist and pointless and tasteless and it detracts from what ‘Travesties’ is all about, which is WORDS! My son will go through his life remembering this wonderful play as “that show with the tits in it.” On behalf of Tom Stoppard, I am ashamed.
While Boyd is shamefully exploitive of his actresses, he assembled a brilliant team of actors and really makes them shine. Garrison improves considerably after his early mumbled monologue. Stuhlbarg is just delightful as Tzara. I liked him the best, which made my Tristan happy. As James Joyce, Stephen Spinella reminded me very much of Groucho Marx, which is odd since it was Garrison who made his name (and earned a Tony nomination) playing Groucho in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine on Broadway in 1980. Actually, I think that Boyd had all four (or at least the essential three) Marx Brothers in mind while directing this show. There is a certain Marx-ian quality to even the Leninist proceedings, but you do not direct Stoppard the same way you direct Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (or even Zeppo!)
Seeing Travesties at 46 did not change my life, but it did remind me of my 19-year-old ambition to become Tom Stoppard. Part of being middle-aged is coming to terms with the impossibility of our youthful dreams. I will, of course, never be Tom Stoppard, but I realized that my admiration for Travesties and Stoppard’s other writings – which I assiduously collected and read and went to see at every opportunity from January 13, 1976 on – have had a tremendously positive impact on my life and my writing. The idea that you could take real people and places and thoughts and writings and blend them into a new and brilliant whole that entertained and educated was revolutionary to me at 19. I have striven to think in that manner ever since. And that is why I do research and read scripts before I review a play today. I would not be who I am today had I never seen that play. Travesties did change my life. What a pity this production won’t do the same for Tristan.
Travesties runs through August 17 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs three hours with one intermission. Suitable for ages 13 and up, with the caveat that there is a topless woman in full view on the stage from time to time. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003