Joyce lovers have an absolute treat on offer right now in the West End of London. Yer man himself is being beautifully brought to life by the Dublin actor Peter McDonald (right), who looks like a more handsome version of Joyce.
This is Patrick Marber's revival of Tom Stoppard's 1974 comedy Travesties. It sold out almost instantly at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but has now transferred to the beautiful Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. We caught a Saturday matinée last month.
Stoppard's play was inspired by reading Richard Ellmann's account of the wonderful Henry Carr Trouser Saga of 1918. Carr was a junior official at the Consulate at Zurich, cast by Joyce as Algernon Moncrieff in his production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'.
After the production, Carr told Joyce that he expected to be paid for a pair of trousers he'd bought for the part. Joyce answered that these were not a costume but could be worn as everyday clothing. Carr then called Joyce a cad and a swindler and threatened to wring his neck if he met him on the street.
|From the theatre programme|
Joyce later got his revenge, three times. He mocked Carr in an October 1918 poem, 'New Tipperary' (left).
He also put him into Ulysses, as the most foul-mouthed character in the whole book – the English soldier who assaults Stephen Dedalus in the Circe episode:
PRIVATE CARR (With ferocious articulation.) I'll do him in, so help me fucking Christ! I'll wring the bastard fucker's bleeding blasted fucking windpipe!
His third revenge was to get Herbert Gorman to put the whole story, at great length, in his 1941 authorised biography. This bit was almost certainly written by Joyce himself:
'It became noticeable to the entire company that Carr's behaviour towards Joyce was one of veiled indefinable hostility, an insolence unreasonable and unwarrantable in a young man of no particular talents towards one who was older and far more experienced in life and certainly of greater and more recognized achievement.'
Stoppard was excited to learn that two other revolutionary figures were also in Zurich at the same time as Joyce – Lenin and Tristan Tzara, the leading Dadaist. The problem was that their dates don't quite match. In 1918, when Carr was fighting Joyce about his trousers, Lenin was already in power in Russia.
The solution was to filter the story through the recollections of the fantasising amnesiac 80 year-old Henry Carr, who places himself at the centre of events, and also muddles up the plot of Wilde's play with his encounters with the others.
So Carr and Tzara play the roles of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, while Joyce, appearing at one point in a dress, is Lady Augusta Bracknell. We learn that his middle name really was Augusta.
TZARA: I say, do you know someone called Joyce?
CARR: Joyce is a name which could only expose a child to comment around the font.
TZARA; No, no, Mr Joyce, Irish writer, mainly of limericks, christened James Augustine, though registered, due to a clerical error, as James Augusta, a little known fact.
Carr, both young and old, is beautifully played by Tom Hollander, who has to begin with a challenging twelve minute circling monologue in which he attempts to shape his memories of Joyce and the others.
CARR:....now then – Memories of James Joyce...It's coming.
To those of us who knew him, Joyce's genius was never in doubt. To be in his presence was to be aware of an amazing intellect bent on shaping itself into the permanent form of its own monument – the book the world now knows as Ulysses! Though at the time we were still calling it (I hope memory serves) by its original title, Elasticated Bloomers.
(Joyce was) a complex personality, an enigma, a contradictory spokesman for the truth, an obessive litigant who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognised – in short a liar and a hypocrite, a tightfisted, sponging, fornicating drunk not worth the paper, that's that bit done.'
CARR: Ah yes...the war, always the war....I was in Savile Row when I heard the news, talking to the head cutter at Drewitt and Madge in a hounds-tooth check slightly flared behind the knee, quite unusual. Old Drewitt, or Madge, came in and told me. Never trusted the Hun, I remarked. Boche, he replied, and I, at that time unfamiliar with the appellation, turned on my heel and walked into Trimmett and Punch, where I ordered a complete suit of harris knicker-bockers with hacking vents.
CARR: Oh, what nonsense you talk!
TZARA: It may be nonsense but at least it's not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else, by the war.
CARR: You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank up to the knees in a pair of twill jodhpurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on – until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambswool dyed khaki in a yarn to my own specification.
Stoppard perceptively noticed that Joyce, though a dandy like Carr in many ways, made up his own rules about how to dress.
|Joyce in mismatched jacket and trousers (Beinecke Library, Yale Univ).|
CARR: And I have only one request to make of you – why for God's sake cannot you contrive just once to wear the jacket that is suggested by your trousers??
(It is indeed the case that Joyce is now wearing the other halves of the outfit he wore in Act One)
JOYCE (With dignity): If I could do it once, I could do it every time. My wardrobe got out of step in Trieste, and its reciprocal members pass each other endlessly in the night. Now – could you let me have the twenty-five francs?
This 1904 photograph shows that Joyce was wearing mismatched trousers long before Trieste.
THE ARTIST IN SOCIETY
At the heart of the play is a debate about the role of the artist in society. Carr and Lenin (Forbes Masson) think that the artist has a social responsibility, and both hate modern art:
CARR & LENIN: Expressionism, futurism, cubism...I don't understand them and I get no pleasure from them.
CARR: That's my point. There was nothing wrong with Lenin except his politics.
TZARA: You could have spent the time in Switzerland as an artist.
CARR (coldly): 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 the eyes of Narcissus.
Lenin argues that literature should play a practical role in creating a Socialist society, and that it should be free from the individual expression of men like Tzara and Joyce.
LENIN: Today, literature must become party literature. Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become a part of the common cause of the proletariat...We want to establish and we shall establish a free press...free from bourgeois anarchist individualism!
Joyce was the ultimate anarchist individualist, as he said himself in his 1916 poem 'Dooleysprudence':
Who is the tranquil gentleman who won’t salute the State
Or serve Nebuchadnezzar or proletariat
But thinks that every son of man has quite enough to do
To paddle down the stream of life his personal canoe?
It’s Mr Dooley,
The wisest wight our country ever knew
‘Poor Europe ambles
Like sheep to shambles’
Sighs Mr Dooley-ooley-ooley-oo.
The bigger debate is between the conceptual artist,Tzara, who says that 'a man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters', and Joyce, the master magician and creative craftsman. McDonald brings a stillness and authority to the role of Joyce, contrasting with the dancing grace and gaiety of Freddie Fox's Tristan Tzara.
(He starts to smash whatever crockery is to hand; which done, he strikes a satisfied pose. JOYCE has not moved)
|Freddie Fox as Tzara|
(with which JOYCE pulls a rabbit out of his hat, puts the hat on his head, and leaves, holding the rabbit.)
A JOYCEAN PLAY
Travesties is Joycean in spirit. Like Ulysses, it switches from style to style, from a scene in limericks, to Shakespearian pastiche and a history lecture. There's a duet between Clare Foster’s Cicely and Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen which parodies the 1922 vaudeville song 'Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean'. In a nice touch from Marber, they are accompanied by Joyce playing a guitar just like the real instrument he owned in Zurich, now in the Martello Tower, which you can see being played here.
|Amy Morgan (Gwendolen) and Clare Foster (Cicely)|
There's also a section written in the schoolbook catechism style of the Ithaca episode of Ulysses:
JOYCE: What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Tzara's thoughts about Ball's thoughts about Tzara, and Tzara's thoughts about Ball's thoughts about Tzara's thoughts about Ball?
TZARA: He thought that he thought that he knew what he was thinking, whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he did not.
What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom and Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom's thoughts about Stephen?
He thought that he thought that he was a Jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not.
AND WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR?
Well it was a long time ago. He left Zurich after the war, went to Paris, stayed twenty years and turned up here in December 1940. Another war...But he was a sick man then, perforated ulcer, and in January he was dead...buried one cold snowy day in the Fluntern cemetery up the hill.
I dreamed about him, dreamed I had him in the witness box, a masterly cross-examination, case practically won, admitted it all, the whole thing, the trousers, everything, and I flung at him –'And what did you do in the Great War?' 'I wrote Ulysses,' he said. 'What did you do?'
That's such a well-known quotation that many people imagine that it really was said by Joyce.
|Picture from the Mission Impossible: Ulysses blog|
After the original production, Stoppard was excited and alarmed to get a letter from a Mrs Noel Carr, who wrote, 'I was totally fascinated by the reviews of your play – the chief reason being that Henry Carr was my late husband until he died in 1962.'
Stoppard learned that Carr had been badly wounded in 1916, and had spent five days lying in no-man's land, until he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was then treated in a monastery before being sent as an exchange prisoner to Switzerland, where he encountered Joyce. You can see why a man who had been through those horrors would see the author of 'Dooleysprudence' as a cad.
Mrs Carr sent Stoppard this 1917 photograph of a trouser-free Carr, in his Black Watch uniform, which Ellmann printed in the second edition of his biography of Joyce.
Travesties is on at the Apollo Theatre until the end of April, and there are tickets for as little as £20. What a bargain!