Commentary Magazine


A Dialogue on “Travesties” or, the Impotence of Being Ernest

Scene One

The flat of Algernon Moncrieff III on East Seventy-third Street. The room has a faded elegance about it, as does Algernon. He is seated in his reading chair. He holds a copy of Roland Barthes’ La Lexie n’est pas le Luxe in one hand, while with the other he languidly stirs the contents of an exquisitely minute cup. When the door bell rings, he rises without looking up from the book, goes to the door, opens it, and returns to the chair.

His visitor, who closes the door sharply, is John R. Worthseeker, sometimes called Jack and sometimes Ernest for purposes of plot. His aura of elegance is slightly less faded than Algernon’s and his gestures, while somewhat flaccid, fall short of being actually languid.

Algernon. How are you, my dear Ernest? What brings you over here?

Jack. Pleasure. What else brings one anywhere?

Algernon (his eyes still on his book). Ernest, I do not ask my friends to tell me the truth—indeed I positively discourage it. However, I insist that they deceive me without my having to affect an indifference to facts that would tax the talents of a political journalist.

Jack. You find my explanation difficult to accept?

Algernon (tossing his book into a pile of discarded tomes in the corner). I do indeed, and I have a positive genius for accepting things. But when a theater critic tells me he does anything for pleasure, I’m forced to become tediously skeptical. Tell me you’ve stopped by to convert me to Buddhism or to discuss the difference between post-coital and post-Copernican despair in Cavalier poetry, and we’ll have an amiable evening altogether. But to credit you, who once, on consecutive nights, sat through three Ibsen revivals, two musical comedies, and an untitled Polish happening—to credit you, Ernest, with a compulsion for pleasure, strains even my tolerance for paradox.

Jack. Still launching sour attacks on the theater? I thought you’d give it up now that it’s become so fashionable.

Algernon. Nowadays, to flout fashion is the same as to follow it, Ernest. Both are rather sordid efforts to initiate a personality. But come, I promise not to chide you about your profession if you promise to avoid any subject that smacks of proscenium arches or alienation effects.

Jack. That will be difficult under the circumstances.

He produces two tickets from his coat pocket, separates them slowly with thumb and forefinger until they form a provocative “V,” and thrusts them with a malevolent laugh at his friend. Algernon draws back in horror and dismay. His hands clutch the sides of his chair, his features twist and flutter into grimaces of pain, and a deathly pallor spreads across his face. A long soft moan of the âme perdue variety escapes from his lips and, clasping a hand to his breast, he slumps into the stiff Spanish velvet covering of his chair and hides his eyes behind the black-and-gold Sicilian brocade of his dressing-gown sleeve. Jack shakes his head sadly at this conclusion.

Jack. If you went to the theatre more often, Algy, you might acquire a more believable theatrical style.

Algernon. Any style of horror should be believable when a man of refined literary taste is assaulted with a pair of theater tickets. You could have given me some sort of warning.

Jack. Come now. You agreed two week ago to see this play with me.

Algernon. How much had I to drink?

Jack. Four bottles of Taittinger 38.

Algernon. Only four. That hardly seems sufficient for such a self-destructive commitment to adventure. Are you certain it was Taittinger?

Jack. The bottles were so marked, as was the bill which you allowed me to pay.

Algernon. I could understand my having promised to visit a tire factory or to tour Tierra del Fuego in the off season.

Jack (stiffly). You can, of course, claim the extenuating circumstance of the grape.

Algernon. No, as the middle class accepts the responsibilities of virtue, a gentleman must honor the obligations of vice. No doubt you’ve arranged for me to suffer through some sort of Third World pageant, a five-act revolutionary drama that breaks theatrical ground by each night executing the best-dressed member of the audience?

Jack. Nothing of the sort. The play is a farce.

Algernon (gloomily). Ah, a wild frolic with naked actors among the audience, and an impromptu orgy at intermission time at which orange drinks and hard candy are put to scandalous use.

Jack (with exasperation). Algy, this is an English company.

Algernon. Nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability. Why do you think I left London? I could have put up with the moral fervor that threw away our empire, the red brick universities, the Yorkshire novelists, the missing aspirants at dinner—but when the theater started to take itself seriously, I knew that I’d best take up residence in America, where vulgarity is at least softened by tradition.

Jack. You’re behind the times. The English theater has for some time ceased being absorbed with the novelties of the lower class and is returning to what it has always done best.

Algernon. Pinero, Coward, and Rattigan?

Jack. How can you take such pride in your prejudices?

Algernon. How else can one make sense out of one’s sensibility? I find the theater gross, meretricious, demoded, and overpriced. It caters to an audience consisting of the pretentious, who would claim significance for a street accident if they had paid to see it, and of the complacent, who would laugh at the spectacles of Caligula if the word comedy were written on the program. Oh, I don’t deny that every now and then some genius, for whom the ordinary agonies of creation have proved insufficient, turns to the theater and creates a work of art, but such instances are so rare that they are best left to the curators of miracles rather than critics of art.

Jack. Well, I can’t promise you a masterpiece, but I’m certain you won’t be offended. The play is by Tom Stoppard, who made his debut as a dramatist with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Algernon. The three of them together?

Jack. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was a play, as you know very well. A clever conceit about the doings at Elsinore as seen through the eyes of the famous personifiers of the marginal and nondescript.

Algernon. Having taken on such a mighty theme for his debut, what was left for Mr. Stoppard to attempt?

Jack. His last play, Jumpers, was a highly intelligent and amusing study of a Professor of Ethics at an English university.

Algernon. I see. He decided the marginal and nondescript were his forte and stayed with them.

Jack. Jumpers was a lucid, civilized, and compassionate satire that dealt with much more than logically odd propositions and the vagaries of academic fashion. It combined. . . .

Algernon. I’ll take your word. dear Ernest, that Jumpers was a tragicomic mixture of Medea and Principia Mathematica. But what of the play I’m to endure this evening?

Jack. It’s called Travesties.

Algernon. At least the title’s apposite.

Jack. That was worthy of a television review, Algy. At any rate, it certainly does not concern itself with human trifles. Its three main characters are James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara, all of whom happened to be in Zurich during the last year of World War I.

Algernon. A coincidence they no doubt contrived for its theatrical effect.

Jack. It is Stoppard who contrived, or rather perceived, the theatricality inherent in the proximity of three such disparate points of view.

Algernon. Are we to believe that the author of Ulysses, a founder of Dadaism, and the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution kept the Zurich cafés humming with dramatic encounters and clever polemics?

Jack. Stoppard is ahead of you there, Algy. The whole play takes place in the senescent memory of one Henry Carr, the British Consul in Zurich at the time, but now a rather dilapidated raisonneur who keeps mixing up the events of history with a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in which he played the role of . . . not Ernest, but the other one.

Algernon (stiffly). I believe “the . . . other . . . one” and I share the same Christian name.

Jack. Of course, Algernon. He played Algernon, the one who stuffs himself with muffins and cucumber sandwiches in between delivering such mots as “Divorces are made in Heaven” and “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.”

Algernon. It seems to me Mr. Stoppard is on dangerous ground when he invites recollection of such a perfect play and such a deeply drawn character as Algernon.

Jack. Not only does Stoppard invite recollection, he positively demands it. His play, you see, uses a great deal of the structure and style of Wilde’s farce.

Algernon. I must say I am curious. I shall go and dress. Dada, Bloom, and revolution—whatever will Lady Bracknell make of it all?

Algernon exits.

Jack. I knew Algy’s interest would be aroused. Now if he will just stop calling me Ernest, I’m sure the evening will be a triumph.

_____________

 

* * *

Scene Two

Algernon’s flat some three hours later. Jack, alone, is pacing back and forth, obviously upset. Algernon enters in the same dressing gown he wore in Scene One. He is holding a plate of tiny pizzas in one hand.

_____________

 

Algernon. Will you try one of these pizzas? I assure you there is nothing of an Italianate flavor about them. They are as bland and sodden as proper English biscuits.

Jack. I won’t have it. You must say something. During intermission you did nothing but compare the audience to a fish-and-fiend salad by Bosch, and on the way home you did nothing but sing an imbecile Dada ditty.

Algernon (singing).

Dada is as dada does
When Dada doesn’t do
What Dada is expected to
Donc Dada’s at its dadaest
When Dada plays the classicist.

Jack. The play, Algy! What did you think of the play?

Algernon. You don’t expect me to discuss the play, do you, Ernest? How far do you intend to exploit my weakness for Taittinger?

Jack (withdrawing a bottle and ice bucket from inside his coat and setting them in front of Algernon). To the limits of indecency, dear fellow.

Algernon (removing a glass from the ice bucket while Jack works on the cork). Ernest, you are without conscience. This will be the end of me in good society. It will be bruited about town that Algernon Moncrieff Iii drank himself to the point of offering a critical opinion of a play.

Jack (popping the cork and pouring). You can trust me that what you say will never leave this room.

Algernon (draining the glass). If you were trustworthy, you would not be a critic.

He holds his glass out to be refilled

Jack. Not until I hear something resembling a coherent judgment.

Algernon (speaking quickly). Very well, I found the play diverting.

He reaches for the bottle but Jack snatches it away.

Jack. You’ll have to do better than that.

Algernon. But my dear Ernest, why? From those like myself who understood its puns and allusions, Mr. Stoppard’s play demands no heavier judgment than “diverting.” Profound exegesis should be left to those to whom the doings on the stage were completely baffling.

Jack (rising with the bottle). In that case I’ll take this over to my colleagues at the Times.

Algernon. That would be a waste. Ignorance provides its own intoxication. All right, I will go further and say that Travesties is a play that offers what is rarely found in the theater—literate amusement. (Jack tips the bottle tantalizingly toward Moncrieff’s glass but refrains from pouring. Algernon, after a resigned sigh, continues.) The play combines a high degree of verbal facility with an instinct for theatrical outlandishness, the result of which is an evening that pleases both the subtle ear and the antic eye.

As Algernon has been speaking, Jack has been slowly filling his glass. It is now full, and in one exquisitely languid movement, Algernon drains it and immediately resumes talking.

Algernon. But it must also be said that the verbal play is not of the highest order.

Jack. What? You don’t find lines like, “I took to drinking hock and seltzer at a time when nerves were fashionable in good society,” of the first rank?

Algernon (indicating with a languid wave of his glass that further insights must be paid for. Jack begins slowly pouring). The lines are immaterial. Once one appropriates Wilde’s method of investing the trivial with significance, there is no end to the number of phrases one can turn. Not that I disapprove of literary pilferage. The respect for private property is as middle-class a notion in art as it is in society. Indeed, modern literature is founded on the open avowal by both poet and novelist that they are thieves and imitators. It is the cleverness of the theft and the ingenuity of the imitation that interest us. Stoppard is not bad. Indeed, for the theater, it is astoundingly good. But compared to what I’ve encountered elsewhere, his parodies, paragrams, and puns are like the sermons of the lady preacher who surprised Dr. Johnson by being able to stand on her hind legs. No, no, that’s not right. (He drains the glass.) Perhaps it was a dog that impressed the doctor by delivering a sermon in the manner of a lady preacher? No matter, what Johnson meant is that even meager achievement seems impressive where none at all was expected.

Another languid gesture with the glass by Algernon.

Jack. What absurd snobbishness. Following the line I quoted above, Stoppard has his character defend the salubrious efficacy of his seltzer and hock with the words “post hock, propter hock.” To appreciate the joke, one needs a knowledge of Latin and logic, not to mention an ear for palatal endings. Where in your precious modern literature is there a pun that provides more pedantic enjoyment than this?

Algernon (rapidly).

O bright Apollo,
Tin’ andra, tin’ heroa, tina theon,
What god, man, or hero
Shall I place a tin wreath upon?

  Or perhaps,

Reality to Plato was a noose,
To Kant a dingy dish,
Hume found that to inhabit it.
Is all mankind can wish.

Jack (pouring). There are not a thousand people who could find those bits of doggerel amusing.

Algernon. What do we care about numbers? Mr. Stoppard obviously didn’t when he wrote Travesties. He set out to produce caviar for the general; that it turned out to be paté for the major is still no mean achievement.

Jack. But what of the ingenuity with which he used the structure of The Importance of Being Earnest to enclose the facts and fantasies of history?

Algernon. It worked very well. If Wilde’s method amused by making the trivial seem significant, then there is no reason that it shouldn’t succeed in trivializing the significant. To set forth ideas on art and revolution in the badinage and milieu of farce is a brilliant conception. But. . . . (He drains the glass.) Stoppard finally found it all a bit unmanageable. He did well enough when it was aesthetics he confined to the farcical ambience of a gentleman’s flat, but Lenin and revolution, I’m afraid, proved too unwieldy, and forced him to change styles in mid-play. Now one may in a work of art change one’s mind, but never one’s style.

Jack. Surely you saw that those parts dealing with Lenin were meant to be a satire on Brechtian theater?

Algernon. What has that to do with anything? Besides there are depths of dullness that are beyond satire’s grasp, and I’m afraid Stoppard sank in the attempt to reach them.

Jack (pouring again). Weren’t you impressed by the way such a cerebral conceit was made theatrical?

Algernon. You mean all the running about and sudden outbreaks of song and dance, and Joyce singing limericks in a jacket festooned with shamrocks? That short of thing?

Jack (sullenly). Yes, that sort of thing.

Algernon. It made me think of a lecture on Boolean algebra delivered from the back of a performing elephant. Mr. Stoppard is intelligent enough to hold our attention without resorting to such low-bred excesses.

Jack. But that is theater!

Algernon. Remember, it was you who said it and not I. (He drains the glass and with a languid movement of his hand suppresses the beginnings of a modest eructation.) I’ve been put in too good a mood by the wine to charge the theater with being theatrical. I will even say that I found the acting quite decent and Mr. Wood, who played Henry Carr in youth and age, and Algernon in play and playlet, is a master craftsman. He speaks with admirable rapidity, takes the full measure of a fricative, makes an English glory once more of the louche litotes, and in other similar ways does full justice to the demands of Stoppard’s text.

Jack (rising and pouring the remainder of the bottle). I had hoped for more enthusiasm. It will be a long time before one sees such a clever play again.

Algernon. I’m sure that’s so. And I promise, with only one bottle to prompt me, that I shall accompany you when that time comes. Can friendship offer more?

Jack. I’ve just one more question, Algy. Why do you keep calling me Ernest? Because of my profession?

Algernon. NO, because of your impotence . . . as a reviewer, I mean.

Jack (stiffly). COMMENTARY has enough problems influencing American foreign policy. You can’t expect it to attempt to reform American theatrical taste too. Besides, having no influence allows me to provide my readers with a respite from seriousness, an alternative to the cloying sentimentality of Realpolitik, and a sanctuary from academic grudges. They also serve who stand aside and prate.

Algernon. Perfectly right. Good night, Jack.

Jack exits. Algernon picks up a book from the floor, leafs through it, yawns, and languidly marks the place with a pizza puff as

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