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James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich at the same time in 1918, doing what history records them as famous for doing: writing strange novels, fomenting revolutions, and performing nonsensical poetry; but what Tom Stoppard hangs his play on is another real but much less well-known fact: that Joyce organized an English theatre company to perform The Importance of Being Earnest.

As Algernon Moncrieff he picked a young man from the consulate, one Henry Carr, who had had some amateur acting experience. Carr's enthusiasm for Algy extended to togging himself up in some nice new clothes for the part; but after the play was over these clothes were one of several bones of contention between Joyce and Carr, with lawsuit and countersuit threatened between them.

You will find Henry Carr memorialized as one of the drunken soldiers who duff up Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses ("Say, how would it be, governor, if I was to bash in your jaw?"); but he passes from history. Tom Stoppard wove a fantasy out of these facts, making Travesties the somewhat unreliable reminiscences of Henry Carr reliving his triumph, and his dealings with the strange trio of Joyce, Tzara, and Lenin, and his successful and debonair diplomacy, and his suave love affairs.

Much of the actions is choreographed to The Importance of Being Earnest: the familiar speeches and situations are burlesqued, the Dada of Tzara is woven into the plot (his bunburying involves pretending to be the brother of the incorrigible Dadaist), and Joyce and Tzara clash on literary styles. When it's not being Oscar Wilde it's a burlesque of James Joyce, and the reconciliation of Gwendolin and Cecily is to the music-hall song "Mr Gallagher and Mr Sheen". Yup.

The first performance was on 10 June 1974 at the Aldwych Theatre in London, with John Hurt as Tzara, Frank Windsor as Lenin, and John Wood as Carr. Stoppard was then contacted by the real Henry Carr's widow, who was interested in what he had done with it, and filled him in on the subsequent wanderings of his hero.

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