Rialto Note:
Travesties
26 April 2018

It was something of a surprise, yesterday, to come across Ben Brantley’s warm review of the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a production that has crossed the Atlantic and only just “opened.” It appears that Kathleen and I saw it in previews, which means that we bought tickets without regard for local opinion. Kathleen is a keen admirer of Stoppard, something that always surprises me a little, because she detests showing off. (Sometimes I think that Arcadia is all of Shakespeare to her.) She didn’t expect to like this earlier play; she thought that it would be a riot of people talking over one another, unintelligibly, as Jumpers can be. But she did like it, although I’m not sure that she liked it as much as I did, once I realized the brilliance of exploiting The Importance of Being Earnest as the foundation of an absurdist exhibition of early modern intellectuals. Of whom Wilde was, on balance, I think, decidedly not one. 

I kept thinking of Gilbert, as in Gilbert and Sullivan, and of how sweetly Wilde presses Gilbert’s topsy-turvy world toward indecorous entendres that Gilbert, whose humor, at heart, was that of an attorney — and what a rich source of fun the law can be I am here to insist — was too proper, too earnestly Victorian, to entertain. The indecorousness pertains not so much to sexual impropriety as to the rejection of gender stereotypes, something that would later degenerate into “camp.” To see what I mean, compare Princess Ida and her colleagues to Lady Bracknell and her girls; the later ladies have altogether thrown over the idea that, beneath the decoration, there is anything particularly attractive in being a woman. Did Gilbert ever see the show? (He died nearly two decades after it opened.) I imagine that it would have annoyed him. Plus, of course, what one knew about Wilde: that can’t have gone over well with the Grand Inquisitor of Savoy. 

It’s a fantastic production, literally, a ballet-circus of beautifully-declaimed English. Tom Hollander was even better than I thought he would be, and that’s saying something, although I can’t point to the particular movie role that he excelled in person. (The one in Hanna comes close.) He seemed born to play Henry Carr, the antique ingénu whose memory is a bombsite of misplaced shards. Seth Numrich was equally virtuoso as Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dada. And the girls — Sara Topham (Cecily) and Scarlett Strallen (Gwendolen) — were scrumptious, there’s no other word. What a rollick they made of their Gallagher/Sheen travesty! Everyone was great, from the director down to the usher, but these four were the people I wanted to run away with, at least while the lights were on. 

For when the show was over, Kathleen and I walked a few blocks — it was miserably cold; Stoppard would have found the Siberian climate redemptive — to Joe Allen, where, when you call to make an after-theatre reservation, you tell them what show you’re seeing, and they know when to expect you. It was Kathleen’s birthday, but we kept that to ourselves; no candles on cheesecake. 

I had thought to order a copy of Travesties and read it beforehand, but I didn’t; still, forty years later, I’m put off that kind of exercise by the awful experience of sitting through a performance, at Jones Hall in Houston, of the “Don Juan in Hell” scene of Man and Superman, with Myrna Loy, no less, as Ann, only two days after reading it. Wearisome does not begin to describe it. Had I read Travesties ahead of time — it turned out that I already had a copy, but of the original play, which Stoppard has subsequently revised a bit — I’d have been unpleasantly braced for the great chunks of Lenin speeches that, in the event, were cut from the show. The play to read before seeing Travesties is, of course, Wilde’s great comedy. 

Which I really wanted to read afterwards. I knew that, at one point, I had a book with all five of Wilde’s plays in it. Did I have it still? According to Evernote, yes, I did, in the middle rank of the books on the third shelf of the breakfront bookcase here in the book room. And there it was. The thing is, right underneath it (the books are stacked horizontally) was Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness. I had been thinking of looking for that, too, wondering if I still had it; I bought it several years ago, but didn’t read it. Now I wanted to, because it is mentioned in Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (one of this year’s must-reads) as one of the indispensable books about the Holocaust. And here it was! So I read it. Good old Evernote. 

It seems evident rather than accidental that, when I was arranging the books on that shelf of the bookcase, Oscar Wilde’s theatre and the horrors of Treblinka stood at something like the same distance from my interest at the time. How interesting that they should advance to its center at the same time.   

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