Theater companies around the country are starting their new seasons, and quite a few have opened with shows about war or politics. (See Berkeley Rep’s MOTHER COURAGE, for one.) Which makes this quote from the program for TRAVESTIES at A.C.T. all the more interesting:
The relationship of art to politics has always been a fraught one; from his early days as a journalist, Stoppard’s view has been that if you want to effect politcal change in the short term, “then you can hardly do worse than write a play about it. That’s what art is bad at,” he told Theatre Quarterly in 1974. (“A play makes people think longer and more deeply,” he told A.C.T. in 2002, “but a newspaper story makes them react, in a more visceral way.”) But Stoppard also continues to believe that, “without artists, the injustice will never be eradicated.” In the long run, in fascinating, elusive, but incontrovertible ways, art changes consciousness. This is why it matters, why it must be fought for, and why it always threatens the status quo.
I think I generally agree with the first part of the Stoppard quote. That is, when a play obliquely tries to effect political change in the short term by attempting to portray the political change directly (like anti-Iraq War plays that are about the War in Iraq), I don’t think they work as well as an article or a political campaign.
But when a play works on a more metaphorical level (say, an anti-Iraq War play that’s about two competing diners; or, to use a real example, an anti-McCarthy play that’s about the Salem witch trials), then I think you can effect political change, even in the short term. At least, I hope so, since my newest play seems to be heading that metaphorical way….
Anyway, to the play at hand. About, oh, it must be 8 years now, I sat down and read every Stoppard play in order. I’d just seen an amazing production of ARCADIA and I was smitten with Stoppard’s language, characters and theatricality. TRAVESTIES was one that didn’t stick with me when I read it; before I went tonight, all I remembered was that James Joyce was a character.
But, as luck would have it, I just recently re-read THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. If you don’t know or don’t remember, TRAVESTIES is as much a riff on EARNEST as ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN is a riff on HAMLET. So I was in the perfect position to appreciate all the little nuances that I probably didn’t notice when I read the play. Made for quite an enjoyable evening.
Performances, great. Direction, snappy. Set, interesting. There is, though, a long part about Lenin in the second act that I think goes on much longer than it needs to, but it’s followed by one of the best moments in the show, so all in all, I’m glad I chose to see the play rather than simply read it again.