Monday, January 08, 2007

The Origins of the Play

"The reader of a play whose principal characters include Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara may not realize that the figure of Henry Carr is likewise taken from history. But this is so. In March 1918 (I take the following information from Richard Ellman's James Joyce), Claud Sykes, an actor temporarily living in Zurich, suggested to Joyce that they form a theatrical company to put on plays in English. Joyce agreed, and became the business manager of The English Players, the first production to be that of The Importance of Being Earnest. Actors were sought. Professionals were to receive a token fee of 30 francs and amateurs to make do with 10 francs for tram fare to rehearsals. Joyce become very active and visited the Consul General, A. Percy Bennett, in order to procure official approval for the Players. He succeeded in this, despite the fact that Bennett 'was annoyed with Joyce for not having reported to the Consulate officially to offer his services in wartime, and was perhaps aware of Joyce's work for the neautralist International Review and of his open indifference to the war's outcome. He may even have heard of Joyce's version of "Mr. Dooley", written about this time . . . ' --I quote from Elmman's superb biography, whose companionship was not the least pleasure in the writing of Travesties.

"Meanwhile, Sykes was piecing together a cast . . . 'An important find was Tristan Rawson, a handsome man who had sung baritone roles for four years in the Cologne Opera House but had never acted in a play. After much coaxing Rawson agreed to take on the role of John Worthing. Sykes recruited Cecil Palmer as the butler, and found a woman named Ethel Turner to play Miss yet, however, there was no one to take the leading role of Algernon Moncrieff. In an unlucky moment Joyce nominated a tall, goodlooking young man named Henry Carr, whom he had seen in the consulate. Carr, invalided from the service, had a small job there. Sykes learned that he had acted in some amateur plays in Canada, and decided to risk him.'

Carr's performance turned out to be a small triumph. He had even, in his enthusiasm, bought some trousers, a hat and a pair of gloves to wear as Algernon. But immediately after the performance the actor and the business manager quarrelled. Joyce handed each member of the cast 10 or 30 francs, as prearranged, but succeeded in piquing Carr, who later complained to Sykes that Joyce had handed over the money like a tip.

The upshot was disproportionate and drawn out. Joyce and Carr ended up going to law, in two separate actions, Carr claiming reimbursement for the cost of the trousers, etc., or alternatively a share of the profits, and Joyce counter-claiming for the price of five tickets sold by Carr, and also suing for slander. These matters were not settled until February 1919. Joyce won on the money but lost on the slander, but he reserved his full retribution for Ulysses, where 'he allotted punishments as scrupulously and inexorably as Dante...originally Joyce intended to make Consul General Bennett and Henry Carr the two drunken, blasphemous and obscene soldiers who knock Stephen Dedalus down in the "Circe" episode; but he eventually decided that Bennett should be the sergeant-major, with authority over Private Carr, who, however, refers to him with utter disrespect.'

From these meagre facts about Henry Carr--and being able to discover no others--I conjured up an elderly gentleman still living in Zurich, married to a girl he met in the Library duing the Lenin years, and recollecting, perhaps not with entire accuracy, his encounters with Joyce and the Dadaist Tzara.

Soon after the play opened in London I was excited and somewhat alarmed to receive a letter beginning, 'I was totally fascinated by the reviews of your play--the chief reason being that Henry Carr was my husband until he died in 1962.' The letter was from Mrs. Noel Carr, his second wife.

From her I learned that Henry Wilfred Carr born in Sunderland in 1894 and brought up in County Durham. He was one of four sons, including his twin Walter, now also dead. At 17 Henry went to Canada where he worked for a time in a bank. In 1915 he volunteered for military service and went to France with the Canadian Black Watch. He was badly wounded the following year and--after lying five days in no-man's land--was taken prisoner. Because of his wounds Henry was sent by the Germans to stay at a monastery where the monks tended him to a partial recovery, and then as an 'exchange prisoner' he was one of a group who were sent to Switzerland.

Thus Henry Carr arrived in Zurich where he was to cross the path of James Joyce and find himself a leading actor in both onstage and offstage dramas, leading to immortality of a kind as a minor character in Ulysses . . . "

from "Henry Wilfred Carr, 1894-1962" by Tom Stoppard, in the 1993 edition of Travesties

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