Beethoven and Lenin – Anything but a Travesty

Tom Stoppard, in his eccentrically witty and brilliant play Travesties, juxtaposes choice historical figures as they might have been had they all gathered together in a library in 1917 Zurich.  Stoppard can be forgiven for allowing caricature to reign in the work, since that’s the point; as _______ as any one of us frail humans is (insert dogmatic, proletarian, raucous, artistic, insane, you name it), we are all still people driven by our passions.  The musicality of the work is a triumph – as part of James Joyce’s presence, for example, the great Irish novelist inspires dialog in the style of what must be the wittiest (and least prurient) limericks ever composed.  Dadaist Tristan Tzara practically sings all of his lines.

But Stoppard’s Lenin is perhaps the most illustrative caricature in the play – a passionate theoretician bookworm whose ideas created the Soviet Union but whose pragmatic solutions involve things like wigs.  Despite the extremely long odds the intellectuals in Stoppard’s 1917 Zurich placed on Lenin’s triumph, of course the man goes on to spark a revolution, successful, unlike the 1905 attempt.

Quite unlike other figureheads of totalitarianism, Lenin was a man of conscience, and like Stoppard in Travesties, others have used his infatuation with Beethoven as indicative of that fact – writing in 1924 George Lukacs quotes Lenin, “I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!”

The Appassionata is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 23, performed here by the masterful Daniel Barenboim, who likely would have been right at home in that 1917 salon in Zurich.

While I’m not sure which sonatas graced the background in several of the play’s more cacophonous moments last night, I can be pretty sure it was Beethoven.  Remy Bumppo’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, under the skillful direction of Nick Sandys, runs at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theatre through May 5.

Thanks for reading.


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