Henry Carr, and the history behind ‘Travesties’

travesties

Last week I hugely enjoyed the excellent production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the Apollo Theatre in London. A note in the programme about Henry Carr (the play’s central character) was interesting enough to send me off on a minor investigation.
Back in the seventies, Stoppard came across a mention of Carr in Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce. In 1917, Carr had played Algernon in Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich, and the two had quarrelled (and even litigated) about who should pay for the trousers that Carr had bought especially to play the role.
When he wrote Travesties, Stoppard knew nothing about Carr except for what Ellman told him – that he had been a soldier in France, had been wounded, and was by 1917 doing consular work in Switzerland. The play mostly happens in the mind of an imagined old and fuddled Henry Carr, juggling unreliable memories of Joyce (and Lenin and Tristan Tzara).
The theatre programme offersincludes a potted biography of Carr that includes a few more details, the most interesting being that after being wounded, Carr had been taken prisoner by the Germans. I thought that this sounded interesting, and so followed it up online, where I found some family stories about him and a link to Henry Carr’s Army record. You can download that here, but be prepared for a wait. There are sixty-four pages of it altogether.
This is the story:
He was born in Sunderland, emigrated to Canada and worked in a bank. On September 22nd, 1914 – very close to the start of the War – he enlisted in the 5th Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (the Canadian Black Watch. He was wounded at Ypres in April 1915, before becoming a prisoner of war. (The story told in the family is that he spent days lying wounded in no-man’s land, was captured, and was then cared for by monks.)
He was kept in hospital in Dortmund, Germany for 13 months, before being transferred to internment in Switzerland. A system had been instigated by the Red Cross in 1916 so that soldiers who were wounded, but might possibly have become well enough to fight again, could be moved from prison camps to centres in Switzerland, but were on parole not to return to their country, or to the Army, or to engage in warfare. J.R. Ackerley was one of these soldiers and his play The Prisoners of War (1925) describes the frustration of men kept in a sort of limbo while the war is happening elsewhere.

One of the main centres for interned British was in the vicinity of Château d’Oex. The first interned British ex-PoWs to reach Switzerland, about 300 officers and other ranks, arrived there on 31 May 1916. Carr must have been one of these early arrivals. Some 700 British internees were eventually held in the vicinity. (The other major centre where British soldiers were kept was Murren, where J.R. Ackerley was interned).

hotel-beau-sejour

Hotel Beau Sejour

Carr was initially placed in Hotel Beau Sejour, at Chateau d’Oex. This is in the mountains of southern Switzerland. Zurich of course, is to the north. It is possible that he went to Zurich for medical treatment, or it could have been because he was recruited for consular work. Family tradition apparently has it that his official work was to do with prisoners of war. This sounds likely, and he would have been able to do it without breaking parole conditions.

The effect of his wound was still serious. He had been wounded in the abdomen, with his right hip also badly damaged. Medical records state that while in Germany his knee was flexed to a right angle, but owing to treatment in Switzerland it straightened as far as an angle of 160o. He had also contracted severe bronchitis.

Knowing all this maybe makes his argument with Joyce more comprehensible. A man with a gammy leg would perhaps have been self-conscious about it, and would certainly have needed to have trousers specially made. To succeed in the part of carefree Algernon would be quite an achievement for a man whose movements were limited. As a private soldier, his income would have been very small, and the sums in dispute between Joyce and himself would have been significant to him. No wonder he was sensitive on the subject. (But does it show something about Joyce that he didn’t appreciate that such a man might be sensitive?)

The supposition that Carr was on parole to stay in Switzerland for the duration of the war is made more likely by the fact that he returned home very soon after the Armistice. On 14th December 1918 he was admitted to 2nd General London Hospital, Chelsea where he underwent an operation to remove splinters of bone and bullet from the area of his wound. This is why he was not in Zurich when Joyce brought a second court action, accusing Carr of slander (it failed).

Stoppard’s Carr is an old man piecing together utterly unreliable and confused memories so it doesn’t harm the play in the least that the playwright didn’t know Carr’s full story. And if the play doesn’t entirely do justice to the actual man, since it suggests he’s in Switzerland dodging the war, rather than being interned there, well at least (and especially when the part is acted by Tom Hollander) it brings him the affection of everyone who sees the play. And I certainly wouldn’t want the play any different. This current production reinforces my certainty that this is the second-best play of the second half of the twentieth century – the best, of course, being Stoppard’s Arcadia.

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2 Comments

  1. Stephen Paradis
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Tom Hollander–everything that man touches turns into dramatic gold.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Henry Carr, and the history behind ‘Travesties’ (25 February 2017) George Simmers’ Great War Fiction blog – interesting look at Henry Carr’s war / medical record (now digitised and public). […]

  2. […] Henry Carr, and the history behind ‘Travesties’ (25 February 2017) George Simmers’ Great War Fiction blog – interesting look at Henry Carr’s war / medical record (now digitised and public). […]

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