By Rick Curtiss, Dramaturg
To sell a show like Travesties, you have have some big names, but what is a name anyway?
Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ’em Stenchblossoms.
Homer: Or Crapweeds.
Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen Crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called Scumdrops.
Names are arbitrary—Names are essential.
Names aren’t my strong point.
Mindy Khalin rejects the idea of someone being bad at names in her memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? She posits that being bad at names is just an excuse for laziness. While I don’t doubt that personal laziness is a factor in my inability to successfully recall names; I wonder if might there be some poorly understood, underlying, biological, and/or social factors that at least play some role in name recognition?
Take Cats for instance.
The T.S. Elliot penned Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has a song called “The Naming of Cats.” This song illustrates that cats have three names, one everyday name, one special unique name and one name that only the cat herself knows. All the cats in Cats use their second name—the one that is wholly unique to them; and I must say, that in this one aspect of social progress; I think cats have us beat. I can always associate one unique name with the one unique cat and no other. Ask me the name of my roommates, and I have about a fifty-fifty shot of naming all three within ten seconds. Ask me the name of the railway cat and I will answer Skimbleshanks, instantly, every time.
There is a power in uniqueness, and power in creating a unique name. It is both a clean slate and an endless opportunity. When I tell people, my name is Rick, I am instantly compared, consciously or not, to all the other Ricks that person has known. If you name your child Adolf, it automatically comes with (hopefully unwarranted) baggage, but an original name is only defined by the originator.
Which is part of the reason I think Madonna was so successful. Sure, she wasn’t the original, but it was original enough to set her distinctly apart.
See also, Lenin—
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, isn’t well known. The name seems exotic and unique, but in its original late nineteenth century Russian context, I’m sure it felt as arbitrary as John Smith. Vladimir had some crazy ideas as he got older, spent some time in exile, and eventually adopted the name Lenin—which has much wider circulation. Derived from a river he was living near during exile, Ulyanov used Lenin as a pen name to protect himself, but it became something more. Lenin became the voice of a revolution; a name that didn’t have to fight thousands of other arbitrary associations. Lenin became the blank canvas on which the Bolsheviks could build the Communist Party. Lenin became powerful in a way that Ulyanov never could. Lenin unintentionally guaranteed the number one spot in a google search.
Similar things could be said about Stalin. Stalin; the name, is derived from steel. Stalin as a given name became popular after the Stalin became popular. Almost one-hundred years later Stalin is still permanently embedded in the minds of many as the one singular sensation Joseph Stalin.
Lenin and Stalin—they were the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer of communism.
It’s no wonder that Lenin was included as a character in Travesties. What one name had as much power in 1917?
Tzara—even less so.
Even those who don’t know any specifics about Lenin know that there is power in the name. Lenin was vital enough for the show that history itself had to be fudged to include him. Because who wouldn’t want to say I was there? That I was however briefly connected to Lenin. Not the physical man—whose image; however unique, has waned in meaning (I know I couldn’t pick him out of a line up until I started researching Travesties,) but the name on which hangs so many things.
Travesties spends a good deal of time talking about Lenin. Lenin himself talks about Lenin, and I can’t help but wonder, in world where millions of unique names are created to say, play World of Warcraft, on which blank slate tomorrow’s revolution might be written.