Meet Henry Wilfred Carr By Kaitlin Stilwell
Tom Stoppard wrote the character of Henry Carr with only a few facts to anchor him (Carr’s involvement with Earnest and the lawsuit); Carr in the play is of Stoppard’s imagination. It wasn’t until Noël, Carr’s second wife, contacted Stoppard after the success of Travesties in 1974 that he learned the true details of Henry Carr’s life.
In his introduction to the 1993 edition of Travesties, Stoppard wrote, “Henry Wilfred Carr was born in Sunderland in 1894 and brought up in County Durham. […] 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 partial recovery, and then as an ‘exchange prisoner’ he was one of a group who were sent to Switzerland.”
Once in Switzerland, Carr was given a small job at the British Consulate in Zurich, and it is here that he first crossed paths with James Joyce. In 1917, Joyce and actor Claud Sykes formed an acting troupe in Zurich, The English Players, for the purpose of presenting plays in English. For their premiere they chose Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Due to a shortage of English-speaking actors, they sought both professionals and amateurs. Carr had done some amateur acting in Canada and was tall and good looking to boot, so Joyce suggested him for the role of Algernon Moncrieff (not Ernest, the other one) and Carr accepted. Amateur actors were to be paid 10 francs for their involvement, but in his enthusiasm, Carr purchased new clothing for his role. When the show closed and Carr had been a success in it, he expected to be reimbursed for his investment. When Joyce offered him only the 10 francs promised, Carr was piqued and sued Joyce for recompense, hurling a few choice epithets in the process. Joyce counter-sued claiming that Carr owed him money for tickets he was supposed to have sold. He also sued Carr for slander. The cases dragged out in court over several years; eventually, Carr lost the suit over the clothing and was forced to pay Joyce the ticket money. Joyce lost his suit over slander, but he got his revenge nonetheless. He immortalized Carr in Ulysses as Private Carr, a repugnant, drunken soldier who knocks down Stephen Dedalus, a character hailed as Joyce’s literary alter-ego.