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Taking liberties with the story of Joyce's own Great War in Zurich

And what did you do in the Great War?" James Joyce was asked haughtily by the British official. "I wrote Ulysses," Joyce replied, "what did you do?"

It's a good line -- but Joyce never said it. And if he had, it would have been unfair.

The scene is imagined by Tom Stoppard in his play Travesties (which is at the Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire, till June 23, in a production by Rough Magic; see www.paviliontheatre.ie), but is based on historical fact. And the travesty, it transpires, was done to the official, whose name was Henry Carr.

Henry Carr was a junior staff member at the British consulate in Zurich, where Joyce lived during World War One. Joyce and a friend in Zurich had formed a theatre company, the English Players, and chosen Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for their debut production.

Carr landed the lead role of Algernon, on the basis of having done some amateur acting. He bought himself a new pair of trousers to celebrate.

The play sold out, and made Joyce and his partner, Claud Sykes, a tidy profit. They paid their professional actors 30 francs each, while the amateurs had been promised merely an expenses payment of 10 francs.

Carr was dismayed to find that, despite playing the lead (to acclaim), he was due just 10 francs. And Joyce, he complained to Sykes, had given him the money as if it were a tip.

When Joyce heard about Carr's complaints, he went to confront Carr at the British consulate. Joyce demanded Carr pay some money that was owing for tickets.

Carr countered that he was owed 150 francs for the clothes he had bought for the part. Joyce refuted this, and Carr threatened to throw him down the stairs (according to Joyce's later account in court). "You're a cad," Carr shouted. "You've cheated me and pocketed the proceeds. You're a swindler."

Joyce wasn't one to back down: he tried to have Carr fired, and sought police protection. He got no joy with either, and so he sued Carr -- for monies owing, and for slander -- and Carr counter-sued.

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The British Consul then upped the stakes, writing to Joyce asking him to volunteer for military service, hinting that Joyce would be blacklisted if he refused. (The Consul's support had been crucial in getting the theatre company off the ground.) But Joyce simply returned the letter, with a note saying it had obviously been sent to him in error.

The cases eventually came to court: Joyce won on the money, but lost on the slander. But he took his final revenge in the pages of Ulysses, where he portrayed Carr as an obscene, drunken soldier.

Tom Stoppard came across the character of Carr in Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce. Finding no further information on Carr, he found himself at liberty to speculate, and made Carr the anchor for Travesties, imagining him as an old man recalling his encounters in Zurich with Joyce.

Formerly a footnote, Carr became a literary character in his own right. But there was a further twist. Shortly after Travesties opened, in 1974, Stoppard received a letter from Mrs Henry Carr. Carr had died in 1962, and his widow had been intrigued to see him feature in Stoppard's play.

The real Henry Carr, it transpired, had been something of a war hero. Serving in France, he was badly wounded, and lay for five days in no man's land before being captured.

Eventually, the Germans sent him to Switzerland as part of a prisoner exchange, where he settled in Zurich, and ultimately met Joyce. The rest is history -- though it took two outings in fiction before the history would declare itself.

Carr may have regretted his spat with Joyce but it earned him a cameo in the greatest novel of the 20th Century, and a leading role in a play by one of the great playwrights of our times. Not bad for an amateur actor.