The play's setting is primarily Zürich, Switzerland during the First World War. Three important personalities were living in Zürich at that time: the modernist author James Joyce, the communist revolutionary Lenin, and the founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara. In the play the less notable English consular official Henry Carr, who is likewise a real person and was similarly in Zürich, recalls his perceptions and his experiences with these influential figures. As he reminisces Carr's memory becomes prone to distraction, and instead of predictable historical biography these characters are interpreted through the maze of his mind.
Carr's memories are couched in a Zürich production of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest in which he had a starring role. Stoppard uses this production and Carr's mixed feelings surrounding it as a framework to explore art, the war and revolution. Situations from Earnest feature prominently within the action. The characters in Travesties also include versions of two characters from Earnest , Gwendolen and Cecily, and the comedic situations of many of the other roles are shared by other characters. Stoppard uses many theatrical devices within the play, including puns, limericks, and an extended parody of the vaudeville song "Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean".
The real Carr did play Algernon with a group of actors called The English Players, for whom the real James Joyce was the business manager. Carr and Joyce had an angry disagreement after the play, which led to legal action and accusations of slander by Joyce. The dispute was settled with the judge deciding in favour of both disputants on different counts. Joyce later parodied Carr, and the English Consul General in Zürich at that time, A. Percy Bennett, as two minor characters in Ulysses , with Carr being portrayed as a drunken, obscene soldier in the "Circe" episode.
After the first performance of Travesties Stoppard received a letter from Henry Carr's widow, expressing her surprise that her late husband had been included as a character in Stoppard's play.