In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I discuss Jonathan Pryce’s charge that Tom Stoppard is a snob—and put it in a wider cultural context. Here’s an excerpt.
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Tom Stoppard, the English-speaking world’s brainiest playwright, thinks that British audiences have grown too dumb to understand his plays. In a February interview with the Telegraph that was occasioned by the National Theatre’s London premiere of “The Hard Problem,” his latest play, Mr. Stoppard complained that he now has to water down his punch lines: “It’s very rare to connect an audience except on a level which is lower than you would want to connect them on….You could raise it a notch and you might lose an eighth of them….I really resent it.” By way of illustration, he mentioned a scene in “Travesties,” one of his earlier plays, that contains a joke which hinges on knowing the name of Goneril, King Lear’s oldest daughter. “In 1974,” he said, “everybody in the audience knew who Goneril was and laughed. In about 1990 when the play was revived, maybe half knew.”
This isn’t the first time that Mr. Stoppard has made that complaint—or used that example. He said the same thing to a reporter for the Financial Times in 1998. This time, though, he got a brisk bit of blowback from the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, best known to American TV viewers as the High Sparrow in “Game of Thrones.” “I think Tom Stoppard’s gotten snobbier,” Mr. Pryce told Country Life magazine. “I thought it was an extraordinary thing to say. Just because people didn’t get his esoteric piece of writing at the National Theatre….Write something more comprehensible.”
Not having seen “The Hard Problem” and not knowing Mr. Stoppard personally, I have no opinion on the play’s comprehensibility, much less its author’s alleged snobbishness. But I feel quite confident that audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are growing “dumber,” if what you really mean to say is “less culturally literate.” It’s certainly no secret that American students are taught less and less about the canonical literary masterpieces of the past, and there is no shortage of people who believe that what little they’re required to learn in school is still too much.
Just the other day, the Washington Post published a rant by Dana Dusbiber, who teaches English at an inner-city school in Sacramento, California. Not only does Ms. Dusbiber happily admit to “disliking” Shakespeare, but she wants to “leave Shakespeare out of the English curriculum entirely.” Her preferred replacement is “the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior.” She believes that Shakespeare’s plays are no longer relevant to the lives of the “students of color” whom she teaches…
I doubt that Ms. Dusbiber is entirely representative of America’s public-school English teachers—at least not yet. On the other hand, I also doubt that her views are remotely close to unique….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for the National Theatre’s HD simulcast of The Hard Problem: