Why I still love Sir Tom Stoppard, even when he complains about his audiences

Grace Ioppolo writes:

On February 8th, I was contacted by The Times’ arts reporter Jack Malvern and asked to comment on this story in the Telegraph that quoted Sir Tom Stoppard as saying that modern audiences weren’t as smart as audiences in the 1970s, at least in understanding references to Shakespeare’s King Lear:


I had already been tweeting from my Twitter feed @ProfShakespeare about my disagreements with Stoppard, whom I consider to be the best living playwright writing in English (and he is my absolute idol, after Shakespeare, of course). I told Jack Malvern that I didn’t believe that audiences were ‘dumber’ today than in previous generations but that what we considered to be significant or intellectual cultural references change frequently. I said that Stoppard’s references are often so arcane that audiences had to do considerable research after seeing his plays, and that was wonderful in terms of making theatre matter, but that even I had given up teaching his play Travesties at Reading, due to the difficulty of explaining its many obscure literary allusions. You can read Malvern’s article in the Times on February 9th, including my comments, in this attachment.

I also explained that early 1970s audiences knew King Lear because of Paul Scofield’s spectacular performance in a 1962 RSC production directed by Peter Brook, which was filmed in 1971. I also said that students today are much more likely to know Hamlet because of David Tennant’s RSC performance, filmed in 2009 and available online, and Romeo and Juliet because of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film (I sat in front of Luhrmann at a rough-cut preview screening of that film when I was teaching at UC Berkeley in the summer of 1996, and when asked on the questionnaire at the end what I thought of the ‘additional dialogue by Luhrmann’, I wrote, ‘It’s not as good as the original guy’s dialogue’. I also predicted that the film would flop, so that tells you what I know about upcoming cultural trends, as the film continues to be very much loved by secondary and university students since its release in 1996).

I thought that Stoppard’s comments would cease to interest anyone, but the press kept the pressure up on this cultural icon, possibly because so many audiences, including journalists, had been stymied by discussions of entropy in Arcadia, scholarly editing of classical poetry in The Invention of Love, and the Plastic People of the Universe in Rock n’ Roll. Even the superb modern playwright Michael Frayn, no stranger to arcane topics in plays like Copenhagen, was asked to weigh in on this controversy. Frayn announced that Stoppard was wrong about audiences being more ‘stupid’ than in previous years and that it was the playwright’s and not the audience’s job to explain difficult subjects and make them accessible: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/the-independent-bath-literature-festival-michael-frayns-hard-problem-with-stoppard-and-his-stupid-audiences-10078972.html

Having men of a rather advanced age (Stoppard is 78 and Frayn is 81) debate whether or not younger generations, including today’s university students, are too ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ to understand plays seems to me to be useless. Neither of these men is adept at social or digital media, and thus they may not only look old but inept to teenagers and twenty-somethings who have mastered and can manipulate both forms of media. This type of mastery would suggest that younger generations are not lacking in intelligence but that types of knowledge are changing, as is how we acquire them. This may not be the end of this discussion, so keep following the debate (in social and digital media if you want to demonstrate how ‘smart’ you are…).



About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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