Living in England Sir Tom Stoppard naturally finds his intellectual prowess is as much a blessing as a curse. This is not a land where overt cleverness has ever been appreciated.
In early February the playwright revealed that one of the exasperating parts of his job is being forced to dumb down his jokes so that the modern audience understand them.
‘It’s very rare to connect an audience except on a level which is lower than you would want to connect to them on,’ Sir Tom said, sounding rather like a foreigner, who doesn’t know about British dislike of intellectualism, or anything about our education system. He sounded genuinely puzzled during a question and answer session about his latest play The Hard Problem.
‘You could raise it a notch and you might lose an eighth of them. It’s to do with reference and allusion,’ he said. He then explained how he had to change a scene in The Hard Truth three times between the previews, making a particular allusion more and more obvious each time.
‘In the end, bit by bit, by preview four, the audience made the connection,’ he said. ‘I must say that I was completely wrong in assuming they would understand it and I really resent it.’
He is a trier. In 1997 his poignant play, The Invention of Love, about A E Houseman, flopped in New York as the Americans didn’t understand any of the references. They also had trouble with Travesties, which he says could never be performed now. He says that a glancing reference to King Lear in the play would not be understood.
It’s not just literary allusions which fall on stony ground. It seems no one can assume knowledge of any kind in an audience, or they prefer not to. I was reminded of this listening to Thought For the Day on Radio 4 last week. The jocular voice of former sports commentator, the Revd Rob Marshall, now vicar of East Ham and St Alban’s East, set about telling us what could have been an amusing anecdote about an incident during a recent church service.
He told us how he’d put on his cope, but then stopped the story to explain what a cope is, then went on to say that unfortunately as he walked down the aisle a choir boy noticed that he’d left a large coat-hanger inside it. He then stopped to explain to Radio Four listeners exactly what a coat-hanger is.
Strangely in an age when we are told no one needs to learn general knowledge or read full texts because Google is always there to fill in the gaps, the public is never required by anyone in entertainment or public life to go and look something up.