Audiences 'lack education to understand classical plays'

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The Independent Online

Modern theatre audiences are less able to understand classical plays than previous generations because of a declining knowledge of literature and history, Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, believes.

Hytner called for the study of history to be made compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds and warned that important cultural resonances were being lost as the influence of traditional classical education receded.

He said: "Generation by generation... people are being cheated of something that's really good to know." Hytner, who is best known for his direction of Adrian Lester in Henry V, made his comments yesterday during a discussion with the writer Alan Bennett about his play The History Boys. He told an audience of history and English teachers at the fourth annual Prince of Wales education summer school in Dartington, Devon, that history should be studied until at least age 16.

He said people had been lamenting the demise of classical education since he had been a schoolboy. But he added that as a director he had also noted the impact of the decline of basic British historical knowledge among audiences.

"I knew that Henry IV usurped Richard II and was then murdered. It was something I had been taught and simply knew. But there's very little you can rely on now even with National Theatre audiences. We have a very metropolitan audience but there's very little you can rely on an audience knowing. Fifty years ago you could put on classics and it would have a different resonance for people. But now, except for people who have had a classical education, you get no frisson when Agamemnon behaves like a pig.

"You get around it but generation by generation the feeling I get is that people are being cheated of something that's really good to know. Certainly it makes life harder, if you produce work 50 per cent of which is from a classical repertoire, if people do not have an overview of English literature and English history."

Students are currently required only to study history until the age of 14. Some English literature must be studied until 16 but pupils are not required to sit a full GCSE in the subject.

Asked whether history should be made compulsory until 16, Bennett said: "I tend to think that it didn't do me any harm. I did history because I liked doing it so it was never a burden. I certainly think English should be compulsory and I think history should be too."

Bennett's play The History Boys, which recently finished a run at the National, considers what constitutes a good education as it follows the fortunes of a class of A-level historians who are being prepared for Oxbridge entrance exams by teachers with very different philosophies towards learning and passing exams.

Hytner said he originally thought the text would not have widespread appeal. "I was wrong. It turned out to have the widest appeal of any play at the National."