The problem with Stoppard’s jokes is not us being too thick but him being too clever

Perhaps the audience had simply failed to recognise that a joke had been intended

Terence Blacker
Sunday 08 February 2015 19:08
Playwright Tom Stoppard (Reuters)
Playwright Tom Stoppard (Reuters)

The esteemed playwright Sir Tom Stoppard has complained of a new problem in writing for modern audiences. We are not bright enough to appreciate his jokes, it seems. In fact, we are getting thicker all the time.

His new play The Hard Problem contained a scene which had to be rewritten no less than three times because preview audiences simply didn’t get it. “I really resent it,” Sir Tom has said in a recent interview. “It’s very rare to connect an audience except on a level which is lower than you would want to connect with them on. You could raise it a notch and you might lose an eighth of them. It’s to do with reference and allusion.”

No doubt theatrical dunces like myself should feel suitably ashamed that this great playwright has had to lower himself to our level simply in order to be understood. Although no details of the lost comic gems have been published, Stoppard recalled a similar problem in the past, when one of his plays mentioned Goneril, King Lear’s daughter. Audiences for the original 1974 production understood the reference; when the play was revived 15 or so years later, the comprehension level was around 50 per cent.

What a shame it was that Stoppard did not spell out the joke which had ended up on the cutting-room floor. It seems to me that it is quite possible that the problem was not that the preview audiences were unable to pick up the necessary allusions, but that they simply failed to recognise that a joke had been intended. London theatregoers will laugh at almost anything if it is written by someone famous who is regularly praised for his wit, and Stoppard’s reputation for “smart fun” – that is, knowing puns, fancy wordplay and neat verbal paradoxes – is second to none.

All the same, I take his complaint personally. It reminds me why I find it so difficult to enjoy his plays. Where others find sophistication, I sense something excluding and faintly manipulative, depending for its effect not on my sense of humour or intelligence, but on my education.

There is often something smug and self-congratulatory about a Stoppard joke. It conveys the unspoken message that not only has he been clever enough to make it, but we have been clever enough to understand it. It is like being subtly reminded that one is a member of an exclusive club. It is flattering and socially reassuring, but hardly what one wants from the theatre. What the playwright has described as “playing chess with myself” suggests, for some of us, a more obvious solitary activity.

Perhaps that is why, as a theatrical dunce, I find that seeing a new play by a revered theatrical titan – a Hare, a Poliakoff, a Stoppard – so often feels little more than an act of polite cultural duty. If I really want to be amused, challenged or disturbed, I prefer to take my chances on the fringe.

Last month some distinctly Stoppardian themes – the conflict of the personal and the political, questions of offensiveness and freedom of expression – were explored in the Offstage Theatre’s production Walking the Tightrope, at the old Guardian offices on Farringdon Road. The set was minimal, there was a small cast and the writing – 12 five-minute plays by different writers – was hard-edged, funny and occasionally outrageous.

There may have been less knowing wit and fewer urbane jokes than in a Stoppard play, and there was certainly no danger of the audience being flattered by what was happening onstage. The writing did not depend on a shared system of values and cultural references – indeed the evening challenged that very idea.

It felt tricky, dangerous, stimulating, discomfiting – what serious theatre is for, in other words. And no one, among the writers, was playing chess with himself.

No offence was meant to Catholics. And nun taken

How odd it is that, at the very moment when religious extremists have been ramping up levels of bigotry, those who should know better have joined the chorus of intolerance.

On Question Time, the shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, arguing the case for hiring qualified teachers in schools, made a mildly dismissive remark to Cristina Odone, who had been taught by nuns.

All hell broke loose. “Why is it acceptable to denigrate anything Catholic but bleat tolerance about every other religion?” Odone wrote later. She was supported by an unlikely ally, Damian McBride, whose dear old mum had taught in a convent school. In the manner of modern politicians, Hunt rather wetly apologised.

If it is now a shocking thing for a public figure to say that a qualified teacher is more likely to provide a decent education than an untrained member of a religious order then we are in deeper trouble than previously imagined.

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