In Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, the character Henry Carr is suggested to play the leading role in The Importance of Being Earnest because he’d been ‘”a wonderful Goneril at Eton.” This line has recently been dusted off, again, in the context of Stoppard’s bemoaning the decline in cultural literacy. As The Wall Street Journal records, Stoppard said the joke was understood and appreciated in 1974 but materially less so in the early 1990s. Tom claims half of the more recent audience didn’t know who Goneril was. A generation later, they fail to get his latest work at the National Theatre in London, The Hard Problem. “You could raise it a notch and you might lose an eighth of them…”
You don’t have to be a member of the school of resentment, or a public education doomsayer, to find this a bit hard to swallow. Nor do you need to resort to a charge of snobbery to rebut Stoppard’s point. Apart from speculating that the mob got the joke but didn’t like it much, better to take an optimistic view, quoting Visconti: “The audiences. They understand, they know, they encourage.”
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