There is a very good article in today’s THE AUSTRALIAN (30/06/15) in the Arts section – ‘They Just Don’t Get My Plays, Stoppard Says’ by Terry Teachout, originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Essentially, the article is lament about a growing concern with cultural illiteracy. It is a well balanced article in that it also presents the opposing position of ‘snobbery’ from a cultural elite. Stoppard draws the comparison between the original production of his play TRAVESTIES in 1974 and one in 1990, particularly in regard to a joke that depends on the audience knowing who is Goneril (King Lear’s eldest daughter) – ‘In 1974 [.] everybody in the audience knew who Goneril was and laughed. In about 1990 when the play was revived, only half knew’. In regard to TRAVESTIES, not knowing Shakespeare’s KING LEAR is one thing – and to be honest I don’t know many people who have read James Joyce’s ULYSSESS, or even know who Tristan Tzara may be, and Lenin may be as remote as Mao (or even Napoleon). I’m crossing my fingers that hopefully Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST will be at least still familiar with audiences of the future – yet all these are kind of essential to fully appreciate TRAVESTIES. There, of course, may be other factors involved why the Goneril joke didn’t work, nonetheless, as this article goes on to speculate, what happens to Stoppard’s ROSENSCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD if the majority of an audience are not familiar with HAMLET? Unfortunately, this is entirely possible, especially when education and curriculum is student dictated and led. Furthermore, as TerryTeachout states, there is also a group of educators, exemplified by an American teacher, Dana Dusbiber (curious names I know), who would rather “leave Shakespeare out of the English curriculum entirely”, in preference for the “oral tradition out of Africa”. This exclusivist position is easily dismissed, as a curriculum could easily embrace both. Furthermore, in an English-speaking country, such as Australia, and the USA, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we are all condemned to speak the language of Shakespeare. I should also add, we also speak the language of the King James’ Bible of 1612, one of the other major foundations of modern English, and also more often than not placed in the ‘too-hard basket’. This ties in with something else Ive recently been contending against (please join Zindzi Okenyo new blog) that whilst education and teachers may aim to make a lesson pleasurable, in this contemporary world too often the knee-jerk reaction to classical works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Sidney, Spencer, Donne, Milton, Marvell, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, de Vega, Cervantes, let alone Machiavelli, Dickens, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov,(I will stop – you get my point) – the general reaction is that it is too inaccessible and ‘boring’. It is a battle that I will continue to wage until my last breath, although I certainly hope others will continue after me. The problem is not just confined to literature, but embraces all forms of art. I also endeavour to get young people to get over their resistance to old black and white movies, such as CASABLANCA, and yes – we are definitely in an era when young people may have no idea who is Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando, etc etc etc. How can this be addressed? Well – teachers and film clubs can only play a certain part in this, nonetheless, whilst the idea of watching David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on a small screen just fills me with horror, I applaud the decision of friends and colleagues like Tracie Pang and Adrian Pang who are actively taking responsibility and introducing their sons to the magnificence of world cinema. This is something that can be done – and it is great!
I’m going to finish this with Terry Teachout’s comments from his article. Teachout ultimately comes down on the side of Stoppard and expresses a concern about cultural illiteracy. To counter Dunbiber’s as well as Jonathan Pryce’s argument that Shakespeare may no longer be relevant, he cites WEB DuBois’ THE SOULS BLACK FOLK (1903) – “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the colour line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls”. Teachout goes on to state, ‘Unlike Dunsbiber, DuBois knew that familiarity with the classics of world literature was not punishment but power, and that is could transform beyond recognition the lives of the children who were introduced to their wisdom by wiser teachers who believe in their permanent, life-changing relevance’. Whilst I may still baulk a little at the contemporary overuse of ‘relevance’ with its implicit and rather intimidating finger-wagging condescension, nonetheless, the point is made. Take for example, the issue of ‘wisdom of wiser teachers’; which could easily be a parent or fellow student. However, more often than not it is generally a senior teacher and not an younger person who has not experienced enough, or read enough, or seen or listened enough. I do agree, as Anouilh once said that the young are those who have the right to question. I also agree that I am not young enough to know everything, exemplified by and endorsed by anyone who knows me well has personally witnessed my daily battles with modern technology and that it is sometimes miraculous that I can turn on a computer or answer my mobile phone. What is important to remember, however, is that great art is complex, it is complicated, it is not easy and accessible, it is challenging, it is meant to be, it is not ice cream. What is also challenging is how to inspire the imagination and curiosity of young people to explore and read and know more than what is merely the accessible and the simple. I keep trying, but I’m old and not necessarily either as energetic or as patient or as accessible to the tastes, ethics, morals, and interests of young people – although I do try. I still love seeing that light-bulb moment in a young persons eyes when I may have enlightened them with something. That for me is one of the joys of teaching. Enough.