Britain’s greatest living playwright (discuss), Sir Tom Stoppard, has said that audiences fail to get many of the literary allusions in his plays. For example, he believes that a one-liner about Goneril in Travesties (1974) would fly above the heads of many people watching or reading it today. In The Guardian, Michael Billington sensibly argues that it doesn’t matter a great deal if every theatre-goer fails to get every reference, but there is a bigger question bubbling under the surface: in a post(?)-postmodern culture, is there such a thing any more as a cultural canon, of which we can expect everyone to be aware? And if so, what should it contain? Billington is blasé about the fact that a proportion of Stoppard’s and Shakespeare’s gags may fall flat these days, but feels the need at the end of his article to explain that Rhett Butler was in Gone With The Wind. Which is something that my parents, say, would not need to be told and nor would they have to have it spelled out to them that Goneril was one of Lear’s daughters; but they may not have got the reference to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown in the title of this blog post. I wonder whether Stoppard would get it – and if he did, would it make him seem more or less clever?
PS: And here’s something – an article in The Atlantic that feels obliged to explain who Plato was.