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June 30, 2009

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ARCADIA: Stoppard’s supreme achievement

by quaesitor

Stoppard Arcadia revivalHaving been with Rachel to see the recent London revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia a couple of weeks ago, I’ve hardly been able to stop thinking about it. When it first came out in 1992/3, first at the National and then transferred to the West End, I couldn’t get enough of it then and saw it twice. And our recent opportunity only deepened my reverence for its wit, artistry and profundity. A particular thrill was to see Stoppard’s son, Ed, play the part of the modern day Coverly, Valentine. While the play manages to encompass an almost cosmic range of ideas and concepts (and for the sake of the plot has to indulge in moments of didactic exposition), it never loses sight of the fact that it’s meant to be theatre – and theatre is, first and foremost, a spectacle meant to be enjoyed.

Stoppard has himself said that things came together with this play. He’s had the reputation of being primarily a writer of ideas, and that sometimes his characters have suffered the indignity of being merely vehicles for these ideas. (Although with a play like Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead, the whole point is that the two protagonists are indistinguishable bit-part characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) But not so with Arcadia.

I think [Arcadia’s] the first time I’ve got both right, the ideas and the plot. I think Arcadia is probably where all that was leading. It’s lost the comic songs and the parodies [of his previous play Travesties], but it’s a similar combination of larking about and trying to deliver some kind of thesis. (Fleming, Modern Theatre Guide p2)

The play is set in one room in a typical English Stately Home (Sidley Park) in two parallel universes:

  • in the 18th Century during the rise of the Romantics’ reaction (as personified by sometime Sidley Park visitor, Lord Byron) against the austere and pure classicism of the previous generation
  • in the present day, as two different scholars (Hannah & Bernard) try in their different ways to figure out what happened at Sidley Park all those years before.

The same aristocratic family (the Coverlys) occupies the house in both eras, and it seems that the younger members of the family are geniuses (like Thomasina in 18thC & Valentine in the present). Thomasina unwittingly pre-empts various 20th Century scientific discoveries and commonplaces, and she may even have solved Fermat’s last theorem!

Arcadia has everything.

  • Genuine, laugh-out-loud hilarity (from the very first lines)
  • Poignancy and humanity, especially between Thomasina and her tutor Septimus.
  • Brilliant articulation of sometimes impenetrable concepts (like Fractals & iterated algorithms, Chaos Theory, 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Classicism & Romanticism). These are not necessarily the things one expects from a play!
  • It is about worldviews – and therefore deals with things that really matter. Which is presumably why one gets the feeling that the playing around with the concepts just mentioned is no merely idle intellectual exercise (although it is done in a very witty and light-handed way – who could forget Thomasina’s anachronistic grappling with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics by reference to the behaviour of the jam in her rice pudding!?)
  • One major concern of the play is epistemology, which is a key issue of postmodernity – how do we know what we know. This is illustrated brilliantly by Hannah & Bernard and their interactions with Valentine. Another issue is the relationship between determinism and free will. There is an inevitability to what happens in the play – especially because the modern day characters know what will happen to their 18thC counterparts, and therefore as the play unfolds, so do we. This dramatic irony brings a real sense of tragedy as we witness the development of Thomasina and Septimus.
  • There is a wonderful structural symmetry but also ingenious theatrical devices, like the confusion of time and space in Scene 7, where all the main characters occupy the same stage, performing a merry waltz (metaphorically and literally) around one another. To confuse things further, the modern day characters are dressed to the nines for a fancy dress ball – in 18thC costume.

arcadia modern daySome Favourite Arcadia lines

Here are a few of my favourite moments (the photo is taken from the recent London revival – Hannah (Samantha Bond), Valentine (Ed Stoppard), Chloe (Lucy Griffiths) & Bernard (Neil Person) credit: photostage.co.uk :

THOMASINA: Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?
SEPTIMUS: An Etonian? Almost certainly I’m afraid. We must  ask your brother [Augustus, about to start at Eton] to make it his first enquiry. (p5)

LADY CROOM (the Coverly Chatelaine) to her brother: Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit.(p11)

LADY CROOM (complaining about her husband’s determination to replace the classical style landscape of Sidley Park with a more rustic, Romantic vista): But Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged – in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, ‘Et in Arcadia ego!’ Here I am in Arcadia,’ Thomasina
THOMASINA (reacting to her mother’s mistranslation of the Latin): Yes mama, if you would have it so. (p12)

VALENTINE:… There was someone, forget his name, 1820s, who pointed out that from Newton’s laws you could predict efverything to come – i mean you’d need a computer as big as the universe but the formula would exist.
CHLOE: But it doesn’t work, does it?
VALENTINE: No. It turns out the maths is different.
CHLOE: No, it’s all because of sex.
VALENTINE: Really?
CHLOE: That’s what I think. The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.
VALENTINE: Ah. The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden. (p73-74)

SEPTIMUS: Peace! Peace until a quarter to twelve. It is intolerable for a tutor to have his thoughts interrupted by his pupils.
AUGUSTUS COVERLY: But you are not my tutor, sir. I am visiting your lesson by my free will.
SEPTIMUS: If you are so determined, my lord. (p80)

LADY CROOM to Thomasina: We must have you married before you are educated beyond eligibility. (p84)

Some useful Arcadia follow up

Of course the best thing is to see it! It works best where it is intended: on stage. But failing that, as well as checking out the sparkling script here and John Fleming’s reasonably helpful theatre guide (see right: I enjoyed it but as it’s more of a school text book, its insights were helpful but all too brief), here are some useful resources for follow up (nicked from the back of the Fleming book).

I also remember enjoying, ages ago, Mel Gussow’s Conversations with Stoppard, which took place over a number of years. Particularly good in that book are the discussions on God and why Stoppard has no truck with atheism. I might post about that one day…

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