Stoppards Arcadia Essays
This year is the twentieth anniversary of Tom Stoppard’s amazing play “Arcadia,” which opened at London’s Royal National Theatre. Actually, it seems ironic and maybe even a little trifling to attach dates to a play in which time is so supple and elusive a medium. The scenes in “Arcadia” alternate between the present day and the early nineteenth century. The sizable wall of years separating the two becomes, as the play progresses, increasingly permeable. “Arcadia” concludes with two pairs of dancers onstage, one of them contemporary and one belonging to the era of Byron and Keats. The four waltzers are united by the strains of a single melody.
The play is, then, a sort of Dance to the Music of Time, inevitably calling up Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume novel of that name. But on my most recent trip to “Arcadia”—a terrific production at the Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario—I kept sensing a closer kinship with something lighter and far briefer: Irving Berlin’s beautiful song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” (I’d like to think Stoppard would approve of the association. Popular music occupies a central place in his oeuvre.) Berlin’s ballad was introduced by Fred Astaire in “Follow the Fleet” (1936), and it’s a little masterpiece of light-footed gravity—exactly weighted to Astaire’s buoyant genius. Like a number of seemingly bright and affirmative Berlin songs (“Blue Skies,” “How Deep Is the Ocean”), it trails a lengthening shadow of melancholy. (Let’s dance, the song urges, “before the fiddlers have fled / before they ask us to pay the bill.”) A similar darkness gathers over “Arcadia,” which in its first couple of scenes might be mistaken for a straight-up comedy or even a farce.
The contemporary scenes are largely a sendup of academia and literary scholarship, as personified by one of its gruesomer manifestations—the critic who claims a sort of condescending proprietorship over those poor wayward artists whom his judgments ostensibly serve. We’re introduced to an ambitious Byron scholar, Bernard Nightingale, who is seeking in effect to excavate those nineteenth-century scenes which we in the audience watch in alternation with those in which he himself so aggressively holds the stage. All scenes unfold at Sidley Park, a country house in Derbyshire in which various historical documents have been haphazardly gathered over the centuries. It dawns on Nightingale that Byron may once have visited the house. Initially, the trail is faint. But our nightingale is in fact a bloodhound. He’s a little scary as he begins to make shrewd, accurate deductions about the past. And he’s scarier still as, inflated with a vaunting self-regard, he goes disastrously astray. The play presents a sly sermon on the unknowability of the past, the deceptive pathways down which offhand gestures, casual feints and jests may lead the historian decades or centuries later. No one onstage has anything like a clearheaded vision of the knotty interconnections that bind the cast together. The only ones who are seeing lucidly are those perched in the outer darkness of the audience.
And what they’re seeing is a masterpiece. This is perhaps the place to say that I feel irrationally, impossibly confident that “Arcadia” is the finest play written in my lifetime. (I needn’t put it up against “Waiting for Godot,” since Beckett’s pair of immortal tramps began standing watch a couple of months before I was born, in 1953.) I’ve now seen five performances of the play, under widely varying circumstances, and I’m confident, as I say, that Sidley Park is a permanent fixture in the rolling landscape of English theatre. I suppose back in 1933 (twenty years after its curtain went up) you might similarly have guessed that Shaw’s “Pygmalion” belonged to the canon. Or have predicted in 1915 (ditto the twenty years) that “The Importance of Being Earnest” was a keeper.
One sign of “Arcadia”’s greatness is how assuredly it blends its disparate chemicals, creating a compound of most peculiar properties. The play’s ingredients include sexual jealousy and poetasters and the gothic school of landscape gardening and duelling and chaos theory and botany and the perennial war between Classical and Romantic aesthetics and the maturing of mathematical prodigies. I’ve been emphasizing the play’s lightness and humor; it contains an extraordinarily rich concentration of wordplay and loopy misunderstandings, while trafficking in those staples of farce, silly costumes and mistaken identities. But a critic might with equal accuracy point out that this is a play—improbable as it sounds—suffused with the dark implications, the irreversible enervations, of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
“Arcadia”’s cast offers one tragic, truly heartbreaking character, Thomasina Coverly, who is thirteen when the action opens and speaks the first words in the play. She is drawn with quick, powerfully delicate strokes, as when she says to her tutor, “Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?” She’s apparently based on a historical character, Ada Lovelace (1815-52), who with Charles Babbage explored the consequences of computing machines before the birth of computers and who has been described as the world’s first programmer. But, while Lovelace’s tale is one of eventual fruition and recognition, the teen-age Thomasina is fated for a permanent eclipse. The last moments we see of her are some of the last moments of her life. We view her bearing aloft the candle that will, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, set her bedroom afire and incinerate her.
Shortly before her death, although she doesn’t fully have the math to validate her suspicions, she teases out the chaotic implications of the then unformulated Second Law—or, as she puts it, the notion that with a steam engine, however ingeniously it is improved, you “can never get out of it what you put in. It repays eleven pence in the shilling at most.” She is both symbol and forerunner of a range of modern mathematicians (Cantor, Einstein, Heisenberg, Gödel) whose discoveries have displaced certainties and unsettled a lay populace that knows enough to know that the rug keeps getting pulled out from under them. Or, as one of the contemporary characters—a mathematician and a distant relative of Thomasina—neatly puts it, “The heat goes into the mix… And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly .… till there’s no time left. That’s what time means.”
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, with its entropic vision of a running-down universe aeons and aeons hence, may seem an impossibly remote prospect for a literary sensibility to focus on productively. But Stoppard isn’t the first English genius to ransack it for lasting inspiration. H. G. Wells was haunted by its adumbrations of an inescapable doom, and his masterpiece, “The Time Machine,” can be viewed as a psychological confrontation with impossibly remote but still potent fears. His Time Traveller first ventures less than a million years into the future, to a garden world of perpetual blossom. But, before returning home again, he launches himself many millions of years into the future, to stand on the edge of a lifeless, cooling world whose blossoms have turned into snowflakes.
A symbol of lost brilliance, Thomasina is herself obsessed with lost brilliance. In an early scene whose full pathos clarifies only in the play’s final moments, she and Septimus have a gorgeous exchange about the burning of the great library of Alexandria by Roman soldiers:
Thomasina: Oh Septimus!—can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems—Aristotle’s own library…
Septimus: We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it .… Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?
For much of the play, Septimus represents a canny, circumspect, and down-to-earth sensibility. But here he sounds like a bit of a mystic (“nothing can be lost”), and the play’s valedictory waltz sweeps us into a crescendo of mysticism. “Arcadia” ’s concluding words are spoken by an unmarried modern scholar who makes something of a point of her inability or unwillingness to dance. Her final line is a fumbled, utterly English apology: “Oh, dear, I don’t really…” She balks, but in the end she dances, clumsily, to the same music to which Thomasina and Septimus dance fluently. Time has stopped, or it is every hour simultaneously. Meanwhile—“Arcadia” tells us—the ashes of Alexandria are restored to legibility.
Brad Leithauser’s most recent novel is “The Art Student’s War.” His collection of new and selected poems, “The Oldest Word for Dawn,” was published earlier this year. He is a frequent contributor to Page-Turner.
Above: Tom Stoppard in Rome. Photograph by Tania/A3/Contrasto/Redux.
Essay on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia
2125 Words9 Pages
Tom Stoppard parallels the Second Law of Thermodynamics with the human experience in his play Arcadia. The parallelism suggests truths about the evolution of science and human society, love and sexual relationships, and the physical world. The Second Law drives the formation of more complex molecular structures in our universe, the diffusion of energy, such as heat, and is inhibited by the initial energy required to unlock potential energies of compounds. Stoppard takes these concepts and explores human genius and the sexual interactions of people, with an eye towards universal human truth.
Stoppard illustrates the diffusion of energy in comparison to human relationships by incorporating the theme of loss heavily in the play. There is…show more content…
Septimus has made a rabbit cold by killing it. This repetitive reference to the deaths of game animals implies the loss of heat and the scattering of energy in general.
There are only three human deaths mentioned in the play. Of the three, one, that of the hermit Septimus, relates little to the thermodynamics theme. One of the more significant is the death of Mr. Chater, bit by a monkey in the tropics. His death is not mourned by Lady Croom, who seems to feel the loss of his life energy was the better for her, ?We must be thankful the monkey bit Mr. Chater. If it had bit Mrs. Chater the monkey would be dead and we would not be the first in the kingdom to show a dahlia.? (83). Her sarcasm is evident, but it seems that Mr. Chater?s death may have in fact led to better organization, or at least to a bonding of Captain Brice and Mrs. Chater at the expense of Mr. Chater?s life energy. Desire perhaps, being the catalyst for his death.
The other significant death is Thomasina?s. Her death is not only a main plot element, but is also directly connected to thermodynamics as she dies in a fire. The reference to heat is clear. Fire is an excellent example of the energy needed to create a reaction. In this case it was the energy necessary to burn her entire room, and to consume her body, dispersing the energy of her chemical bond into heat and light radiation. The loss of Thomasina?s genius parallels the nature of chemical reactions she understood. Once lost, heat