When asked once about the origins of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard replied that he had been reading Chaos, a book about mathematical theory and at the same time wondering about the contrasts between Romanticism and Classicism in style, temperament, and art. Few playwrights find source material in subjects as diverse, and unlikely, as Stoppard and his literary achievements are often considered more amazing for someone who left school at the age of seventeen and never attended a university.
For some, Arcadia represents a pinnacle in Stoppard's career. After years of writing clever, witty plays with intellectual appeal, he managed to produce one that tugs at the heart as well as the mind. After its Broadway debut, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, ''There's no doubt about it. Arcadia is Tom Stoppard's richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio, and, new for him, emotion.’’
Arcadia premiered on the Lyttelton stage of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain on April 13, 1993. It opened on Broadway two years later, March 31, 1995, at the Lincoln Center Theater. Both productions were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by critics and the public alike. In London, the play garnered the prestigious Olivier Award for best play (comparable to Broadway's Antionette "Tony" Perry Award), while in America Arcadia received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Even the small handful of reviewers who found fault in Arcadia grudgingly hailed it as Stoppard's greatest play to date.
As the action bounces back and forth in time, Stoppard explores the nature of truth and history, the conflict between Classical and Romantic thought, mathematics and chaos theory, English landscape architecture, and, ultimately, love both familial and familiar. In the words of Time reviewer Brad Leithauser: ‘‘In Arcadia we have been given a major English drama, one of those by which, ultimately, the theater of our time may be evaluated. It is a play that holds up beautifully not only on the stage but on the page.''