Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Arcadia premiered at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain in 1993, won the prestigious Olivier Award for best play then transferred to London's West End for a lengthy and successful run. In London, everything about the play was praised—its plot, characters, fascinating ideas intricately woven into witty dialogue, the scenery, the acting, and the directing. The play received its American debut at New York City's Lincoln Center Theater in 1995, where—in spite of actors who were generally considered less fit for their roles than their English counterparts and a theatre with poor acoustics—the play earned acclamation from excited Stoppard aficionados. The work also earned the playwright newfound respect from some of his severest critics. ’’Arcadia is wonderfully inventive and funny, full of the epigrams, puns, and verbal pyrotechnics characteristic of this dramatist,’’ wrote Anne Barton in the New York Review. Clive Barnes crowed in the New York Post, "It is a work shot through with fun, passion and, yes, genius.’’

Michael Feingold, a longtime critic of the playwright's work, admitted in the Village Voice: ‘‘Until Arcadia, you couldn't have convinced me that Tom Stoppard was a playwright. At best, I'd have called him a sometimes diverting entertainer, whose show-offy, cerebral houses of cards usually turned up a few ace witticisms before collapsing into a litter of pasteboard. Arcadia changes all that.’’ Other critics welcomed Stoppard back into popular consciousness. Donald Lyons suggested in the Wall Street Journal that ’’Arcadia is Mr. Stoppard's happiest invention since 1974's Travesties.’’ In Variety, Jeremy Gerard said, ’’Arcadia fulfills the promise of Stoppard's 1983 boulevard comedy, The Real Thing. In Arcadia, he gets everything right.’’

Many reviewers remarked on Arcadia 's collection of eccentric characters—a schoolgirl genius and her handsome, romantic tutor; insultingly witty members of the aristocracy; a flamboyant, puffed-up university professor and his antagonist, a no-nonsense historian as comfortable in garden trenches as she is at her typewriter. Typical of Stoppard's critical reception, however, even more attention was paid to the thoughts of the characters and the themes of the play.

‘‘This is one of Stoppard's guessing game plays,’’ Howard Kissel wrote in the Daily News, where the interest lies less in the characters' changing relationships than in the ideas the playwright so adroitly juggles.’’ Barnes noted, ‘‘Nothing is safe from the intoxicating whirl of ideas which it draws into a vortex, be it English landscape gardening, Newtonian physics, Byron's mysterious flight from England in 1809, the classicism of Claude and the Gothic romanticism of Salvator Rosa, Horace Wal-pole and Thomas Love Peacock, the second law of thermodynamics, the conundrum of Fermat's mathematical theorum of numbers, the lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, even dwarf dahlias in the botanically unlikely region of Mazambique.’’

The way Stoppard successfully assembled such a range of characters and ideas in one place struck some critics as an amazing feat. John Lahr noted in the New Yorker: "The brilliance of Arcadia is not so much in the wordplay as it is in the construction.’’ Lahr explained Stoppard's use of two different time periods, set in the same household, and suggested, ‘‘By crosscutting the Coverly family story and the story of the contemporaries trying to reconstruct it, Stoppard utilizes the ironies of history—the symmetries and accidents that lead, nonetheless, to a kind of order—as a way of demonstrating the outcome of chaos theory.''

The New York Review's Barton appreciated that, while the play is a whirlwind of ideas and emotions, Stoppard did not resort to some of the theatrical tricks employed by his previous plays. ‘‘In theatrical terms ... Arcadia is muted by comparison with most of Stoppard's previous work,’’ she wrote,"No yellow-suited gymnasts dangerously construct and implode human pyramids (Jumpers); nor does an entire troupe of traveling actors stow away and improbably contrive a musical performance inside three barrels (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1967); no drama critic gets surprised and killed by the play he is reviewing (The Real Inspector Hound, 1968), nor is there any equivalent to the public librarian in Travesties, who seems to strip on top of her desk while delivering a heartfelt panegyric on Lenin.’’

Despite the majority of praise, at least one critic found some major problems with Arcadia, mainly with the way the play pushes the boundaries of probability. Comparing Stoppard to his popular predecessor, Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), in New York, John Simon complained, ‘‘[Wilde] would not have an Englishman in 1809 use the Yiddishism tush, or have two characters— including the 13-year old Thomasina-interpret Poussin's famous Et in Arcadia Ego (‘‘I too have lived in Arcadia’’) as being spoken by Death, i.e., the skull in the picture, a theory first proposed by Erwin Panofsky a century and a half later.’’ Simon also regretted that some of the more interesting characters (such as Lord Byron and Mrs. Chater) never appeared on the stage while the more foolish ones (Chater and Captain Brice) did. In summary, Simon felt, "There are goodly chunks of the play that seem to have been written for the delectation of graduate students in literature and science, and you often wish Stoppard would rein in his parade.’’

In spite of its possible faults, the dominant opinion of Arcadia was that it is one of Stoppard's finest works. It is "pure entertainment—entertainment for the heart, mind, soul and all those interstices between we forget about,’’ wrote Barnes. ‘‘It's brief candle lighting up a naughty world.’’

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