Stoppard's Critical Reputation as a Wordsmith

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1682

In his Poetics (c. 335 BC), Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and literary theorist, suggested six elements that are crucial to theatre: plot, character, thought (or theme), diction, music, and spectacle. He explained each element in what he felt was its order of importance and devoted to each a corresponding amount of space in his treatise. When he arrived at "diction," the words the playwright places in the mouths of his characters, Aristotle explained the difference between common and elevated vocabulary, riddles, and jargon. He suggested: "The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius—for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.’’

In more than two-thousand years of plays, playwrights, and players since Aristotle, different eras have found one or the other of his six elements to be more important than the rest. The Neo-classicists of the eighteenth century, for example, prized plot like the Greeks. Writers of "problem plays'' in the late-nineteenth century, like George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, often emphasized important themes in their work. Many twentieth century dramas are noted particularly for their characters, while modern musicals often draw crowds for the spectacle they offer audiences. From every era, however, it is the playwrights with a masterful command of language—the greatest gifts for metaphor—who are passed along to the generations that follow.

The Greeks gave Aristophanes to posterity—a writer of satire and wit so dexterous, politicians of his day avoided him for fear they would appear in one of his plays. In sixteenth century England, the Elizabethans loved language. They experimented with it. They played games with it (‘‘quibbling’’ was a pub pastime that relied on clever wordplay). And, of course, they produced William Shakespeare, who managed to create a great deal of it.

While there are several contenders poised to represent the twentieth century as the era's great master of dialogue and dialectics, Tom Stoppard appears at the top of many critics' lists. In Tom Stoppard's Plays: A Study of His Life and Work, Jim Hunter observed:

Perhaps it is the words one notices first, in Stoppard. Later the sense of theatre, the craftsmanship, the thinking and the caring may seem more important; but at first one is dazzled—the cliché; seems accurate— by the brilliance of the verbal polish. Stoppard comes across as fluent to the point of facility, gifted with the gab of the Irish: Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, and perhaps through these if not directly, Swift. The brilliance also seems to have an academic element: he might well be taken for a University Wit.’’

High praise indeed for an artist who left school at seventeen, received no university education, and is whose facility with letters is largely self-taught. Yet the praise is entirely apt. Throughout his thirty-year career as a playwright, critics and scholars have attuned themselves to the language in Stoppard's plays. Writing about the debut of Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties in Plays and Players, Garry O'Connor observed, Clever, all this stuff, and occasionally very funny indeed: full of acrostics, limericks, parody, absurdity; quite exhilarating: altogether a relief to be teased and dazzled by words for once.''

Stoppard's unique talent for language lies in his ability to turn words upside-down and inside-out in a search for ambiguities, contradictions, double-meanings, humor, and half-hidden truths. Not since Shakespeare has an English playwright so strenuously exercised his native tongue. In an article Stoppard wrote for the Sunday Times early in his career, he admitted:

[I have] an enormous love of language itself. For a lot of...

(This entire section contains 1682 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

writers the language they use is merely a fairly efficient tool. For me the particular use of a particular word in the right place, or a group of words in the right order, to create a particular effect is important; it gives me more pleasure than to make a point which I might consider to be profound. On the other hand, when one does concentrate mainly on the language itself, with luck this appears to have some meaning, often in a general sense and, when one is very lucky, in a universal sense.

Stoppard's love of language is extremely evident in his 1994 work, Arcadia. The first words of the play, in fact, are the set-up for a pun. ‘‘Septimus, what is carnal embrace?’’ the youthful genius Thomasina asks her harried tutor."Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef,’’ comes the carefully chosen reply. It is a simple, clever piece of verbal humor, with layers of meaning lurking beneath the surface. As John Lahr noted in his review of the play for the New Yorker, "The question mirrors the image of Paradise about to be lost, and Stoppard' s play goes on to answer her question. To embrace the flesh is also to embrace all the sins that the flesh is heir to—the sins to which Stoppard's labyrinthine plot, whose ingenious twists and turns involve greed, rapacity, vainglory, skullduggery, cruelty, delusion, confusion, and genius, bears ample witness.’’ All this promised, and the play has only just begun.

Each of the characters in Arcadia is recognizable for his or her own idiosyncratic style of speaking. In the presence of his student, the tutor Septimus Hodge is the picture of propriety, as when he delicately explains the truth about ‘‘carnal embrace" or scolds his young protegé for her unique take on her homework, saying, "A fancy is not a discovery.’’ For her part, Thomasina Coverly is precocious but in the very best ways. She is clever beyond her years and responds to Septimus appropriately by returning, ‘‘A gibe is not a rebuttal.’’ Their dueling dialogue escalates through the play until finally, by their final scene, Septimus is bested by his student, struck silent, and his only recourse is to dance with her.

Their present-day counterparts are Bernard Nightingale, the flamboyant university professor, and Hannah Jarvis, the best-selling, no-nonsense author. Nightingale flaunts his gift for language and, when pressed, uses it as a weapon. Upon meeting Hannah walking up from the "ha-ha" (a sort of scenic moat used in landscape architecture) he corrects her pronunciation as "Ha-hah!" and explains, "A theory of mine. Ha-hah, not ha-ha. If you were strolling down the garden and all of a sudden the ground gave way at your feet, you're not going to go 'ha-ha', you're going to jump back and go 'ha-hah!'’’ Hannah is unimpressed, and later tells Valentine Coverly that Bernard's verbal jousting is just for show. ‘‘[His] indignation is a sort of aerobics for when he gets on television,'' she quips.

In reviewing Arcadia, critics found themselves praising Stoppard's use of language and comparing him to other great writers. In Time magazine Brad Leithauser wrote, ‘‘It is a play that holds up beautifully not only on the stage but on the page. When Thomasina, hungry for a new mathematics, exclaims, 'If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell,' we might have stepped into an Auden poem. When a formidable lady [Lady Croom] silences her brother [Captain Brice] by snapping, 'Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit,' we can hear Wilde whispering, 'I wish I'd said that.' As for concentrated lyricism, the scene in which Thomasina bewails the burning of the classical library of Alexandria—a doomed girl genius lamenting the conflagration of ancient genius—is absolutely stunning.’’

In the New York Post Clive Barnes noted, ‘‘Stoppard pays his audience the sensible compliment of assuming we know more than we do, while his language ranges from gutter-chic to epigrams that sound Wildean, but without Wilde's smug sense of gotcha-self-congratulation.’’ Anne Barton wrote in the New York Review of Books,"Arcadia is wonderfully inventive and funny, full of the epigrams, puns, and verbal pyrotechnics characteristic of this dramatist. From the interchange between thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly and her tutor with which the play begins ... to the end, Stoppard's highly individual love affair with the English language never slackens ... Stoppard's puns, far from being drearily Derridean, are something Shakespeare would have understood. He loves to demonstrate how exciting it can be when two meanings . . . lie down together irregularly in the same bed: as they do when Thomasina's 'carnal,' meaning 'sensual,' cohabits disconcertingly with its other connotation of 'meat.'’’

For all the careful craftsmanship that goes into writing a play with such a marvelous flair for language, sometimes, Stoppard has admitted, his gift for metaphor and symbolism is happy circumstance. In a conversation with critic Mel Gussow, Stoppard revealed how he stumbled upon the name for Bernard Nightingale, Arcadia's eccentric Sussex don, then chanced into a clever bit of character confusion:"The odd thing about these names is that they kind of detonate in a way that looks pre-planned,’’ Stoppard explained. ‘‘In Arcadia, Hannah makes reference to Thomas Love Peacock. She believes Bernard's called Peacock and she says, 'Your illustrious namesake.' He says, 'Florence?' If I'd called him Thrush, God knows what he would have replied. There's a wonderful element of good luck in these things.’’

Stoppard's wordplay may not be for everyone. In reviewing Arcadia for New York magazine, John Simon complained, "Stoppard—who never went to university and has an autodidact' s infatuation with his homemade erudition—overdoes it: 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.’’

For the playwright, however, there is no other way to work. ‘‘I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself,’’ he once cleverly revealed to Gussow in the New York Times. ‘‘I'm the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.''

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Rewiew of Arcadia

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1457

In Ulysses, there is an Oxford don who goes around pushing a lawnmower that chuffs ‘‘Cleverclever-clever.’’ Though he quit school at 17 and ran off to the circus of newspaper journalism, Tom Stoppard has always been very like Joyce's professor, forever cramming his head with arcane books and emitting their more entertaining notions in clipped, endlessly articulate, witty disputations. The question has always been whether Stoppard is anything more than clevercleverclever—is he simply a prestidigitator of prose and a joke mechanic, a whiz kid staging fantastically elaborate intellectual collisions as if they were toy-train wrecks? Or is he in it for deeper satisfactions than the transitory sparks a nice crackup tosses off?

Stoppard himself has admitted that his early play The Real Inspector Hound (1968) was ‘‘a mechanical toy,’’ but his work has been getting more human ever since. There's more of him in his later work, too; he is a recovering drama critic who began as a playwright by occupying other people's plays like a hermit crab. Pre-fame, he aped Robert Bolt and Arthur Miller; in Rosencrantz and Guilden stern Are Dead it was Beckett and Shakespeare; in Hound, Agatha Christie; in Travesties, Oscar Wilde. Starting with Night and Day (1978), he's tended to cling less to coattails and be more his own man, owning up to real emotions. He retains a perverse sense of humor akin to Beckett's; he's debate-besotted like Shaw, but he can see both sides of most questions; he's unearthly fluent and funny like Wilde, though he's grown more earnest. Yet his dramatic ideal remains what it was back in 1960, when he raved Richard Attenborough's The Angry Silence because it fused "entertainment and education as completely as a row of chorus girls explaining Einstein's theory of light.’’ His plays are, I think, a highly refined, mutant strain of journalism.

If all we had to go on was Hapgood, the 1988 faux-spy thriller that recently closed at Lincoln Center after a smash production, we might think the old rap on Stoppard still had some currency. The gratuitous beauty of the staging and the performances by David Straithairn as a droll physicist-philosopher and Stockard Channing as the eponymous spymaster heroine (whose name, according to Stoppard scholar Katherine E. Kelly, refers to turn-of-the-century Russian literature translator and Nation contributor Isabel Florence Hapgood) might blind us to the fact that Hapgood is lively without being good. Stoppard seems not to give a rip about his incomprehensibly intricate le Carré-pastiche plot, let alone his characters. (‘‘I'm no good at character,’’ he once confessed, amazingly. ‘‘It doesn't interest me very much.’’) What has interested him lately is post-Newtonian physics, and Hapgood is a physics essay masquerading as a play. As Updike said of Bellow's, The Dean's December, a novel that began as an essay, "This book has swallowed the earlier one but has transparent sides, so that we can see the non-fiction book inside the novel and can observe how incomplete the digestion process has been.’’

Incomplete intellectual digestion is a besetting sin of authors who read too much. Stoppard has been the chief of sinners in this regard, conducting his education at public expense; but he now redeems himself with Arcadia, at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, his most important work since The Real Thing (1983). Unlike the spy-jive mac-guffins he juggles in Hapgood, the mystery addressed in Arcadia is one to which Stoppard is fully emotionally committed. If all those cigarettes kill him shortly, Arcadia is almost good enough to serve as the capstone to his career.

The setting, nicely realized by Mark Thompson, is the English country house of the Coverlys (I assume Stoppard alludes to Addison's squire Roger). There are two dueling story lines, exhilaratingly orchestrated by director Trevor Nunn, concerning the Coverlys of 1809 and of today. In the earlier frame, we are introduced to chaos theory by teenager Thomasina Coverly, who is based on its modern prophet, Benoit Mandelbrot, whose ‘‘Mandelbrot set,’’ infinitely iterated images of the order lurking within nature's seeming disorder, you have seen depicted in a million articles about chaos. Like Mandelbrot, Thomasina (fetching but conventionally so, as played by Jennifer Dundas) is no math prodigy, but she can actually see the subtle geometry of chaos in her head. Her tutor is the Newtonian college math major Septimus Hodge. (Hodge was the name of Samuel Johnson's spoiled, oyster-eating cat, and this cat, smartly portrayed by Billy Crudup, is the spoiled, horny house guest of the Coverlys.) Hodge is baffled by Thomasina's dazzling musings about how post-Newtonian physics demolishes determinism. Forget Euclid and his lovely inviolable rules, Thomasina pouts, and let's look at the real world: "Mountains are not pyramids and trees are not cones.’’

Hodge is more preoccupied with brassiere cones, and the calculations necessary to remove them while dallying with another's wife in the gazebo by night. His machinations after being discovered inflagrante with fellow house guest Charity Chater by her sputtering husband, Ezra, propel the Feydeau-style Restoration comedy that leavens the mathematical debate. But the sex farce isn't purely frivolous—in Stoppard's mind, romance is the welcome snake that saves Eden from the overdetermination of natural law. As one character puts it, illicit sex is ‘‘the attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden.''

Arcadia's twentieth-century scenes are devoted to two interrelated detective stories about the 1809 characters. In the first, Thomasina's modern relative and fellow mathematician Valentine (the vulnerably lovely Robert Sean Leonard of Dead Poets Society fame) incredulously discovers Thomasina's eerily prescient equations (just as Mandelbrot rediscovered Gaston Julia's World War I-era documents in 1979), and, like Mandelbrot, uses a computer to extend and validate the earlier work.

Thomasina's vindication is a foregone conclusion, because her ‘‘New Geometry of Irregular Forms'' is simply modern physics, and because her theme is the point of the play: that determinism is false, that fate and free will are like waltzing mice, that life is messy, so eat it over the sink. A similar lesson is learned by the second set of modern-day detectives: two literary historians, Hannah Jarvis (brassy Blair Brown) and Bernard Nightingale (vainglorious Victor Garber), who have descended on the Coverlys' Arcadia to mine the place for career advancement. Nightingale's ingeniously erroneous theory about what really happened in the house in 1809—he believes Lord Byron shot Ezra Chater dead in a duel—is the entertainment engine of Arcadia, a tour de force of scholarly folly that sets up Garber as the star of the show. We may have to struggle to keep the rest of the plot straight, but since we've seen what really happened in 1809, we can have great fun watching Nightingale pump up his ego until it explodes. "Is the universe expanding?" he demands. "Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing 'When Father Painted the Parlour' ? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you.’’

In making a laughingstock of Nightingale, a Euclidean type without a trace of humility in the face of nature, Stoppard is really recanting his old line about maintaining "the courage of my lack of convictions’’ through a scrupulous aestheticism. Now he seems more on the level, less distanced from his material, as the art-for-art's-sake, inflexibly arrogant argument loses big.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Arcadia's deeply moving final scene, where the worlds of 1809 and the present do not so much collide as coincide. It is the night before Thomasina's 17th birthday, and if she knows something about the future of physics that nobody else does, the modern Valentine and Hannah (and we in the audience) know a terrible secret about her future that she does not. I can't indicate on the page just how he does this, but Stoppard blends the dialogue and actions of modern and long-vanished characters in a way quite different from his usual comic convergences. He's long been the master of people talking past each other, but here their conversations embrace across the centuries. Valentine finally figures out Thomasina's immortal discovery—that she, and we, are demonstrably, mathematically, doomed— but instead of going for the sixties-style cosmic laugh, Stoppard makes the revelation a moment of rueful acceptance. The dialogue pointedly echoes Eliot's Four Quartets, and the vibe is that of the late Shakespearean fables, spectral but deeply charged with feeling.

David Merrick, the producer of Stoppard's first hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, complained that if you took the main characters and put them on a graph, "they would all come out as one line.'' Arcadia's plots may leave the play with more characters than it can comfortably handle, but the main ones describe an elegant arabesque worthy of Mandelbrot himself.

Source: Tim Appelo, review of Arcadia in the Nation, Vol. 260, no. 17, May 1, 1995, pp. 612-13.

Blowing Hot and Cold

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2299

In Tom Stoppard's 1966 novel, "Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon,'' Malquist remarks, "Since we cannot hope for order, let us withdraw with style from the chaos.’’ This notion has made Stoppard a very rich man. He says that his favorite line in modern English drama is from Christopher Hampton's ‘‘The Philanthropist'': ‘‘I' m a man of no convictions—at least, I think I am.’’ Over the years, in twenty-one plays, Stoppard has turned his spectacular neutrality into a high-wire act of doubt."I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself,’’ he once explained. The three-ring circus of Stoppard's mind pulls them in at the box office, where news of the intellect, as opposed to the emotions, is a rarity. Marvel at his marriage of Beckett and Shakespeare in the death-defying clown act of ‘‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’’ (1967). Watch him play with logical positivism and the meaning of God in ‘‘Jumpers’’ (1972). See him juggle Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Lenin in "Travesties" (1974). Stoppard's mental acrobatics flatter an audience's intelligence and camouflage the avowed limits of his plotting and his heart.

In "Arcadia,'' at the Vivian Beaumont—to my mind, his best play so far—Stoppard is serving up another intellectual stew (the recipe includes ‘‘a seasoning of chaos and a pinch of thermodynamics following a dash of quantum mechanics,’’ he says), but with a difference. Stoppard, whose stock-in-trade is parody, which is skepticism in cap and bells, has found a metaphor that takes him beyond parody to vision. Here, despite some casting glitches, Trevor Nunn's elegant production pits the heart against the head in a subtle theatrical equation, which factors out into a moving ambiguity.

The play begins and ends with an image of Eden before the Fall. In this lush, tranquil landscape, painted onto a curtain, lit from behind, that wraps around the thrust stage like a kind of illuminated lampshade, no animals and no fear intrude on perfect pastoral harmony as Eve holds out to Adam the Apple of Knowledge. Only scudding gray clouds in the background suggest the confusion about to beset mankind once Adam takes a bite. The consequence of curiosity, once the curtain goes up, is a vaudeville of consciousness in a fallen world. ‘‘Septimus, what is carnal embrace?’’ the thirteen-year-old math brain truster Thomasina Coverly (the pert Jennifer Dundas) asks her handsome tutor, Septimus Hodge, in the play's first line. The question mirrors the image of Paradise about to be lost, and Stoppard's play goes on to answer her question. To embrace the flesh is also to embrace all the sins that the flesh is heir to—the sins to which Stoppard's labyrinthine plot, whose ingenious twists and turns involve greed, rapacity, vainglory, skulduggery, cruelty, delusion, confusion, and genius, bears ample witness.

The brilliance of ‘‘Arcadia’’ is not so much in the wordplay as it is in the construction. Stoppard has built his story along two time lines: life at Sidley Park, the Coverlys' country house in Derbyshire, in 1809, and life at present in the same house, where a couple of academics are picking over the bric-a-brac of Coverly family history. The action is set in a high-ceilinged room of grand Georgian design, which is dominated by a large oblong table cluttered with books, implements of learning, and a dozy pet turtle. A fissure in the cupola of Mark Thompson's shrewdly designed interior is the only physical hint of the skewing of world views that takes place around the table as the play shuttles back and forth in a nanosecond between centuries. (Actors in one time frame exit as actors from the other enter.) 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; that is, as the program note explains to us scientific simpletons, how reality ‘‘can be both deterministic and unpredictable.’’ This is an enormous theatrical feat—a kind of intellectual mystery story—in which Stoppard provides the audience with the exhilarating illusion of omniscience. We become cosmic detectives, outside time, solving the riddle of history from the clues and connections that we see but the characters, who are caught in time, do not. For instance, the equation that Thomasina works out to explain the asymmetry of a leaf, her"New Geometry of Irregular Forms,’’ later turns out, with the help of computers, to undo the assumptions of Newtonian physics. She is to classical mathematics what Picasso is to art history. The spirited youngster, who shouts ‘‘Phooey to Death!’’ in the first scene, works out a formula that, by the last scene, prophesies the ultimate doom of the universe, which is collapsing like a chocolate soufflé from the slow loss of heat. Even Thomasina's offhand doodle on the landscape architect's plans for a Gothic vista at Sidley Park—she sketches a hermit to inhabit the planned Romantic hermitage— turns out to have been a prophecy of Septimus Hodge's destiny. The caprices of history, like the accidents that become inevitabilities in a plot, are the charms of chance that Stoppard and the audience stand in awe of.

Life's terrifying randomness is a mystery that compels mankind to impose order. Chaos is psychologically intolerable; man's need for coherence is greater than his need for truth. Landscape, like ritual, is consoling because it holds the magical promise of permanence. ‘‘English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors,’’ says Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown), a modern who is writing a book about the Sidley Park hermitage and the garden. The imaginative ideal is made into a reality; and Stoppard contrives to dramatize a moment in the life of the estate when the old illusion of reality is being adapted to fit a new one. At Sidley Park, Nature was originally tamed according to a neoclassical symmetry. The projected Romantic version, for which Stoppard supplies fascinating visual aids, is a triumph of the picturesque over the well proportioned. The planned irregularity and "naturalness'' of the reimagined landscape capture the nineteenthcentury drift toward Romantic individualism: from formality to spontaneity, from aristocratic public space to middle-class privacy, from the balance that reflects the Enlightenment's God of Reason to the brooding Romantic freedom that makes a god of the self."The decline from thinking to feeling, you see,’’ Hannah says. No wonder Septimus (Billy Crudup, making a persuasive Broadway debut) refers to the landscape architect who engineers the loss of this particular version of Paradise as the Devil."In the scheme of the garden he is as the serpent,’’ Septimus says. The wildness of the picturesque style is an attempt to contain chaos by building the unpredictable into the landscape, just as Thomasina, in her algebraic equation, is unwittingly introducing chaos into the physical laws of life.

Meanwhile, the lives and loves of these citizens take their apparently ordinary lustful course. The philandering Septimus cunningly evades a duel with the cuckolded poet Ezra Chater (Paul Giamatti), who enters in fury and exits in flattery, inscribing Hodge's copy of his poem ‘‘The Couch of Eros,’’ after the tutor, lying, promises to review it favorably ‘‘Did Mrs. Chater know of this before she—before you—" Chater sputters, seeing his wife's infidelity not as a leg over for her but as a leg up the literary ladder for him. Septimus encourages this delusion, and Chater is triumphant. ‘‘There is nothing that woman would not do for me,’’ he crows, thereby illustrating Stoppard's larger theme—that people will rationalize anything to avoid chaos.

The compulsion for coherence has its comic apotheosis in the biographical sleuthing of Bernard Nightingale, a dot from Sussex University who is a whirlwind of spurious intellectual connections. Nightingale (played with swaggering and hilarious arrogance by Victor Garber) has stumbled on the copy of Chater's ‘‘The Couch of Eros’’ that contains both the poet's inscription and an unnamed challenge to a duel, and he has traced the volume to Byron's library. A literary climber of the first order, Nightingale sniffs a mother lode of lit-crit kudos in making the connection between Byron and Chater. No one is better at this kind of academic flimflammery than Stoppard, and he has a good time teasing the literary second-guessing that too often passes for biography. Within minutes of insinuating himself into Sidley Park, and Hannah's orbit, Nightingale is spinning his academic wheels and turning what we know to be Septimus's face saving deceit into a sensational case of adultery, literary infighting, and the death of Chater in a duel with Byron after the latter poet's devastating review of Chater's work appears in Piccadilly Recreation. ‘‘Without question, Ezra Chater issued a challenge to somebody." Nightingale says, reading from his completed paper in the tour-de-force opening of Act II. "Without question, Lord Byron, in the very season of his emergence as a literary figure, quit the country in a cloud of panic and mystery, and stayed abroad for two years at a time when Continental travel was unusual and dangerous. If we seek his reason—do we need to look far?’’ Hellbent on literary glory, Nightingale rushes past the truth—‘‘Is it likely that the man Chater calls his friend Septimus Hodge is the same man who screwed his wife and kicked the shit out of his last book?’’ The paper is proof positive of the cynic's adage that ‘‘history is something that never happened written by someone who was never there.’’

Arcadia uses intellectual argument as a kind of riptide to pull the audience under the playful surface of romance with which the characters in both time frames fill their days and nights. In ‘‘Arcadia's’’ comic conceit, seismic intellectual shifts are treated as superficial, while superficial changes of the heart are treated as monumental. For the evening to work, the audience must feel the pull of sexuality as well as the play of knowledge. In London, with Felicity Kendal, Emma Fielding, and Harriet Walter in the major female roles, the erotic amperage was high; here, though, the American actresses can articulate the words but not the sexy twinkle beneath them. As Hannah, Blair Brown shows a sharp intelligence, but she can't give Stoppard's lines that nervy bluestocking spin which flirts with learning and turns the alarming into the charming. "Oh, shut up,'' she tells Nightingale, when he is upbraiding her after discovering she has written a letter to the London Times giving the facts of Chater's death. (He was killed by a monkey bite in Martinique after discovering the dwarf dahlia.) ‘‘It'll be very short, very dry, absolutely gloat-free,’’ she says of her letter. ‘‘Would you rather it were one of your friends?’’ The strut of Stoppard's epigrams is also missed by Lisa Banes as Lady Croom, who delivers some of the most delightful mots without the louche aristocratic aura of entitlement that makes them properly pay off. ‘‘Do not dabble in paradox,’’ she says to Captain Brice (David Manis). ‘‘It puts you in danger of fortuitous wit.’’ Even the pint-size Jennifer Dundas, who has the smarts to make Thomasina a credible, if cloying, prodigy, hasn't the stature to make her a compelling object of desire. The cumulative effect is not to undermine the production but to dim it.

Still, the brilliance of Stoppard's metaphor shines through. In the final scene, Thomasina is horsing around with her brother when Septimus enters with her latest diagrams under his arm. ‘‘Order, order !'' Septimus shouts to his rambunctious pupil, now nearly seventeen years old, who would rather waltz than work. By the end of the scene, when Septimus comprehends her latest equation, he sees that order—the Enlightenment notion of it— has entirely collapsed. Now the time frames merge, with the characters in the present overlapping with and commenting on the issues raised by characters in the past."It's a diagram of heat exchange,’’ says Valentine Coverly, a graduate student of mathematics (played expertly by Robert Sean Leonard), looking at the same diagrams that Septimus is studying. Septimus looks up. ‘‘So, we are all doomed,’’ he says. "Yes," Thomasina answers cheerfully, not knowing that she is soon to become another integer in her equation of chaos. (She will perish the same night in a fire; and Septimus will become the hermit of Sidley Park, speaking to no one except his pet turtle.) But for the moment, with the geometry of the universe's doom in his hand, Septimus says, ‘‘When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.’’

At the prospect of such an awesome, godless void, Thomasina suggests that they dance, and finally gets Septimus to his feet. The audience knows the outcome but the dancers don't: they live in the comedy of the moment, not in the tragedy of history. Hannah waltzes with Gus Coverly (John Griffin), a smitten teen-ager who has given her the final piece of the puzzle of Septimus's story. Together, the couples whirl around the old table covered with the inventory of centuries of learning. The ravishing image moves the play, in its last beats, from story to statement. The dance becomes the dance of time: one awkward, one graceful; one in celebration, one in resignation. The waltz, an act of grace in the face of gloom, is a perfect embodiment of Stoppard's spiritual standoff. Play writing, like the dancing, is a way of giving off heat in a cooling universe: an assertion and an abdication at the same time. It's the dance of a stoic, and, from where I sit, it is brave and very beautiful.

Source: John Lahr, ‘‘Blowing Hot and Cold’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, no. 8, April 17, 1995, pp. 111-13.


Critical Overview