Historical Context

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History is practically a character itself in Arcadia. The play takes place in England in two different time periods, the early nineteenth century and the present day. While the scenes in the present day often seem disconnected from the world outside, other than scattered references to advancements in math and science and television as the modern day mass media of choice, they are intensely interested in the past. The entire plot, in fact, hinges on the events of 1809-1812, when, in the world of the play, a young girl was formulating theories decades ahead of their time, Lord Byron was writing the poems that would make him famous, and Europe was transforming itself through wars, experiments in art, and the inventions of science.

The period Stoppard chose to contrast with the present has been labeled a transformative era in world history, the twilight of one age and the dawn of another; much of the creative energy and tumult of the period can be found in Arcadia. Three of the most important historical influences on the play are England's Industrial Revolution, European political upheaval and empire building, and Romanticism in art and literature.

Britain's Industrial Revolution The first Industrial Revolution in Britain began late in the eighteenth century and almost immediately altered the way products were manufactured, what products were created, the location of industry, and the transportation of goods around the country and around the world. Because greater production efficiency could be achieved when the resources required by industry were centrally located, the population of Britain began a gradual shift from scattered rural dwellings to primarily urban communities.

In England in the Nineteenth Century, David Thomson noted: ‘‘Most Englishmen in 1815 still worked on the land or in trades connected with agriculture, though within the next generation most Englishmen became townsmen engaged in industry: sixteen years after Waterloo probably half the population already lived under urban conditions.... During the first thirty years of the century Birmingham and Sheffield doubled in size, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, and Glasgow more than doubled. London, in 1815, was above the million mark, and five years later numbered 1,274,000.’’

The people who moved to the new centers of industry found working conditions quite different from what they had known before. Individual craftsmanship was superseded by collective manufacturing efforts: Instead of handling goods from start to finish, workers were taught a particular part of the job, given the tools necessary, and placed in a factory setting where, by sheer force of numbers, they could produce greater amounts of goods than ever before (a process that came to be known as the ‘‘production line’’). Britain very quickly became the workshop of the world and a major exporter of all sorts of goods from furniture to textiles to fine china.

Exporting goods, of course, relied heavily on transportation, both within the country, to transfer goods from factories to shipping centers, and without, to get goods from rail stations and ports to their foreign destinations. To accomplish this, enormous improvements and advances were made in the country's transportation system. In England in the Eighteenth Century, J. H. Plumb wrote:

The canals, the roads, the ships of England were the nation's pride. Inexpensive Irish labor was used to cover Britain with a network of canals. By 1815, 2,600 miles of canal had been built in England; 500 in Scotland and Ireland. They cheapened production and lowered prices.... But the revolution in road transport was more vivid, more exciting, to contemporaries. Road engineering did not begin to improve until the last quarter of the century, and it was...

(This entire section contains 1528 words.)

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given a strong stimulus, in 1784, with the introduction of the mail coach for the rapid transport of letters and passengers. The stage coaches responded to the threat of competition and road surfaces were improved to help faster travel. In 1754 it took four and a half days to travel from London to Manchester; in 1788 the journey had been reduced to 28 hours.

At the same time, Britain's ports and shipping abilities were being improved to handle all the additional trade. By 1810 the total freight weight of ships using British ports reached 2 million tons. Between 1800 and 1810, thirty acres of new iron docks were built in London, along the Thames River, making Britain's capital the greatest port in the world.

All this industry was accompanied by equally important gains in efficient agricultural techniques. Researching and perfecting new methods of tilling, the rotation of crops, and improved stock-breeding relied on capital and returned their investments a thousandfold, which meant that England's rich were getting richer. Landed aristocrats, like the Coverlys bearing the Croom lordship title in Stoppard's play, owned more and more land, which they would let to tenant farmers or hire laborers to farm for them. Through this method, they became the ‘‘leisure class'' in England, allowing their money to work for them, while they enjoyed comfortable lives in elegant country houses, such as Sidley Park.

One of the residents of Sidley Park, Lady Croom, considers herself cursed by the advancements in industry and technology, particularly by Noakes's new steam engine, which she feels is systematically ruining her garden. ‘‘If everybody had his own I would bear my portion of the agony without complaint,’’ she wails. ‘‘But to have been singled out by the only Improved Newcomen steam pump in England, this is hard, sir, this is not to be borne.’’

Military Conflict in the Nineteenth Century At the same time that they were radically improving transportation methods, agriculture, and manufacturing techniques, Britons, along with most of Europe, were embroiled in a series of wars that shaped the modern European continent. Two of history's greatest revolutions had already been fought: the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799). By the following century, the fallout from these great wars was still echoing through the politics and social structure of Europe. The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century was the age of Napoleon and the infancy of America. At various times during this period England fought against the forces of the French, the Spanish, and the Americans. Some of Britain's greatest victories were achieved—such as Lord Nelson's triumph over the French-Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and Napolean's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 by British general Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington.

Although the armed conflicts of Europe do not intrude directly into the peaceful lives of the residents at Sidley Park, they are certainly aware of them. Lady Croom, upon hearing that one of her favorite house guests, the poet Lord Byron, is planning an adventure abroad warns, ‘‘The whole of Europe is in a Napoleonic fit, all the best ruins will be closed, the roads entirely occupied with the movement of armies, the lodgings turned into billets and the fashion for godless republicanism not yet arrived at its natural reversion.’’

The Romantic Age Coursing throughout the action of Arcadia, and somehow affecting the lives of all the characters, past and present, is the spirit of the Romantic Age. Broadly speaking, Romanticism was a movement that bridged the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, affecting the literature of most European countries, the United States, and Latin America. Romantic writing is characterized by a reliance on imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, unfettered by traditionally accepted forms of literature and an idealization of nature in its pure form—a marked contrast from the increasingly mechanized and industrial world that surrounded Romantic writers. It also contrasted severely with the preceding Enlightenment era, which stressed orderly, rational thought, strict adherence to form, and a reliance on Classical Greek and Roman models. In essence, Romanticism was, for a time, the triumph of feeling over thinking, the heart over the head.

This battle between intellect and emotion rages through Arcadia. Stylistically, Lady Croom continues to live in the past. She adores her well manicured gardens, steeped in the balance and order of Classical Greece and the Enlightenment age. The unseen Lord Croom, however, is pitching headlong into the new age and has brought in the landscape architect Noakes to sculpt Romanticism into the countryside. In the present, Hannah, Valentine, and Bernard quarrel over the efficiency of science in the face of the intuition of genius. Bernard "feels" his theory about Lord Byron is right. He advocates "a visceral belief in yourself. Gut instinct.’’

Young Thomasina, of course, is central to the debate, as she is central to the play. In her can be found the best elements of both logic and emotion. She is as comfortable seeking a solution for Fermat's Last Theorem and plotting the shape of a leaf with numbers on a graph as she is reveling in the poetry of the age. She laments the loss of the library at Alexandria and in the same breath scorns Cleopatra for not being more sensible and logical. Like the age in which she lives, Thomasina is filled with marvelous contradictions. In the final scene of the play, after happening on what would one day become the Second Law of Thermodynamics governing the exchange of heat between objects, she quickly discards the thrill of discovery, longing only for the pleasure of learning to waltz and her romantic love for Septimus

Literary Style

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Juxtaposition While Arcadia is set in only a single location, a large room in the Sidley Park manor, the action of the play occurs in two very different time periods: 1809-1812 and the present day. Setting the play in both eras allows Stoppard to use a literary device known as juxtaposition to cleverly compare and contrast characters and ideas. Juxtaposition occurs when two things are placed side by side, or on top of one another, and their dominant qualities are compared.

In Arcadia, pairs of characters are sometimes juxtaposed and compared this way. For example, Ezra Chater is a vain, would-be poet, given to fits of overreaction. In some ways, he finds his counterpart in Bernard Nightingale, the flashy, blustery Sussex don who, though he is vastly more intelligent than Chater, is still easily led astray by his pride and search for glory.

The continuation of ideas through both time periods is another effective use of juxtaposition in the play. By experimenting with primitive chaos theory, Thomasina seems to be following a natural human tendency to try to explain and bring order to her world. Though she dies before completing her work, her experiments are picked up in the present by Valentine Coverly, who feeds them into a computer and takes them leagues further than the young Thomasina could ever have done with pencil and paper. In the process, he learns a lesson about present human condition from the past.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of juxtaposition in Arcadia is the dramatic irony it provides the audience, who are allowed the omnipotent ability to see events of the past take place and then watch characters in the present attempt to reconstruct them. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience of a play, or the reader of a novel, knows something the characters do not. Stoppard' s audience knows that it is Septimus, and not Lord Byron, who was supposed to have dueled Ezra Chater in 1809. When contemporary scenes are juxtaposed on the scenes of the past, the guessing-game nature of historical studies is highlighted. The audience gets to watch Bernard and Hannah try to piece together the clues, repeatedly coming up with the wrong answers. From this, they can assume that history is often put together through such lucky (and unlucky) guesses, and that at best it is, like Thomasina's formula for chaos, only a theory.

Symbolism In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else. Symbols are often used to communicate deeper levels of meaning. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel The Scarlet Letter, for example, the red letter "A'' worn by Hester Prynne is a symbol not only of her supposed crime (adultery) but also of her neighbors' bigotry and her own courageous pride. Like many playwrights who write about important ideas, Stoppard relies on many symbols in his work to communicate deeper levels of meaning to his audiences. In Arcadia, one of the prominent symbols is the landscape around Sidley Park, which represents, among other things, the battle between Enlightenment and Romanticism, or intellect and emotion, that is raging among the characters inside the house. Heat becomes another important symbol. Early in the play, Thomasina is considering the effects of motion and friction on the jam in her rice pudding. By the end, she has perceived the Second Law of Thermodynamics which insures that Mr. Noakes's steam engine will always take more energy to operate than it is capable of producing. Ultimately it is heat, in the form of a terrible fire, which kills Thomasina. By then, the symbolism is clear: Eventually the loss of heat will be the end of the entire universe; Thomasina perishes by that which she sought to understand.

Pastoral Poetry While Arcadia is not itself a pastoral poem, the title is taken from the tradition of pastoral writing, and the play shares many of the form's best known qualities. Arcadia was a region in ancient Greece that was regarded as the ideal of rural simplicity and happiness. Pastoral poetry is a form of literature in which an author uses simple shepherds and country folk, such as those who may have dwelt in Arcadia, and presents an idyllic vision of rural life in marked contrast to the misery and corruption of life in the city. The Roman poet Virgil is known for pastoral poetry in the first century B.C., and the Italian writer Sannazzaro is credited with reviving the form during the Renaissance.

The characters in Stoppard's play, like the farmers and shepherds in pastoral poetry, live in the countryside, away from the chaos of city life. Lady Croom even brags to her daughter,'"Et in Arcadia ego!"I too have lived in Arcadia,' Thomasina.’’ Whether Sidley Park is a paradise, however, is questionable. In the present day, Hannah laments that even the grounds as Lady Croom knew them were becoming unnatural: ‘‘There's an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep. Paradise in the age of reason. By 1760 everything had gone—the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes—the whole sublime geometry was ploughed under by Capability Brown.

The grass went from the doorstep to the horizon and the best box hedge in Derbyshire was dug up for the ha-ha so that the fools could pretend they were living in God's countryside.’’

In either event, the pastoral setting becomes essential if the arguments the characters make are to have their full impact. Like simple country folk, proud of the peaceful lives they lead, the characters at Sidley Park, both past and present, all seem to be searching for ideals—in mathematics, science, poetry, and love—and Arcadia's rural setting, far removed from the bustle of civilization, helps magnify the importance of their quests.

Compare and Contrast

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1809-1812: Britain's Industrial Revolution makes it the workshop of the world. England transforms from a primarily agricultural society to an increasingly skilled working class system built on venture capitalism. Inventions like the steam engine, patented in 1769 by Englishman James Watt, make possible industrial marvels like the locomotive, which first appears in 1804.

Today: Another technological revolution, the ‘‘Information Age,’’ is sweeping the globe. The work of industry is increasingly handled by automated machines run by computers. Automation and high speed information gathering, storage, retrieval, and dissemination came about through a series of technological discoveries beginning with the transistor in 1948, followed by integrated circuits in the 1960s, and the microprocessor in the 1970s. Automated machinery and sophisticated communications tools such as personal computers, cellular telephones, fax machines, and paging devices rely on more and more powerful microprocessors. By 2010 the computer industry is expected to be the largest industry on earth.

1809-1812: The Romantic style dominates the literature of Europe. Authors such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley rely on imagination, freedom of thought and expression, the creation of new forms, and an idealization of nature.

Today:Postmodernism defines the literature of the late-twentieth century. These works often invoke or borrow from earlier periods, using a technique known as pastiche. Another technique found in postmodernist literature, music, art, and, the postmodern medium of choice, film, is montage. Rather than telling a story in traditional, linear fashion, montage often presents a series of seemingly unrelated, sometimes contradictory images that defy explanation. Traditional elements like plot, character, and language are fragmented and disoriented.

1809-1812: Women in England are treated as second-class citizens and widely regarded as intellectually inferior to men. They receive only limited schooling, no higher education, and have access to a limited number of vocations. They are subjected to an extremely rigid, conservative code of sexual behavior and hold almost no legal rights, especially once married.

Today: After an arduous, sometimes violent suffrage movement, women received the right to vote in Britain in 1918 and now enjoy equal rights under the law as well as equal access to education and employment. Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in 1979, serving until 1990.

1809-1812: Although it lost its colonies in America in 1783, Britain is still building its worldwide empire. By the end of the nineteenth century the empire stretches across all seven continents, in countries as far-flung as Trinidad, Newfoundland, South Africa, and Hong Kong.

Today: Territories in the British Empire began resisting colonial rule after World War I. Egypt, India, Malaysia, and a host of other holdings have reverted back to their citizens during the past few decades. In 1997, Britain returns control of Hong Kong, one of its last colonies, back to the Chinese.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Aristotle. Poetics, S. H. Butcher; translation in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1974, p. 50.

Barnes, Clive. Review of Arcadia in the New York Post, March 31, 1995.

Barton, Anne."Twice around the Grounds'' in the New York Review, June 8, 1995, pp. 28-32.

Canby, Vincent. Review of Arcadia in the New York Times, March 31, 1995.

Feingold, Michael. Review of Arcadia in the Village Voice, April 11, 1995.

Gerard, Jeremy. Review of Arcadia in Variety, April 3,1995.

Gussow, Mel."Stoppard Refutes Himself, Endlessly'' in the New York Times, April 26, 1972, p. 54; reprinted in File on Stoppard, edited by Malcolm Page, Methuen, 1986, p. 87.

Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard's Plays: A Study of His Life and Work, Grove Press, 1982, p. 93.

Kissel, Howard. Review of Arcadia in the Daily News, March 31, 1995.

Lahr, John. Review of Arcadia in the New Yorker, April 22, 1995.

Leithauser, Brad. Review of Arcadia in Time, April 10,1995.

Lyons, Donald. Review of Arcadia in the Wall Street Journal, March 31, 1995.

O'Connor, Garry. Review of Travesties in Plays and Players, July, 1974, p. 34; reprinted in File on Stoppard, edited by Malcolm Page, Methuen, 1986, p. 50. Plumb, J. H. England in the Eighteenth Century, Penguin Books, 1990, p. 147.

Simon, John. Review of Arcadia in New York, April 10,1995.

Stoppard, Tom. ‘‘Something to Declare’’ in the Sunday Times, February 25,1968, p. 47; reprinted in File on Stoppard, edited by Malcolm Page, Methuen, 1986, p. 85.

Thomson, David. England in the Nineteenth Century, Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 11-12.

Winer, Linda. Review of Arcadia in New York Newsday, March 31, 1995.

Further Reading Cahn, Victor L. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard, Associated University Presses, 1979. A treatise that places Stoppard's early work in the context of the Theatre of the Absurd, a style of drama that breaks conventional forms, presents a ‘‘comic-pathetic’’ view of life, and emphasizes the chaotic nature of the universe.

Grosskurth, Phylis. Byron: The Flawed Angel, Houghton Mifflin, 1997. A biography of George Gordon (aka Lord Byron) the Romantic poet, womanizer, and soldier of freedom. The book also provides a history of the times in whichthe poet lived.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard, Nick Hern Books, London, 1995. A series of conversations between Stoppard and theatre critic Gussow between 1972 and 1995, covering many of Stoppard's plays, as well as his personal life.

Hall, Nina, editor. Exploring Chaos: A Guide to the New Science of Disorder, W. W. Norton, 1994. In scientific circles, chaos theory has been called the twentieth century's third revolution, alongside relativity and quantum mechanics. This collection of reports, complete with photographs, by the foremost researchers of chaos theory attempts to bring order to the disorder by describing all sorts of phenomena, from dripping faucets and swinging pendulums to weather patterns.

Harty III, John, editor. Tom Stoppard: A Casebook, Garland, 1988. A collection of essays about Stoppard's most important plays, accompanied by a chronology of his work and an annotated bibliography of Stoppard criticism.

Page, Malcolm. File on Stoppard, Methuen, 1986. A collection of excerpted criticism of Stoppard's plays, taken largely from theatre reviews in London and New York newspapers and magazines. Also includes a chronology of the playwright's work.

Singh, Simon. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem, Bantam Books, 1998. The story of Andrew Wiles, a mathematician at Princeton University who solved Fermat' s Last Theorem in 1994. Also includes a 350-year history of ‘‘Fermat's Enigma,’’ and some mathematician humor.


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