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 Individual craftsmanship was superseded by collective manufacturing efforts: Instead of handling goods from start to finish, workers were taught a particular part of the job, given the tools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 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...
(The entire section is 3,488 words.)