Tom Stoppard Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 91) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom Stoppard Arcadia

Award: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play

Born in 1937, Stoppard is an English playwright, screenwriter, and novelist.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 29, 34, and 63.

Arcadia (1993) is set in the schoolroom of Sidley Park, a country house in Derbyshire, England, and covers three distinct points in time—three days in 1809, one day in the present, and one in 1812. For the first six of the play's seven scenes, the action alternates between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading up to the final scene in which characters from the two centuries appear on stage simultaneously. The nineteenth-century story centers on Thomasina Coverly and her tutor, Septimus Hodge. A classmate and friend of Lord Byron, Hodge has an affair with Lady Chater, the wife of the untalented poet Ezra Chater, and, to avoid a duel, promises to review favorably Chater's "The Couch of Eros," which the poet subsequently inscribes. Thomasina, whose love for her tutor remains unrequited, discovers the proof for Pierre Fermat's last mathematical theorem, thereby calling the assumptions of Newtonian physics into question and paving the way for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, fractal mathematics, and chaos theory. On reviewing her proof, which she presents to him on the day before her seventeenth birthday, Hodge recognizes humankind's ultimate doom, as the theorem postulates the perpetual cooling of the universe. Thomasina dies in a fire later that night and Septimus sequesters himself in the Coverly's hermitage for the remainder of his life. The twentieth-century story centers on Hannah Jarvis, who is researching the mysterious recluse that lived in the Coverly hermitage, and Bernard Nightingale, who believes he can prove Byron killed Chater in a duel at Sidley Park. Nightingale's erroneous theory is based on Hodge's inscribed copy of Chater's poem—which also contains Chater's challenge—that Nightingale has traced to Byron's library.

Critical reaction to Arcadia has generally been favorable. Although a few reviewers have faulted the play as overly cerebral and lacking emotional impact, most commentators have praised it as a thought-provoking and engaging depiction of the dialogue between past and present and humankind's endless search for order. Remarking on the play's structure, John Lahr has stated that "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." Other critics have praised Stoppard's extensive wordplay. Tom Appelo, commenting on Thomasina's calculations, has suggested that "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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Walk on the Water (radio play) 1963
A Walk on the Water (television play) 1963; also produced as The Preservation of George Riley [revised version], 1964
The Dissolution of Dominic Boot (radio play) 1964
"M" Is for Moon among Other Things (radio play) 1964
A Walk on the Water (drama) 1964; also produced as Enter a Free Man [revised version], 1968
The Gamblers (drama) 1965
If You're Glad I'll Be Frank (radio play) 1966
Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (novel) 1966
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (drama) 1966
A Separate Peace (television play) 1966
Tango [adaptor; from the play by Slawomir Mrozek] (drama) 1966
Albert's Bridge (radio play) 1967
Another Moon Called Earth (television play) 1967
Teeth (television play) 1967
Neutral Ground (television play) 1968
The Real Inspector Hound (drama) 1968
Albert's Bridge (drama) 1969
If You're Glad I'll Be Frank (drama) 1969
After Magritte (drama) 1970
The Engagement (television play) 1970
Where Are They Now? (radio play) 1970
Dogg's Our Pet (drama) 1971
Artist Descending a Staircase (radio play) 1972
Jumpers (drama) 1972
One Pair of Eyes (television play) 1972
The House of Bernarda Alba [adaptor; from a play by...

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Vincent Canby (review date 31 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stoppard Comedy Bridges Centuries and States of Mind," in The New York Times, March 31, 1995, pp. B1, B10.

[For many years the chief film critic of The New York Times, Canby is also a novelist, playwright, and theater critic. In the following excerpt, he favorably reviews Arcadia.]

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. It's like a dream of levitation: you're instantaneously aloft, soaring, banking, doing loop-the-loops and then, when you think you're about to plummet to earth, swooping to a gentle touchdown of not easily described sweetness and sorrow.

That's the play.

Trevor Nunn's Lincoln Center Theater production, which opened last night in the Beaumont, is a reasonable American facsimile of those he staged in London, first at the Royal National in 1993, then at the Haymarket in the West End transfer last year. The Beaumont production looks gorgeous and is true to the letter and spirit of the Stoppard words, but it should be better.

Arcadia demands something more than a reasonable facsimile if American audiences are to be consistently beguiled by this most ambitious of English comedies. It's a complicated piece, played in two time frames (1809 and the present) by two sets of characters. They share the same great country house, Sidley Park, and occasionally the same stage props, including a tortoise that's named Plautus in 1809 and Lightning today.

Mr. Stoppard's theatrical conceits are exhilarating; his interests are diverse but interlocking, always riveting and sometimes brazenly deep-dish, which is part of the fun. Among his concerns here: first love, Newtonian physics, hustling pedants, landscape gardening, sexual infidelity, class, the mathematics of deterministic chaos, manners and the absolute end of the universe when, one character observes, "We're all going to wind up at room temperature."

Mr. Stoppard pushes the audience to the edge of delicious bewilderment, then he suddenly pulls back to make all as clear as need be. The playwright is a daredevil pilot who's steady at the controls.

At the center of Arcadia is a mystery that is the consuming passion of a...

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John Simon (review date 10 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wits' End," in New York Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 15, April 10, 1995, pp. 74-5.

[In the following excerpt, Simon argues that although Arcadia is clever, the play suffers from too much erudition.]

"Its ingenuity is stupendous," wrote Harold Hobson in the London Sunday Times about Tom Stoppard's first hit, and so is that of his latest, Arcadia: stupendous and sometimes, I'm afraid, stupefying. To say that Stoppard is the cleverest playwright active in English is probably a platitude. But cleverness engenders its own problems: It is almost as hard for a clever playwright to create an unclever character as it is for a plodding playwright to...

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John Lahr (review date 17 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blowing Hot and Cold," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 8, April 17, 1995, pp. 111-13.

[Lahr is an award-winning American critic, nonfiction writer, playwright, novelist, biographer, and editor. In the review below, he discusses the interplay between chaos and order as well as the past and present in Arcadia.]

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...

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Tim Appelo (review date 1 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Arcadia, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 260, No. 17, May 1, 1995, pp. 612-13.

[In the review below, Appelo remarks favorably on Arcadia.]

In Ulysses, there is an Oxford don who goes around pushing a lawnmower that chuffs "Clevercleverclever." 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...

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Anne Barton (review date 8 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twice Around the Grounds," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 10, June 8, 1995, pp. 28-30, 32.

[An American-born English educator and critic, Barton has written extensively on English drama. In the review below, she discusses language and theme in Arcadia, particularly the interaction between the past and present.]

"Allow me," said Mr. Gall. "I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness."

"Pray, sir," said Mr. Milestone, "by what name do you distinguish this character, when a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Christiansen, Richard. "Simply Brilliant." Chicago Tribune (14 July 1993): 18.

Praises Stoppard's interweaving of scientific and humanistic themes in Arcadia.

Feeney, Joseph J. "Longing for Heaven: Four New Plays." America 170, No. 3 (29 January 1994): 23-6.

Finds that Arcadia suggests the possibility of heaven but "presumes annihilation or, more likely, a final entropy."

Feingold, Michael. "Entropical Fevers." The Village Voice XL, No. 15 (11 April 1995).

Calls Arcadia "astute and achingly...

(The entire section is 334 words.)