Tom Stoppard

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Vincent Canby (review date 31 March 1995)

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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 contemporary literary don, Bernard Nightingale (Victor Garber): did Lord Byron, while visiting Lord and Lady Croom at Sidley Park in 1809, fight a duel in which he killed a grossly untalented poet, Ezra Chater, over the honor of Chater's wife? And was that the reason for Byron's hasty, heretofore unexplained departure from England for the Continent?

Bernard is hungry for acceptance in academe, and even hungrier for the celebrity that comes with publication and the inevitable talk-show appearances. He's a loose cannon, a dangerously quick-minded, noisily self-centered man who doesn't care whom he insults or makes passes at. Chief among his victims: Hannah Jarvis (Blair Brown), a best-selling author and landscape historian; Valentine Coverly (Robert Sean Leonard), an Oxford student of scientific mind, and his sister Chloë (Haviland Morris), two children of the present Lord and Lady Croom.

In the course of his research, Bernard becomes convinced he has made "the most sensational literary discovery of this century." He has, of course, got it all wrong. Arcadia crosscuts between the present-day shenanigans at Sidley Park and the events that took place there nearly 200 years earlier. These involve poor Ezra Chater (Paul Giamatti), though only in a helplessly funny subsidiary role. Byron himself remains off-stage.

The more important players in the 1809 mystery are Septimus Hodge (Billy Crudup), a randy young man and parttime literary critic who is the tutor of 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Jennifer Dundas); Lady...

(This entire section contains 978 words.)

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Croom (Lisa Banes), Thomasina's mother, who has never put off a man who had the good taste to presume on her virtue, and a celebrated landscape architect, Richard Noakes (Peter Maloney). Noakes is transforming Sidley Park's grounds from their comparatively natural look to a picturesque style that Hannah Jarvis in 1995 calls "the Gothic novel as landscape."

Hannah, too, becomes intent on solving a mystery: the identity of the hermit whom the earlier Crooms installed in their picturesque hermitage, built by Noakes as he was making mountains on land that had always been flat, and constructing ruins where no castle had ever existed.

The principal Stoppard characters are often driven, not always self-aware, very intelligent and furiously articulate, which is not to say they mean everything that comes out of their mouths. Bernard's vitriol is both hilarious and mean. Of scientists, he says to Valentine: "I'd push the whole lot of you over a cliff myself. Except the one in the wheelchair; I think I'd lose the sympathy vote."

The play's most affecting characters are Thomasina and Septimus, who affectionately regards his pupil as the child she is.

Thomasina, who doesn't yet know what "carnal embrace" means, doodles away in her notebook, apparently to stumble onto today's new, nonlinear mathematics. She has the gift, sometimes possessed by the young, to conceive abstract concepts beyond the comprehension of those whose minds have been made soggy with received wisdom. She is also in love with Septimus, which has melancholy consequences.

As Bernard continues his investigations, it's clear to the audience, if not to him, that both Thomasina and Septimus are part of the mystery whose solution he so thoroughly muddles.

At the beginning of Arcadia, the two time frames are presented in separate, usually alternating scenes. As the play progresses, the times begin to merge, at first when the present-day characters are seen in 1809 costumes for a fancy dress ball. Further along, the characters from each section occupy the stage at the same time.

As Thomasina, Septimus and Lady Croom, and Bernard, Hannah and Valentine play around and through one another, they create the contrapuntal effect of a piece of music. It's tricky but hugely effective. The two stories come together in a way to give dramatic dimension to some of the more esoteric notions that have been bandied about earlier.


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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."

John Simon (review date 10 April 1995)

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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 create a clever one.

But some characters, even in a Stoppard play, cannot be clever. The only way the author can manage this is to make them into fools or near-mutes. There is nothing in between, where most of the real world situates itself. This, to be sure, is also true of Oscar Wilde, Stoppard's inspiration; there are passages in Arcadia that are distant but distinct echoes of The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde, however, did not cheat: He 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.

Arcadia takes place—first alternatingly, then simultaneously—in 1809 and today. The constant is a garden room at Sidley Park, the Derbyshire manor of Lord and Lady Croom. Their daughter, Thomasina Coverly, is being tutored by a young scientist, Septimus Hodge, a classmate of Lord Byron, who is visiting at Sidley Park. Lady Croom, whose other child is the tongue-tied Augustus, is witty and imperious, and has a yen for the handsome Hodge. Also present are Richard Noakes, the landscape architect (who is striving to convert the classically natural gardens into picturesque Gothic), and Ezra Chater, the resident poetaster (who is married to a beautiful flirt with whom Hodge, like Captain Brice, Royal Navy, her ladyship's brother, has an affair). The catch is that we are shown some of the less interesting characters (the foolish Chater, the brainless Brice) but not some of the more promising ones (Mrs. Chater, Lord Byron).

In the modern scenes, we get the three young Coverlys of today: Valentine, a mathematician in love with Hannah Jarvis, the author of a book about Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's mistress; his younger brother, the autistic Gus, also taken with Hannah; and their sister, Chloë, a flighty young woman with a crush on Bernard Nightingale, a literary don doing research on Byron at Sidley Park. And we get Hannah herself, doing research for her next book on the life of the mysterious hermit of Sidley Park, and thus on the entire Coverly clan.

There are all kinds of parallels and divergences between the "old" story and the "new"; also some curious misreadings of the past by the present-day researchers, which contrast with the true story as we see it unfurl. The concinnity with which the two stories correspond or don't (with interesting insights into the triumphs and fiascoes of scholarship), and the way past and present—even if only figuratively—finally intermingle, are almost fiendishly crafty. But in the end, 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.

Take this, for example: "English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look—Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Salvator Rosa. It's the gothic novel expressed in landscape." And then all those references to Francis Jeffrey and The Edinburgh Review, Southey's verse epics, Fermat's last theorem, iterated algorithms, etc., etc.—some of which was cut from the New York production, but much of which remains pour êpater les bourgeois. Stoppard may end up like the man, cited by the physicist, philosopher, and wit Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who "had so much intellect [Verstand] that he could be put to almost no earthly use."

In the London production, the much finer English cast (having, moreover, no problems with accents) just about managed the almost impossible task of making these distilled, volatile words become flesh; under the same canny director, Trevor Nunn, the American cast finds it a lot harder to cope.

Principal Works

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A Walk on the Water (radio play) 1963A Walk on the Water (television play) 1963; also produced as The Preservation of George Riley [revised version], 1964The Dissolution of Dominic Boot (radio play) 1964"M" Is for Moon among Other Things (radio play) 1964A Walk on the Water (drama) 1964; also produced as Enter a Free Man [revised version], 1968The Gamblers (drama) 1965If You're Glad I'll Be Frank (radio play) 1966Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (novel) 1966Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (drama) 1966A Separate Peace (television play) 1966Tango [adaptor; from the play by Slawomir Mrozek] (drama) 1966Albert's Bridge (radio play) 1967Another Moon Called Earth (television play) 1967Teeth (television play) 1967Neutral Ground (television play) 1968The Real Inspector Hound (drama) 1968Albert's Bridge (drama) 1969If You're Glad I'll Be Frank (drama) 1969After Magritte (drama) 1970 ∗The Engagement (television play) 1970Where Are They Now? (radio play) 1970Dogg's Our Pet (drama) 1971Artist Descending a Staircase (radio play) 1972Jumpers (drama) 1972One Pair of Eyes (television play) 1972The House of Bernarda Alba [adaptor; from a play by Federico García Lorca] (drama) 1973Travesties (drama) 1974The Boundary [with Clive Exton] (television play) 1975Eleventh House [with Clive Exton] (television play) 1975The Romantic Englishwoman [with Thomas Wiseman] (screenplay) 1975Three Men in a Boat [adaptor; from the novel by Jerome K. Jerome] (television play) 1975Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land (drama) 1976Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (drama) 1977Professional Foul (television play) 1977Night and Day (drama) 1978Despair [adaptor; with Rainer Werner Fassbinder; from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] (screenplay) 1978 ‡Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (dramas) 1979Undiscovered Country [adaptor; from Arthur Schnitzler's play Das Weite Land] (drama) 1979The Human Factor [adaptor; with Otto Preminger; from the novel by Graham Greene] (screenplay) 1980On the Razzle [adaptor; from Johann Nestroy's Einin Jux will er sich machen] (drama) 1981The Dog It Was That Died (radio play) 1982The Real Thing (drama) 1982Brazil [with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown] (screenplay) 1985Rough Crossing [adaptor; from a play by Ferenc Molnár] (drama) 1984; revised version, 1990Squaring the Circle (television play) 1984Dalliance [adaptor; from a play by Arthur Schnitzler] (drama) 1986Largo Desolato [adaptor; from the play by Vaclav Havel] (drama) 1986Empire of the Sun [adaptor; from the novel by J. G. Ballard] (screenplay) 1987Artist Descending a Staircase (drama) 1988Hapgood (drama) 1988The Russia House [adaptor; from the novel by John le Carré] (screenplay) 1989Billy Bathgate [adaptor; from the novel by E. L. Doctorow] (screenplay) 1991In the Native State (radio play) 1991Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (screenplay) 1991Arcadia (drama) 1993 †Indian Ink (drama) 1995

∗This work is an adaptation of Stoppard's 1964 radio play The Dissolution of Dominic Boot.

†This work is an adaptation of Stoppard's 1991 radio play In the Native State.

Dogg's Hamlet—a conflation of Dogg's Our Pet and The 15 Minute Dogg's Troupe Hamlet—and Cahoot's Macbeth are interconnected one-act plays.

John Lahr (review date 17 April 1995)

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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 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 nineteenth-century 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 dêbut) 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 don 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. Playwriting, 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.

Tim Appelo (review date 1 May 1995)

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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 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 Guildenstern 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 macguffins 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 in flagrante 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.

Further Reading

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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 beautiful in its philosophic paradoxes," but suggests the plot "leans hard on credibility" at some points.

Gerard, Jeremy. A review of Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Variety 358, No. 9 (3 April 1995): 150.

Identifies the "hunger for meaning and discovery" as the theme that links the two halves of Arcadia.

Gray, Mary W. Review of Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Mathematical Intelligencer 17, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 67-8.

Commends Stoppard's portrayal of mathematicians and their work.

Greer, Herb. "Writers on Writers on…." National Review XLV, No. 23 (29 November 1993): 71-2.

Calls Arcadia light entertainment but praises "Stoppard's extraordinary skill at word-play and semantic ambiguity."

Kroll, Jack. "Mind Over Matter." Newsweek CXXV, No. 13 (3 April 1995): 64-5, 68.

Favorably reviews Arcadia, arguing that "Stoppard's unique genius is to humanize ideas … to show how they are part of our flesh and bone, our passion and pathos."

Leithauser, Brad. "A House of Games." Time 145, No. 15 (10 April 1995): 78.

Favorably characterizes Arcadia as a "sort of bifurcated detective story."

Lyons, Donald. "Algorithms of the Heart." Wall Street Journal (31 March 1995): A10.

Favorably reviews Arcadia.

Rich, Frank. "On Thermodynamics, Byron and Oh, Yes, Sex." New York Times (8 July 1993): 13, 16.

Argues that Arcadia's "vast tapestry" obscures its central themes and that the secondary characters "make no independent impressions as people."

Scheck, Frank. "Arcadia Has Intellectual Heft but Fails to Arouse Emotion." Christian Science Monitor (7 April 1995): 13.

Largely negative review.

Anne Barton (review date 8 June 1995)

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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 person walks round the grounds for the second time?"

Mr. Gall bit his lips, and inwardly vowed to revenge himself on Milestone, by cutting up his next publication.

—Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall (1815)

In Headlong Hall, the earliest of Peacock's satirical novels, a motley collection of guests assembles at Squire Headlong's country estate for the Christmas season. Among them are Mr. Gall, the vitriolic reviewer, Philomela Poppyseed, the best-selling novelist, the poet Nightshade, Marmaduke Milestone, the landscape architect and "improver" of gentlemen's grounds, Mr. Cranium, exponent of the new "science" of phrenology, and his lovely daughter Cephalis, Mr. Escot, the embattled vegetarian and believer in the steady deterioration of the world, and his opponent Mr. Foster, who maintains that mankind is progressing steadily toward perfection.

Real people can be glimpsed behind many of these characters as they argue, and pair off in marriage. Gall, for instance, is Francis Jeffrey of the contemporary Edinburgh Review; Miss Poppyseed is based on the novelist Amelia Opie; Escot and Foster embody different aspects of Peacock's friend Shelley, while in Milestone he has amalgamated Humphry Repton (1752–1818) with his famous predecessor Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716–1783). Repton liked to present clients with a book bound in red leather in which watercolor sketches of their estate could be folded back to reveal cutout projections of how it might look after his improvements. Brown, some of whose work still survives at Stowe and Blenheim Palace, acquired his nickname from a habit of assuring prospective patrons of the great "capabilities" of their grounds. The most celebrated of those eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century landscape gardeners who attempted to smooth out and compose nature until it resembled an idealized painting of Arcadia or the Elysian Fields by Poussin or Claude Lorrain, he once encountered a gentleman who expressed an earnest desire to predecease Brown, "because I want to see Heaven before you have 'improved' it."

Tom Stoppard claims that for some years now he has seldom picked up a novel. But Headlong Hall, whenever he read it, clearly left a powerful impression. Squire Headlong's country estate relates to Sidley Park, the equally fictitious setting for Arcadia, rather like one of the paired "before" and "after" views in Repton's Red Books. Stoppard, indeed, wittily half-acknowledges his indebtedness in Act I, by way of an account of Sidley Park around 1830, written (we are told) "by the author of Headlong Hall." When Bernard Nightingale, Stoppard's pushy academic, requires an alias in a hurry, "Peacock," not accidentally, turns out to be the chosen name. Like Headlong Hall, Stoppard's play assembles disputatious visitors—among them a landscape architect, two poets, a female author, and a savage book reviewer—in a great country house. There they proceed to argue with the family and each other, not only about matters of taste in the formal landscaping of a park but about writers and literary critics, new scientific discoveries, and the future of the human race. They also find time to make love.

Arcadia is, at last, the full-length work Stoppard said in 1974—after the success of Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974)—he really wanted to write: "Something that takes place in a whitewashed room with no music and no jumping about … so that the energy can go into the literary side of what I do. I'd like to write a quiet play" [interview with Ronald Hayman (June 1974), in Tom Stoppard, by Ronald Hayman, 1982]. The schoolroom at Sidley Park, where all of Arcadia takes place, is not exactly a "white-washed room"—it has scale and a certain architectural grandeur—but in Mark Thompson's set at Lincoln Center, as in London, it "looks bare," just as Stoppard specifies it should. Certainly, its furnishings are minimal. In Trevor Nunn's New York restaging with American actors of his original (1993) English production, the landscape framed by the room's French windows (some trailing foliage, and beyond it an expanse of grass obscured by mist that, between scenes, becomes low, fast-moving clouds) suggests extensive, hidden vistas.

The backdrop itself, however, remains timelessly noncommittal. Stoppard's play alternates for six of its seven scenes between 1809 and now. Then, in a long final movement, the present is hauntingly made to coexist on stage with the year 1812. Only the theater audience is privileged to participate in both: seeing and overhearing all these characters, the living and the dead, whose voices Stoppard brilliantly interweaves across the gap of 183 years, in a room that all of them have known. Like the backdrop, the room scarcely alters. The few scattered objects visible in 1809 and 1812 are still present at the end of the twentieth century, including Plautus the pet tortoise, even if someone has changed his name. As for music, although Stoppard has certainly not abandoned it, Jeremy Sams's score is for the most part unobtrusive and subdued: a clarinet, a saxophone, an early piano sometimes played badly, sometimes well, but always offstage.

In theatrical terms, too, Arcadia is muted by comparison with most of Stoppard's previous work. 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.

Visually, nothing in Arcadia even approaches the dizzying play with briefcases and Russian twins in Hapgood (1988), let alone the surrealist tableau which confronts audiences at the start of After Magritte (1970)—Mother stretched out on the ironing board, while a man standing on a wooden chair, and wearing green rubber fishing waders over evening-dress trousers, apparently tries to blow out the electric light. In Arcadia, not only do two of the most important guests at Sidley Park, Lord Byron and the lascivious Mrs. Chater, remain tantalizingly offstage; all the really arresting events are invisible. It is typical of this play that the most startling (and also the most heart-wrenching) thing to happen in it should be the almost casual disclosure, close to the end, that nearly two hundred years earlier an exceptionally talented young girl met an accidental and senseless death.

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—"Septimus, what is carnal embrace?" "Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef"—to the end, Stoppard's highly individual love affair with the English language never slackens. For the very existence of that relationship, one is obliged to thank a combination of global warfare and pure chance. He was born Tomas Straussler, in the Czechoslovakia of 1937, and his family's removal to Singapore, evacuation to India, then residence in England itself from 1946, after Stoppard's widowed mother remarried, have determined the language in which he writes. Stoppard's fascination with twentieth-century linguistic philosophy—Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore, A.J. Ayer—and with the perplexed relationship of words to the "reality" they purport to describe, is manifest in a number of his plays. It has always been partnered, however, by a freewheeling delight in words that seems distinctively Elizabethan.

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 (as Tony Tanner puts it in Adultery and the Novel) 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." Arcadia carries on and extends Stoppard's long-term association of wordplay with sexual transgression. What is new here is that elegiac, almost Virgilian quality signaled in the title of the comedy itself. This "quiet play" is one of Stoppard's finest. But it raises, in an acute form, the question asked by Peacock's Mr. Milestone: Does it matter if you walk only once around the grounds, or twice?

Stoppard's plays, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, now a prescribed text in many British schools, have provoked mixed reactions from academics and theater critics alike. No one has ever denied the cleverness and consummate craftsmanship of his twenty-odd works for radio, television, and the stage, or the urgency of Stoppard's ambition to achieve what he calls "the perfect marriage between the play of ideas and farce or perhaps even high comedy" ["Ambushes for an Audience: Towards a High Comedy of Ideas," in Theatre Quarterly (May-July 1974)]. His detractors, on the other hand, accuse him of game-playing for its own sake, of being persistently over-weight with intellectual baggage, and of emptiness and chill. It has been said that he dodges political issues—an allegation harder to sustain after Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), Professional Foul (1977), Cahoot's Macbeth (1979), and Squaring the Circle (1980–1981)—that most of his women are caricatures, and that when he does take them seriously (Annie in The Real Thing, 1982, or the protagonist of Hapgood), they fail to convince. Most consistent of all have been complaints that his plays, however masterfully constructed, are difficult for audiences to follow in the theater, or even (in some cases) on the printed page.

Stoppard has defended himself by pointing out that he writes in more than one mode, that it is inappropriate to judge an exquisite farce mechanism such as The Real Inspector Hound as though it aspired to the condition of high comedy, and that his real interest lies less in character than in dialogue and "the felicitous expression of ideas" ["Full Stoppard," an interview with Stephen Schiff (May 1989), reprinted in Tom Stoppard in Conversation, edited by Paul Delaney, 1994]. When various philosophical journals sniped at his account of Wittgenstein and British logical positivism as incorporated in Jumpers, he was able to take comfort from the fact that no less a figure than A.J. Ayer instantly rose to his defense. (A lingering distrust of academics remains evident in Arcadia's portrait of Nightingale, the arrogant and insensitive Sussex don.) Stoppard has always maintained that his work, for all its dazzle, is grounded in humane and moral concerns, a claim that on the whole seems justified. Altogether more debatable is his insistence that, although he may in some instances want to mystify audiences (he has admitted to creating a number of deliberately incomprehensible first scenes), his plays are meant to communicate in the theater, with no need for elucidation through recourse to the published text. Certainly Arcadia, despite its readily available surface fun, is not easy to appreciate fully the first time around in its acted or (indeed) even its printed form.

Audiences are not required to digest a great deal of plot in Arcadia—certainly nothing resembling the narrative perplexities of Hapgood, Stoppard's last full-length play. Basically, what happens is that in 1809, the young tutor in residence at Sidley Park, Byron's schoolfellow Septimus Hodge, is detected in an al fresco "carnal embrace" with the wife of Ezra Chater, a visiting poetaster. A duel is avoided only because Mrs. Chater collides that night with her equally lustful hostess, Lady Croom, on the threshold of Lord Byron's bedroom, and Byron and the two Chaters hastily leave the house. During all this, Mr. Noakes, the landscape architect, is preparing to replace Capability Brown's Arcadian paradise at Sidley Park with grounds in the picturesque style of Salvator Rosa: irregular, gloomy, and mock-wild, complete with a Gothic hermitage for which a resident hermit has yet to be found.

Meanwhile, Thomasina, the nubile and brilliant Croom daughter, quietly pursues the missing mathematical proof for Fermat's last theorem, questioning Newtonian physics, and feeling her way both toward what is now called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and those iterated algorithms from which (with the help of computers) fractal mathematics and chaos theory have, in our own time, been born. The only character in the play to express enthusiasm for Mr. Noakes's plans, she does so not, like Peacock's Miss Tenorina, out of a Romantic passion for mossy, Gothic structures and woods "thick, intricate and gloomy," but because Noakes's jagged shapes and unkempt trees speak to her own developing sense that there is something wrong with the tidy symmetries of Euclidean geometry.

In Stoppard's interspersed scenes set in the present, two very different guests at Sidley Park try to piece together what happened there between 1809 and 1812. Hannah Jarvis, author of a popular book about Byron's mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, is hoping to write about the unidentified recluse (the "idiot in the landscape," or perhaps he represents "the Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness"?) who ended up living and dying in Mr. Noakes's hermitage. Bernard Nightingale, hot on the trail of academic fame, believes he can prove that Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel at Sidley Park and for that reason was obliged to leave England in haste. (Stoppard may shy away from novels these days; it seems likely nonetheless that Nightingale and Hannah owe something to Roland Michell and the prickly Maud Bailey, A.S. Byatt's two literary sleuths in Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990.) Neither Hannah nor Nightingale gets everything right, but Hannah comes far closer to the truth than her rival. That is largely because, despite her temperamental preference for the clipped and formal Italian garden which dominated Sidley Park before the arrival of either Capability Brown or Mr. Noakes, she shares with the long-dead Thomasina not only a fiercely logical mind but certain intuitive powers.

These last allow her to grasp truths (including that of Thomasina's brilliance) independently of reason. Valentine, a research mathematician and future Earl of Croom, who is working with data supplied by his family's game books, cannot credit Thomasina's breakthrough, even after the equations she scribbled in an old mathematics primer, run a few million times though his computer, provide him with a publishable paper. (Thomasina, he insists, could have possessed neither the requisite mathematics nor the computer.) Hannah's sympathetic insights, however, attract to her Gus, Valentine's younger brother, the totally mute, autistic boy in whom something of Thomasina's genius survives. (He improvises brilliantly on the piano, and can identify the site of Capability Brown's boathouse when all the experts fail.) It is Gus who bestows on Hannah at the end Thomasina's drawing of "Septimus holding Plautus," the puzzle's most important missing piece.

That audiences have tended, both in New York and London, to leave Arcadia with a newly purchased copy of the text in hand is not really surprising. Many of the New York reviewers, even some who did take the precaution of reading the play in advance, apparently failed to register that three separate moments of time are juxtaposed in the comedy: one day in 1812, as well as three in 1809, and one in the present. This matters. Lord Byron, a charismatic but obscure guest at Sidley Park in 1809, has returned from his travels in 1812 to become London's darling, the lionized author of Childe Harold; Ezra Chater has died of a monkey bite in Martinique; his widow has remarried, and Lady Croom has reluctantly transferred her attentions from Byron to an exiled Polish count. Most important of all, Thomasina, no longer a child, is about to turn seventeen and (failing just as her mother did to capture Lord Byron) has fallen in love with her tutor. It also matters that the young and voluble Augustus Coverly of 1812 should not be confused, as he was by one New York reviewer, with his silent twentieth-century namesake. (John Griffin plays both parts.)

In a play that seems obsessed with the number three (a palimpsest of three gardens, three instances of "carnal embrace" in the gazebo/hermitage, three important mathematical issues), it is by no means easy to keep straight the two groups of three letters upon which so much hangs: the two challenges and the clandestine note from Mrs. Chater from which Bernard Nightingale draws so many erroneous conclusions, all originally secreted by Septimus Hodge between the pages of Chater's dreadful poem The Couch of Eros, or the two by Septimus and one from Lord Byron that are written and almost immediately destroyed.

The plain fact is that once around the garden is not enough. It is true, as Peacock's Mr. Milestone pointed out, that the element of surprise must be greatly reduced on any repeated circuit. In the case of Arcadia, that can result from a return to the theater, or a second experience with the printed page. Once you know that Thomasina is going to die in a matter of hours after the curtain finally goes down on her first (and last) waltz, or (assuming you have not studied the cast list closely) that Lord Byron and Mrs. Chater will never materialize, it is impossible to forget these things—even as it is impossible not to remember during a return visit to Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King (1611), or Philaster (1609) that Arbaces and Panthea are not really brother and sister and will be able to marry, or that the pageboy Bellario is a girl. Brilliant theater craftsmen that they were, Fletcher and his collaborator were entirely aware that few plays, unless they are notably unsuccessful, can enjoy a perpetual first night. They guarded against potential letdown by ensuring that to visit theirs twice would be distinctively different—and richer—than once. Audiences no longer ambushed by the unexpected can savor nuances and details invisible on the first occasion, because of the things that, now, they know. Like Philaster and A King and No King, Arcadia is in a sense not one play but two.

On balance, Nunn's cast in New York is stronger than the one he had in London. As Lady Croom, Lisa Banes is far superior to the National's tiresomely arch and mannered Harriet Walter, a fine actress horribly miscast. Billy Crud-up makes a handsome and sensitive Septimus. As Hannah, Blair Brown projects the right mixture of defensiveness and acerbity, while Victor Garber succeeds vividly in reminding at least some members of the audience that almost every academic conference has its Nightingale.

Any production of Arcadia must, however, stand or fall on the performance of Thomasina. A child prodigy who (for once) is also entrancing, Stoppard's heroine is high-spirited and funny as well as nice. Aware even at thirteen of her tutor's passion for Lady Croom, and Lady Croom's for Byron, she is far too shrewd not to see through Septimus's bogus explanation of "carnal embrace." Yet she generously feigns ignorance when the accuracy of his revised description threatens to get him into trouble with her mother. ("It is plain that there are some things a girl is allowed to understand, and these include the whole of algebra, but there are others, such as embracing a side of beef, that must be kept from her until she is old enough to have a carcass of her own.") Nightingale would like to push every scientist in the world over a cliff ("except the one in the wheel-chair, I think I'd lose the sympathy vote"), but Thomasina cares about literature as well as equations. She weeps over the destruction of the great library at Alexandria and the lost plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.

It is a wonderful part—but diabolically difficult for any actress to encompass as a whole. In London, Emma Fielding could manage the older Thomasina, but was unconvincing as the child of thirteen. With the diminutive Jennifer Dundas, it is the other way round: wholly persuasive in 1809, she finds it hard to mature into the adolescent Thomasina of 1812. Most of the part, however, lies in 1809. And Dundas's very last appearance, barefoot with her candle and white nightdress on a darkening stage, pleading with Septimus to teach her how to waltz, is magical.

Stoppard is said to prepare for writing a play as though for an examination, patiently absorbing the contents of a great number of background books. For Arcadia, he clearly informed himself scrupulously not only about landscape gardening and post-Newtonian mathematics but about the life of Byron, that potently absent presence. Certainly Thomasina seems to derive in part from Byron's tragic daughter, Ada. Byron's estranged wife, Annabella, had dabbled in mathematics (Byron called her his "Princess of Parallelograms"), but Ada's talents were far more considerable. In collaboration with Charles Babbage, she experimented eagerly in the field of early computer science—until the demands of her role as Countess of Love-lace, and contemporary ideas of what was appropriate to her sex, pushed such inquiries aside. She ended up gambling on the races, and being blackmailed when she lost more than she could afford. Her death was early and grim. Thomasina, had she lived longer, might not have escaped such a fate. In 1812, Lady Croom is already worrying that her daughter may be "educated beyond eligibility," and is eager to marry her off.

Arcadia constantly engages the imaginary in a dialogue with the historically true. Byron really was residing at his Newstead Abbey estate in April 1809, and no letters or other testimony indicate his exact whereabouts between the 10th and the 12th, when Stoppard brings him to "nearby" Sidley Park. He did (as Nightingale is aware) publish a review of Wordsworth in the July 1807 issue of Monthly Literary Recreations (Stoppard's Picadilly Recreation), and although no letter from Peacock is quoted in any essay on "hermits" in The Cornhill Magazine for 1862, that is precisely the publication in which such an essay might be found. Byron was indeed adding verses to the second edition of his satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in the spring of 1809, even if a stanza ridiculing "Ezra Chater" was not among them. "Darkness," on the other hand ("I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish'd …"), suggested by the "lost summer" of 1816, when a colossal volcanic explosion in Indonesia blotted out the sun, and New England in August was covered with snow, is an entirely genuine Byronic prefiguration of that law of entropy Thomasina deduces from the work of the French mathematician Fourier: the bleak and irreversible cooling of the world. Hannah is right to quote the first lines of "Darkness" to Valentine in an attempt to persuade him that genius, whether in great poets or a gifted child, can sometimes fling open the door of a house that has not yet been built.

That Stoppard is playing witty games here with his audience is true. But these games are no more frivolous at bottom than Gus's apple, casually abandoned on the schoolroom table after he gives it, wordlessly, to Hannah at the end of scene two: an object that gradually comes to symbolize Newton's discovery of the law of gravity, the late-twentieth-century geometry of natural forms, the perils of sexuality, any paradise that is lost, and the introduction of death into the world after the Fall.

Stoppard packs an immense amount of information into Arcadia, but his reticences—the things he deliberately refuses to let his audience, not just Nightingale and Hannah Jarvis, ever know—loom equally large. Did Thomasina burn to death on the night before her seventeenth birthday because she was waiting for Septimus to come to her in bed, despite his principled refusal during the waltz scene, and consequently fell asleep without putting out her candle? Was it really the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as set forth in Thomasina's diagram, that transformed the young tutor at Sidley Park into its despairing hermit, wearing out the rest of his days "without discourse or companion save for a pet tortoise, Plautus by name," while he tried frenziedly by way of "good English algebra" to stave off the end of the world? Or was it, fundamentally, self-reproach and grief for Thomasina herself? Stoppard refuses to say.

The problem of finding a suitable inhabitant for Mr. Noakes's new hermitage enlivens Arcadia throughout. Lady Croom's complaint that she can scarcely advertise ("surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence") stirs memories of the delicious episode in Richard Graves's novel Columella, or the Distressed Anchoret (1779), in which an out-of-work recluse arrives for an interview but is found to have been dismissed from his last employment for getting the dairymaid with child and visibly spending more time drunk than in prayer. The eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century vogue for hermits tended toward the risible, whether it involved the professionals recorded at Painshill and Stowe, or amateurs such as Gilbert White's brother Henry, the rector of Fyfield, for whom it was a party trick. (In his diary for July 28, 1763, Gilbert records the success of a tea party "at the Hermitage," to which his guests came attired as shepherds and shepherdesses, and "the Hermit appear'd to great advantage.") But Septimus Hodge is not a risible figure.

All his attempts to disprove the Second Law of Thermodynamics are doomed: with heat, you can't "run the film backwards," as Valentine tries patiently to make Hannah understand. Time runs wastefully on in only one direction, and one day there will be no time left. Septimus was wrong to console Thomasina for the burning of the library at Alexandria by assuring her that nothing is ever irretrievably lost, that even the missing plays of Sophocles will somehow turn up again. "You can put back the bits of glass," as Valentine says, "but you can't collect up the heat of the smash. It's gone." In Arcadia itself, on the other hand, time does run backward at the dramatist's will. In one stage direction, Stoppard meticulously explains that whereas Repton always superimposed his "before" sketch on his "after," with Noakes that order is reversed. A small point, scarcely available in the theater, it locks into place within a larger scheme of scenes that move backward in time as freely as forward. They lead to that final convergence, when the four people the play loves—Septimus and Thomasina, Hannah and Gus—dance across the centuries, as couples, to music that belongs at one moment to our own epoch, and to Byron's in the next.

Indian Ink, the new stage version of Stoppard's radio play In the Native State (1991), which is currently running in London, alternates 1930 with the "mid-Eighties." Arcadia's "the present day," by contrast, is appropriately open-ended. The play can tacitly absorb new pieces of information. On April 24, 1995, an article in appeared the London Times describing a courteous, white-bearded hermit who receives occasional visitors, beside the Wolverhampton ring road, in a tent supplied by the local authorities, while trying to understand the horror of what he saw in the Second World War. It does not say if he has a pet tortoise. When the proof of Fermat's last theorem for which Thomasina is searching at the start, "the most tantalizing problem in the history of mathematics," as it has been called, was finally found last year, by someone who had been grappling with it since the age of nine (Andrew Wiles, assisted by his former student Richard Taylor), the discovery merely enriched—without overtaking—Stoppard's high comedy of ideas.


Stoppard, Tom (Vol. 8)