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."