That beam hath sunk—and now thou art
A blank—a thing to count and curse
Through each dull tedious trifling part,
Which all regret, yet all rehearse.
-Byron, “To Time”
“IS TOM STOPPARD’S ARCADIA THE GREATEST PLAY OF OUR AGE?” read The Independent’s 2009 headline celebrating Arcadia, when author Johann Hari revisited the play twenty-five years after its debut. In today’s click- and list-obsessed online culture, this could be any of a dozen articles about a particular Best Film or Album or whatever, each with its own flurry of angry rebuttals, but what’s significant about Hari’s article is that hardly anyone objected, really. At best, David Jays at the Guardian mustered a tepid dismissal of the whole concept of “greatest” while admitting the play is “brilliant” and its ending “wrenchingly beautiful.” Another Guardian critic, Leo Benedictus, took a broadside at Stoppard’s comically elevated reputation but had to admit, yeah, critics are unanimous on this one, “his best play.” Unanimity is an overstatement: of course there are some exceptions, like Hilton Als at The New Yorker, but as far as anything can be entered prematurely into some sort of gamble for posterity, Arcadia seems to be a consensus choice for contemporary theater’s Big One.
And it’s well-deserved: I’ll make no bones about my love for this play, probably my favorite in any language, in any era. Arcadia begins as a bubbly sex farce and ends with a vision of irrevocable doom. It’s about (as every review struggles to list): Byron’s poetry, iterated algorithms, tropical dahlias, Newtonian physics, sex, geometry, free will and determinism, epistemology, chaos theory, gardening, aesthetics, the nature of time, literary criticism, thermodynamics, and death, and death, and death. It delivers all the usual things we expect from Stoppard – comic wordplay, erudition, stagecraft as meta-commentary – and many of the things his critics sometimes find lacking, like structural cohesion and emotional depth. Not content with calling it a masterpiece, Hari had claimed it was “even more than that. The play stirs the most basic and profound questions humans can ask. How should we live with the knowledge that extinction is certain – not just of ourselves, but of our species?”
The Matter, Briefly
The title of the play already clues us into two of its major themes. Ancient Arcadia is a metonym for earthly paradise, a rolling pastoral landscape that later Europeans used a model (at least in spirit) for their own public and private green spaces: to create one’s personal Arcadia, as the Coverly family sets out to do, is to design paradise at home. The second and more sinister meaning comes from the memento mori “Et in Arcadia ego,” or “I am even in Arcadia” a famous interpolation of Virgil’s eclogue about the presence of death even in paradise. No matter how beautiful your garden, death will eventually find you.
Arcadia takes place on a single British estate, Sidley Park, during two separate eras. The first focuses on early 19th century Thomasina Coverly, a precocious teenager who may be on the verge of monumental discoveries, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, who is sleeping a local would-be poet’s wife, who herself sleeps with Hodge’s college chum, a certain Lord Byron. While the Coverly estate transitions its French-style gardens into the now modish English style, various hearts are broken, duels are proposed, and furious letters written.
These scenes alternate with those in the present, or rather the 1990s. A trio of researchers are working with the estate’s archives from various angles: Valentine, a Coverly himself, is using the game books to model historical populations of grouse; Hannah is looking for documents related to the gardens and the mysterious “hermit” who lived there; and Bernard, a snooty Byron scholar who once trashed Hannah’s work in the press, has arrived to chase down a lead about the poet. Will their research allow them to reconstruct the history of the house, or are the documents that survive only unreliable guides?
Unlike in the wall-breaking material of The Real Inspector Hound or Rosenkrantz+Guildenstern, Stoppard keeps the stagecraft relatively realistic but for the way the two eras subtly bleed into each other: whenever a character leaves an object in the room at the end of scene, it stays there through the next, regardless of anachronism. Materials accumulate. Finally, in the last scene, characters from both eras occupy the same stage space 180 years apart (and one even seems to transcend the division).
At the turn of the 18th/19th century, many British estates were beginning to transition their gardens from the clean geometry of the Classically inspired French style to the planned irregularity of what came to be known as the English style, inspired by upstart Romanticism. Conservative and fussy Lady Croom watches in horror as her gardener Noakes plans to dredge up the carefully kept lawns of Sidley Park for a muddy gothic disorder:
Lady Croom: My hyacinth dell is become a haunt for hobgoblins, my Chinese bridge, which I am assured is superior to the one at Kew, and for all I know at Peking, is usurped by a fallen obelisk overgrown with briars –
Noakes: (bleating) Lord Little has one very similar –
Lady Croom: I cannot relieve Lord Little’s misfortune by adding to my own. Pray, what is this rustic hovel that presumes to superpose itself on my gazebo?
Noakes: That is the hermitage, madam.
Lady Croom: I am bewildered.
Fast-forward: Hannah, the closest the play has to an audience surrogate, has come to Sidley Park in search of that hermitage’s rumored occupant. While researching English gardens, where hermits were often “installed” as part of the landscape, she came across an essay by Thomas Love Peacock that suggested the Sidley Park hermit was a mad genius who covered reams of paper with “cabalistic proofs that the world was coming to an end.” For Hannah, the symbolism is almost too perfect: this mysterious figure represents what she sees as the disastrous move from Classical thought to Romantic, “the decline from thinking to feeling.” Even her critic Bernard is mildly impressed:
Bernard: You seem quite sentimental over geometry. But the hermit is very very good. The genius of the place.
Hannah: (pleased) That’s my title!
Bernard: Of course.
Hannah: (less pleased) Of course?
Bernard: Of course. Who was he when he wasn’t being a symbol?
Hannah: I don’t know.
Hannah: I mean, yet.
More broadly, “thinking” and “feeling” are set in opposition throughout the play: characters argue logic, math, and rhetoric in one scene, then chase their hormones in others. Lady Croom’s gazebo has already been “desecrated” when the play opens, when rumor of Mrs. Chater caught in “carnal embrace” spreads through the estate (Septimus glosses this to his underage student as “the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”) Stoppard establishes a kind of loose dialectic between the two modes of cognition, which find their most interesting expression in Thomasina’s process of maturation. Young Thomasina is a genius, but self-serious and exasperated by the sexual shenanigans she sees among the ostensible grown-ups. Reading about Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, she complains:
Thomasina: Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love – I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex. It only needs a Roman general to drop anchor outside the window and away goes the empire like a christening mug to a pawn shop.
Of course this angle of judgment falls unfairly hard on women regardless of era – Hannah’s most recent work was a monograph attempting to rehabilitate Caroline Lamb, author, poet, and former lover of Byron whom later critics (including Bernard) treated as a talentless “noodle” herself – and yet, as Thomasina ages and the hormones arrive, she finds herself fascinated by the dreamy Lord Byron and desperate to learn how to dance the new and scandalous waltz (“If mama comes I will tell her we only met to kiss, not to waltz.”) Whatever their pretensions, the characters are pulled back and forth between their rational and irrational selves as they knock up against (and sometimes with) the people around them. It was the spirit of the age.
Furthermore, these problems map reasonably well to a running theme in Thomasina’s education, the question of free will and determinism. The Classical universe of Newtonian physics provided Western society with a comforting clockwork universe, but brought free will into serious question. The dreamy Romantics championed free will, but at the cost of an intelligible reality. As Bernard says (semi-sarcastically), “We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe.”
The Unknown Unknowns
If only real knowledge were so easy. One of the puzzles that Hannah faces is why, despite Peacock’s claims, none of the records related to Sidley Park even note the existence of a hermit, much less one of genius. The estate’s letters, diaries, and registers are silent about his identity. The only tantalizing clue is a contemporary drawing of the mystery man in his hermitage that Hannah takes as a kind of guidepost for her research.
Unfortunately for Hannah, Stoppard shows us exactly how the drawing got there: it was doodled by Thomasina over Mr. Noakes’ garden blueprints – that is, it’s not intended to represent the hermit, but a bored child’s vision of what a hermit might look like. It’s a guidepost in the wrong direction.
Throughout Arcadia, Stoppard has some fun at the way researchers struggle to rebuild the past from incomplete and often decontextualized scraps of information. The main offender here is Bernard, a vain critic who draws hasty conclusions out of a haphazard stack of letters he discovered in a book that belonged, at one point, to Byron. Stoppard shows us the fairly unexceptional way the letters ended up between the pages – e.g., early in the play, Septimus receives a written challenge to duel with Chater, manages to talk Chater out of it, and casually stuffs the letter in the book – and then the equally unexceptional way future scholars draw exactly the wrong conclusions. An invitation to a duel, found in Byron’s book, just months before the poet left England in 1808? Eager for fame, Bernard runs to the presses with a juicy headline: Byron fled because he killed Ezra Chater after being caught in an affair! The other two researchers are somewhat less impressed:
Hannah: “Byron Fought Fatal Duel, Says Don.” Or rather – (skeptically) “Says Don!”
Valentine: It may all prove to be true.
Hannah: It can’t prove to be true, it can only not prove to be false yet.
Valentine: (pleased) Just like science.
Hannah: If Bernard can stay ahead of getting the rug pulled before he’s dead, he’ll be a success.
Valentine: Just like science… The ultimate fear is of posterity…
Hannah: Personally I don’t think it’ll take that long.
Valentine: …and then there’s the afterlife. An afterlife would be a mixed blessing. “Ah – Bernard Nightingale, I don’t believe you know Lord Byron.” It must be heaven up there.
While it’s easy to take Bernard’s example as a cautionary tale, there are no easy formulas for success in Arcadia: good researchers come to bad conclusions, and because the universe has a sense of humor, sometimes bad research leads to the right answer via the wrong evidence (e.g. there was indeed a hermit, and Hannah correctly guesses his identity, though she can’t prove it). To make matters worse, Stoppard dangles the kind of evidence that would solve all his researchers’ problems, then shows the 19th century characters misplacing and even casually destroying it. After all, they’re not living their lives as if they are the subject of someone else’s monograph.
What makes our research even more difficult is that the scraps of valuable information we need are buried and distorted within mounds of information we don’t. How we understand the past is almost exclusively a process of rebuilding a partial signal drowning in noise, as Valentine explains to Hannah. He himself is attempting to reconstruct the history of local grouse populations through the number listed in yearly game books, which note everything from weather to incidence of predators, and every variable adds another layer of difficulty:
Valentine: Distortions. Interference. Real data is messy… It’s all very, very noisy out there. Very hard to spot the tune. Like a piano in the next room, it’s playing your song, but unfortunately it’s out of whack, some of the strings are missing, and the pianist is tone deaf and drunk – I mean, the noise! Impossible!
Valentine at least has the seeming certitude of math, but even this provides us little consolation in our post-modern era: as he explains to Hannah, now that our basic assumptions about the universe have been turned upside down, “the freaky stuff is turning out to be the mathematics of the natural world.”
It Was My Understanding That There Would Be No Math
As in Stoppard’s earlier play Hapgood, Arcadia is built around a number of math and science ideas that are either discussed directly or have some bearing on narrative development (tho he’s more successful here than in the somewhat messy and unsatisfying Hapgood.) The play opens with Septimus assigning Thomasina Fermat’s last theorem to keep her quiet during the dust-up after word of his affair with Mrs. Chater leaks to the Mister. Once she hears the actual circumstances of Fermat’s claim, Thomasina has a moment of clarity: “There is no proof, Septimus. The thing that is perfectly obvious is that the note in the margin is a joke to make you all mad.”
This is Thomasina’s gift: a conceptual acumen that cuts right to the heart of matters. While looking through her notebooks, Valentine observes, “She didn’t have the maths, not remotely. She saw what things meant, way ahead, like seeing a picture.” For much of the play, her interest focuses on what we’d now call iterated algorithms (or in their graphic representation, fractals). Frustrated with the limitations of contemporary math when explaining “natural” geometry, Thomasina has invented her own “rabbit” mathematics (“It eats its own progeny”) to describe equations where the output of one variable becomes the input for another. Taken far enough, this could provide a possible means of bridging pure mathematics with the reality of natural objects:
Septimus: Geometry, Hobbes assures us in the Leviathan, is the only science God has been pleased to bestow on mankind.
Lady Croom: And what does he mean by it?
Septimus: Mr. Hobbes or God?
Lady Croom: I am sure I do not know what either means by it.
Thomasina: Oh, pooh to Hobbes! Mountains are not pyramids and trees are not cones. God must love gunnery and architecture if Euclid is his only geometry. There is another geometry which I am engaged in discovering by trial and error, am I not, Septimus?
Septimus: Trial and error perfectly describes your enthusiasm, my lady.
(Note that Thomasina’s rejection of abstract shapes in favor of “real” ones mimics the garden’s transformation from the simple elegance of Classical geometry to the messiness of Romantic nature. This play has layers.)
The term “algorithm” doesn’t get its modern meaning until a century after Thomasina, and now it’s a fundamental part of our modern understanding of systems. In fact, Valentine is using a similar process – albeit in reverse – to make sense of his grouse:
Valentine: She started with an equation and turned it into a graph. I’ve got a graph – real data – and I’m trying to find the equation which would give you the graph if you used it the way she’s used hers… It’s how you look at population changes in biology. Goldfish in a pond, say. This year there are x goldfish. Next year there’ll be y goldfish. Some get born, some get eaten by herons, whatever. Nature manipulates the x and turns it into a y. Then y goldfish is your starting population for the following year.
What makes this especially difficult is the intrusion of chaos into systems, where “the smallest variation blows the system apart.” One unforeseen variable could change the nature of the underlying equations past the point of intelligibility, but Valentine has one benefit that Thomasina didn’t: the speed of computer processing to assist his own trial and error.
The End is Nigh
Thomasina’s real moment of genius, however, is another conceptual breakthrough that wouldn’t be “discovered” until much later: the long-term consequences of entropy in thermodynamics. Early in the play we find her casually musing on the irreversibility of time (an old chestnut: “You cannot stir things apart”), and in Act 2, Septimus draws her attention to a recently published article by Lazare Carnot, the first attempt to formalize the concept of entropy as we now know it. Carnot had calculated that some amount of “useful energy” always dissipates during physical processes regardless of the efficiencies involved, and this means perpetual motion must be impossible. Thomasina realizes that Carnot’s discovery has much, much bigger implications: eventually the whole universe “must cease and grow cold.”
Thomasina: Newton’s equations go forwards and backwards, they do not care which way. But the heat equation cares very much, it goes only one way. That is the reason Mr Noakes’ engine cannot give the power to drive Mr Noakes’ engine.
Septimus: Everybody knows that.
Thomasina: Yes, Septimus, they know it about engines!
As with engines, so with us. There’s a great irony here in a mechanical discovery presaging our doom. The positivist sciences we inherit from the Enlightenment treat everything – humans, processes, the great Globe itself – as merely sophisticated machines: if one knew the equations determining the universe, one could determine the universe. But if we prove that our steam engines must be inefficient, what of the improved Newtonian universe, which we’d come to understand as a giant steam engine in itself?
Further, what becomes of someone who realizes this truth, that everyone and everything is heading toward an unavoidable doom? What do we make of free will, or great literature, or sex, when we know absolutely none of it matters or will persist? Do we try to gather scraps while we can, to forge some kind of self-made meaning out of our short time here? Or do we lock ourselves in a garden hermitage and desperately look for a mathematical loophole that might offer us some hope?
Septimus, an ambassador of Enlightenment sunshine, doesn’t yet know this. For him, since the march of time is eternal, we can take comfort in all the things we haven’t lost: given an eternity, everything will eventually be found once again.
Septimus: We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long but life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.
Thomasina, looking ahead to the way things are, is not so optimistic. She realizes that time will only continue until a point, “until there’s no time left.” What’s lost is lost, irrevocably. But on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, what she most wants is to learn how to waltz, and possibly one day to waltz with Lord Byron. Note that a few years later, in 1816, Mount Tambora exploded and sent a dark cloud over the world, inspiring Byron to write his eerie, possibly prophetic “Darkness,” which imagines with grim clarity the end of all things.
I won’t give away the ending of Arcadia except to say that it’s one of those great moments in literature that inspire, as D.H. Lawrence said of Moby Dick, a “stillness of the soul.” Stoppard uses the particular strengths of the stage – of irreversible time passing in front of us – to do something that likely wouldn’t translate very well to other media. It is a literal dance to the music of time.
If we’re lost, maybe the best we can hope for is that some of this cultural detritus provides us comfort until, as Valentine puts it, the whole universe “ends up at room temperature.” Despite the inevitable end of all things, we continue to produce that detritus at a rapid clip. One day the noise will drown out the signal entirely. We’ve lost most of the ancient Greeks. We’ve lost the library at Alexandria. We’ve lost friends and relatives whose memories will last only as long as we do, and then they’ll be gone forever. Arcadia itself will one day be forgotten along with the debates about its greatness, as will Stoppard, as will (for that matter) Shakespeare and all his works. The stage is and has always been temporary and the play has a defined end. Et in Arcadia ego.