Review of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
by Tom Stoppard
This is one of the plays I could have selected to teach my sixth form students this year. I ultimately decided to go with Kindertransport, also excellent. (I realize now as I write this that I haven’t written a review for it. I will eventually rectify that.) Having read both now, that was probably the right decision. I quite enjoyed Arcadia, and I think my students would have as well. But Kindertransport is much easier to write about—the social commentary here is a lot more subtle and closely-linked to the fast-paced, rapid-fire dialogue that, while entertaining, is a little harder to analyze. Kindertransport lays its emotion bare in a way that is just as compelling and also easier to interrogate.
Arcadia obviously appeals to me for its mix of math and English, the two subjects closest to my heart. Tom Stoppard seamlessly moves from discussions of algebra and iterative algorithms to Byron and Romantic poetry. His characters, too, are at home in the intersection of these subjects. Nowadays when I announce that I teach both math and English—and that I feel equally at home with either—the reaction is invariably, “Oh, that’s an unusual combination!” This twisted, unnatural impression is evidence of the warping effect the isolation of school subjects has on people’s minds. There’s something to be said for specialization, but I think that there is a tendency—well-meaning but still harmful—to encourage a way of thinking that marginalizes one’s natural abilities in one subject in favour for apparent abilities in another. People who gravitate towards literature see an equation and shudder, “Oh, I haven’t the brain for math!” even as they blithely budget for their next vacation.
Such blind rejection of anything outside their perceived sphere is unknown to the characters of Arcadia. Septimus Hodge is Thomasina’s tutor in everything—history, Latin, mathematics, literature, and art. Mr Chaterley acts as both poet and botanist over the course of the story; Mr Noakes is supposedly the garden architect, but that doesn’t stop Lady Croom from exerting her own considerable influence over the subject. Similarly, though Hannah’s principal bailiwick at the moment appears to be history of gardens, she shows her chops as a modern polymath by holding her own against Bernard in the arena of literary criticism.
I’d like to say that Stoppard casts a perpetually positive aura over academe, but of course that isn’t the case at all. Bernard is a boorish chauvinist whose ego gets in the way of his endnotes. Even with such critiques, however, Arcadia bursts with enthusiasm for learning and, more importantly, sharing that learning by writing about it. I’ll speak more about the use of parallel times in a moment, but for now I’d like to point out how Thomasina’s conversations with Septimus mirror those between Hannah and Bernard or Hannah and Vincent—in both cases, the characters quickly fall into an academic cadence. Each of these conversations is slightly different: Thomasina and Septimus’ is one of student-teacher, with the latter prompting and occasionally correcting the former; Hannah and Bernard are agonistic equals, each bouncing ideas off the other, simultaneously collaborating and competing as their research progresses. The last pairing is perhaps the most interesting, at least to me. It’s one of those situations where the two academics have little knowledge of each other’s field and so must painstakingly explain (and justify) their project to the other. I have often run into this problem when discussing my math research with my academically-inclined but non-mathematical friends and can sympathize with Hannah’s somewhat blank reception of Vincent’s grouse tales!
Beyond the academic element, however, we have the poetry. The plot of Arcadia consists of comic misdirection and a healthy dose of dramatic irony. Bernard thinks he has discovered evidence that Byron killed a man in a duel on these estates, which is why Byron later left England forever. His evidence is wrapped up in the journals and letters on the estate, which Hannah and Vincent are both investigating for their own research projects. As these contemporary characters attempt to unravel what actually happened, we get to watch it during the portions of the play set in the past. Through lines of dialogue both witty and matter-of-fact, Stoppard demonstrates how a series of comic misunderstandings can lead to so much conflict and strife.
This is the other side of that Enlightened coin, the dark, brooding aspects of the Romantic period shining through. Byron himself never appears on stage—perhaps having such a strong historical personage would overshadow the fictitious characters—but his presence is still felt. When Chaterley continually challenges Septimus to a duel, when Bernard is describing his version of those events, Byron’s spirit looms heavily over the proceedings. Even as the dialogue comes out crisp and clean, there is still the sense that, at any moment, things could turn ugly. This is evident from the first scene: it opens with Thomasina grilling Septimus on the particulars of "carnal embrace", eventually dragging out from her reluctant tutor an admission that such activities might include kissing. Meanwhile, the butler has delivered to Septimus an ultimatum from Chaterley demanding a duel because of Septimus’ own carnal embraces. Stoppard, working over multiple levels here, manages to drive home the humour without overworking it at any point. (I can only imagine it would be even funnier when performed by the right cast. This edition includes the original performance’s cast at the front, and I spent the rest of the book imagining Bill Nighy delivering all of Bernard’s lines. Sorry to have missed it!)
Arcadia is fast-paced and funny. It’s steeped in that dry British humour I love so much, with the jokes based on turns of phrase and subtleties of class that I, as an outsider, still don’t fully understand. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the way Stoppard takes seemingly-disparate elements, like math and poetry, or gardens and literature, and brings them together to create a compelling narrative. Serious and silly at the same time, this play spans nearly two hundred years despite being less than half that in page count. Along the way, Stoppard delivers an ode to academics, a story of misunderstood love and miscommunication, and a reflection on how time and chance change what we think we know about the people who came before us.
I’m quite glad I went with my gut and chose to order a copy of this as well as Kindertransport! No regrets about teaching the latter, but I would have missed out on something special if I had completely ignored this gem.