Author: Tom Stoppard
Publication Date: 1993
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Blurb(GR): Arcadia takes us back and forth between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ranging over the nature of truth and time, the difference between the Classical and the Romantic temperament, and the disruptive influence of sex on our orbits in life. Focusing on the mysteries—romantic, scientific, literary—that engage the minds and hearts of characters whose passions and lives intersect across scientific planes and centuries, it is “Stoppard’s richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and . . . 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 . . . Exhilarating” (Vincent Canby, The New York Times).
This weekend I was looking at my almost seven year old daughter and marveling at how quickly she’s grown up. I thought: she’s still so young and she’s still so new. But then I thought: no, she’s not. Not really. The atoms and molecules that make up her body are actually billions of years old. Inside, she carries pieces of what are now distant stars. She carries pieces of the original humans. She carries pieces of me. She carries pieces of her children. And yet, there has never been and there will never be her exact configuration of all of these pieces. She will only exist for a fraction of the blink of an eye in the history of the universe. She’s eternal, and she’s so terribly finite.
And I guess that is the main thing that blazed out at me from the pages of this play. I may have missed the point. I may have missed several points. But overall, Stoppard made me think a lot about how we are both eternal and momentary. Nothing is guaranteed. Maybe there is a formula which could take into account the exact position and direction of every atom at a single moment and predict the future. But there will always be an element of the unpredictable. There will always be a theorem too long to transcribe or a letter gone astray or a candle left burning. You might die on the eve of your seventeenth birthday. You might live out decades of solitude and regret. You only get this brief lifetime to make new discoveries and fail spectacularly and learn to waltz. Our lives are one long chain of entropy trade-offs until we finally have nothing left to trade and become dust and ash. But then again, we live on: in memories, however false; in our children; in the very soil. Even things that we think are lost irrevocably have a tendency to turn up again (and again and again – if only we had the perspective to see it happening).
“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 and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”
These are just a small fraction of the thoughts which were awakened to vivid clarity in me by this deceptively short, two act play. Stoppard weaves together two generations with history, coincidence, and conjecture. In the past, young student Thomasina and her tutor Septimus discuss geometry, thermodynamics, and carnal embraces during an eventful period at Sidley Park Manor. In the future, “gutsy” academic Bernard tries (and mostly fails) to decipher the past and stir up some scandal about Lord Byron, while the more level-headed Hannah plays the voice of reason. The two generations bleed into and out of each other. Into this circular timeline Stoppard flawlessly integrates Fermat’s last theorem, fractal geometry, Newtonian physics, chaos theory, botany, adultery, and fatal monkey bites.
I know that all sounds monumentally intellectual but please don’t be scared away. This play is above all, witty, entertaining, and profoundly meaningful.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Chopin - Waltz Op. 64 No. 2
Bonus (Flannery's pick!): Brad Mehldau - Exit Music (For a Film)
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1) Learn to Waltz
2) See Arcadia performed on stage.