Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

I saw this play in the 1990s, but it largely faded from my memory. I had the impression of it being a difficult, entertaining and serious play. I went to see it again on 3rd August 2009, with a friend. Being right up ‘with the Gods’, the acoustic was slightly impaired and the stuffiness further befuddled my intellect. I could grasp that it was an excellent and even important piece of work, though I confessed to my friend that the full message eluded me. He wisely commented that Stoppard would be disappointed if we did grasp it all.

Since then, I have bought a copy and read it. Unlike many plays, the reading was clearer than the staged version – though the sequence of seeing the play on the stage first doubtless influences that opinion. It is so packed with clever, fizzy ideas that it is difficult to understand them from the fast, witty dialogue. On the page, one can slow down and turn back. It is a play to be highly recommended, a towering intellectual achievement, maybe (probably) a rung above ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn.

To summarise the plot of the play would take many paragraphs, and would possibly spoil it for those who have not seen or read it. Instead, it is fruitful to highlight the theme of Time.

‘Arcadia’ opens with a scene from 1809, as you can tell from the dress and language. So we are shifted back in time by 200 years. The very first line of the play, from a curious, intelligent, na├»ve girl called Thomasina to her tutor raises a laugh from the audience: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” This leads into the comic, slightly farcical, country-house drama that Stoppard loves – as in ‘The real inspector Hound’. The entangled relationships and attractions are a thick thread in the tapestry of the story, running in parallel between the early 19th Century and modern times.

‘Attraction’ is a word used with care, because one of the topics they talk about is Newtonian physics and his laws of gravity. Newton’s model of the universe opens the possibility of everything being deterministic, but that is upset in human life by the life force of sex – “the attraction which Newton left out”. The human race moves forward in time and survives, thanks to sexual attraction. But in the long run we are all doomed, because of entropy, which will cause everything in the universe to “cease and grow cold”.

Time and entropy are the same thing, or at least are deeply threaded with each other. Entropy’s arrow is what makes us feel time. Thomasina understands the profound implications of entropy, destroying the neat, symmetrical world of Newtonian Physics her tutor had been teaching her: “Newton’s equations go forwards and backwards, they do not care which way. But the heat equation care very much, it goes only one way. That is the reason Mr Noakes’s engine cannot give us the power to drive Mr Noakes’s engine.”

We see time operating before our eyes on the stage, as characters from the 20th Century erupt into the same room. Now we meet ambitious academics exploring the past at Sidley Park in their various ways. One is studying the shooting records to understand the chaos-theory patterns behind the grouse population. One is writing a book about the landscape gardening and the influence of the Romantic imagination. One is researching the life of Lord Byron, hoping to come up with a scandalous, dramatic event that will make his name when published.

Time plays tricks on these searchers after truth, in that the evidence left is insufficient and misleading. Or, rather, the way they look at things causes them to bend the evidence. The University Don, Bernard, is particularly self-deluding in his eagerness to achieve fame. He convinces himself that he has found evidence of Lord Byron killing a man in a duel and fleeing the country as a result. We, the audience, already know he is barking up the wrong tree, because we have just seen the events and letters of 1809. So Bernard is not really a searcher after truth, but forms a self-serving theory first, and then imposes that theory on the evidence. He sees what he wants to see.

Time plays tricks on the earlier generation too. Thomasina Coverley also discovers the mathematics of chaos, blowing apart the neat Euclidian geometry of trianges, squares etc, with infinitely branching shapes, such as we see in nature around us – trees, for instance. The later mathematician, Valentine, has a laptop computer in which he can produce the ‘Coverley set’ – a renamed Mandelbrot set, I presume. The cruelty of time is that Thomasina (and, later, Septimus in years of scribbed mathmatics) does not have the computing power to pursue her new mathematics. She lives in the wrong age.

As Valentine says “There wasn’t enough time. There weren’t enough pencils! (He flourishes Thomasina’s lesson book.) This took her I don’t know how many days and she hasn’t scratched the paintwork. Now she’d only have to press a button over and over. Iteration. A few minutes. And what I’ve done in a couple of months, with only a pencil the calculations would take me the rest of my life to do again – thousands of pages – tens of thousands! And so boring!”

The characters from the two ages, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, take turns on the stage, with wonderful comic interactions, a supremely clever country house farce, where the two sets of characters do not talk directly with each other. However the earlier set is being observed, not only by the audience, but also by the other set of characters. The later set of characters is also silently being mocked by the earlier set, for getting their interpretations so wrong.

Towards the end, Stoppard boldly brings both ages on to the stage at the same time. The two eras end up both waltzing around the room. This is wonderful symbolism, bringing to mind the attraction of the sexes, the orbits of the planets, the whirl of atoms, the mathematics of chaos, the comedy and melancholy of human relationships….

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