My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Arcadia is famously set in one room—in an English country estate—in two time periods: the early 19th and the late 20th centuries. The “present-day” characters are either descendants of the historical characters or else scholars investigating their lives.
In the 19th-century plot, Septimus Hodge, literary critic and friend to Lord Byron, is tutoring young Thomasina Coverly at the Croom estate, while the Coverly household is occupied with a series of sexual misadventures, in which Hodge himself, as well as the offstage Byron, are involved. But ideas occupy the foreground: first, the estate’s garden is being renovated by the landscape architect Noakes, who proposes to transform its well-ordered 18th-century Classicism into a chaotic Romantic-Gothic monstrosity; second and relatedly, it appears that the prodigy Thomasina has intuited the future development of science and mathematics away from Newtonian determinism and toward chaos theory, fractals, and the second law of thermodynamics.
In the 20th-century plot, a flashy and bombastic Oxford don, Bernard Nightingale, arrives at the estate to try to prove his theory that Lord Byron fought a duel there and killed a man, which forced his flight from England. In this scholarly endeavor, Nightingale matches wits with a more reserved bestselling history writer, Hannah Jarvis. Hannah wants to write her next book about the legendary hermit who lived in the Romantic hermitage that Noakes placed in the estate’s garden back in the 19th century. Along the way, these two historians—along with the latter-day Coverlys, one of whom is a mathematician—discover Septimus’s and Thomasina’s papers and find themselves involved in the same debates over free will and determinism, chaos and order, Classicism and Romanticism as their predecessors nearly 200 years before.
Arcadia is beautifully mixed in theatrical mode: there is teasingly Shakespearean wordplay, wittily Wildean epigrammatistm, scintillatingly Shavian ideological arguments, and a wryly but heartbreakingly Chekhovian plangency that allows us to feel life as brief, fragile, and nonetheless valuable. I do not know if it is “the greatest play of our age,” as Johann Hari argues, but it is certainly brilliant. The historical scenes, however, are much more exciting, at the level of plot and language, than the present-day scenes. Furthermore, Stoppard’s obvious debt to A. S. Byatt’s delightful 1990 novel Possession, also about late 20th-century scholars investigating 19th-century writers, is distracting. Nevertheless, Stoppard’s one-liners really can be placed without embarrassment next to Wilde’s bons mots, especially when Septimus or Lady Croom speak:
THOMASINA: Our Mr Chater has written a poem?
SEPTIMUS: He believes he has written a poem, yes.
THOMASINA: Is [sexual congress] the same as love?
SEPTIMUS: Oh no, it is much nicer than that.
BRICE: As her tutor you have a duty to keep her in ignorance.
LADY CROOM: Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit.
LADY CROOM: There was more posing at the pictures than in them.
LADY CROOM: But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.
As for the weightier themes—which Stoppard nonetheless treats with admirable lightness, so that the play never feels insistently, didactically “topical” or “relevant”—I read it this way, with a little help from Hari’s article as linked above: Stoppard’s own sensibility is obviously more Classical than Romantic, more at home in the 18th than in the 19th century, and yet the play not only gives the Romantic aesthetic its due in a sympathetic portrayal of doomed love and inspired genius, but Stoppard seems calmly to accepts the implications of entropy and chaos. As Valentine explains, with the ardor of scientific ambition:
We can’t even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular. Each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediction apart, and the weather is unpredictable in the same way, will always be unpredictable. When you push the numbers through the computer you can see it on the screen. The future is disorder.
But if chaos and entropy can themselves be formalized both in mathematics and in literature (which is to say, in this very play), then disorder is not absolute. The human mind discovers the order of nature behind the apparent disorder, just as the objective truth about the subjective Romantics is eventually found by the present-day scholars toward the play’s end. Art and science come together to resist entropy, to approximate a turning back of the destructive clock.
Et in Arcadia ego, says death in the famous motto to which Stoppard’s title alludes; but we might reverse it too and say that in the midst of death we are in life. So we must live, and struggle to make order from the chaos, art from nature, in the despairing hope that our works will both comprise and complete the pattern. In 1809, Septimus puts it this way, with the 19th century’s optimism:
We shed as we pick up, like travellers 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.
And in 1993, Hannah concludes, with the 20th century’s disillusion:
Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.
The moral of Arcadia in fact pre-dates not only Mandelbrot but Newton, and it has been heard before on the English stage: “The art itself is nature.”