A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Artist”

Tom Stoppard is a demanding dramatist.  He does not stoop to explain references in detail. He assumes that some in his audience will be left out — never more explicitly perhaps than in The Invention of Love in which a character tells the audience “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”  In Rock ‘n’ Roll he expects the audience to remember Syd Barrett and know about The Plastic People of the Universe.  And, in Arcadia, Stoppard puts before us Byron and hangers-on of the Romantics, English landscape architecture, iterated algorithms and fractals, a joke dependent on an understanding of both Old and New Testament, and, yes, a bit of Latin.  Many will be left behind as are left behind by the references in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Yet we all enjoy Romeo and Juliet.

The slight review of the Citadel Theatre’s production of Arcadia

. . . literature, ever since Theocritus, has been sophisticating nature  . . .
— Agnes Latham, introduction to the Arden Shakespeare (second series) edition of As You Like It, p. xliv.

Finally on Easter Sunday I had the opportunity to see Arcadia in a matinee performance of the appropriately pretty production directed by Tom Wood at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.  I’ve been waiting to see Arcadia since first reading a review of the play in, of all places, the July 1997 issue of Scientific American.  To be honest, I feel Stoppard’s tight script and careful stage directions leave little extra for the director to do, and, not meaning to sound like Septimus talking to Chater, Wood does a good job of it.  One particular touch I noticed was in the first scene of Act II, when non-verbal Gus (Luc Tellier) sits up straight and perks up his ears when Bernard (Jamie Williams) mentions Gus’ namesake predecessor, Augustus Coverly (also played by Tellier). This touching and meaningful tiny moment is not hinted at in Stoppard’s stage directions, and the gesture adds subtly but greatly to the cross-century connection.

The set is exquisite, the costumes beautiful (both by Leslie Frankish), the sound (Owen Hutchinson) and lighting design (Kevin Humphrey) are perfect.  Performances were spot on, with special mention going to Julia Guy’s totally charming and intimidatingly intelligent Thomasina Coverly, Kevin Klassen’s lovably foppish Ezra Chater, Claire Armstrong’s crustily vulnerable Hannah Jarvis, and Jamie Williams’ smarmily narcissistic Bernard Nightingale.

My criticisms of what went on on stage are so small as to barely need mention: Plautus the tortoise is a model rather than a live tortoise; Aaron Hursh gives a little too much shrillness to Septimus Hodge’s laughs in Act I; and the wig Luc Tellier wears as Augustus Coverly makes that character a little too distinguishable from Gus Coverly, the other character Tellier plays.  Stoppard is explicit that the two should be easily confusable.

But, picking nits.

Arcadia is a long and challenging play.  It became clear part way through the second act that many in the audience had lost track and were exhausted. At the end of each of the last few scenes, a good portion of the audience began to applaud, in mistaken relief that the play had ended, uncomprehended.  I see this incomprehension not as a criticism of the play, the direction, or the performances.  Arcadia demands much of the cast and much of the audience.  It is impressive that the cast rose to those demands, and not surprising — although sad — that some audience members weren’t up to it.  Arcadia is a play to be savoured.  Careful engagement richly repays the challenge.

Arcadia plays at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, on the Shocter Stage, until April 12, 2015.

Please check out Jenna Marynowski’s review of Arcadia at After the House Lights.

A Meditation on Arcadia

Life is a quest for a quarry we will never capture.  We reach for perfection in art and always fall short.  We investigate the universe ever more deeply through science and mathematics and every answer brings a thousand new questions.  We strive for Arcadia but find ourselves fumbling in a gazebo in an English formal garden.

On stage throughout Arcadia there is a tortoise, perhaps a very long lived tortoise, like the Galapagos tortoise named Harriet who was reputedly collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006.  In the 19th century scenes in Arcadia the tortoise is named “Plautus” for the early Roman comic dramatist.  The Roman dramatist was a source of plots for young Shakespeare and I have no doubt Stoppard has chosen the name carefully, at the least as a reminder of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier).  The action of Plautus’ play, like that of Arcadia, is triggered by a servant’s accidental witnessing of a carnal embrace.  Plautus’ Soldier, Pyrgopolynices, fumbles through life with the mistaken impression that he is in control when he is, in fact, slave to his own failings and the wiles of his own slaves.  Some of Stoppards characters, Chater particularly, have much of Plautus’ soldier in them. But the most important and interesting characters in Arcadia are very much aware of what ultimately controls things — the entropy which winds down every life. Et in Arcadia, ego.

In Classical Comedy, we laugh a lot and there is a generally happy ending.  Plautus’ plays are exceptionally light fare.  Arcadia, on the other hand, for all its glittering wit and English country sunshine, for all its joy of discovery running through, is a fundamentally tragic vision.  Stoppard shows us that not only do we each have a fatally tragic flaw, but that the flaw is the tragic flaw of the universe.  No matter our joys, our discoveries, our duels or our carnal embraces, we are all doomed with the universe itself to

. . . wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless . . .

as the second law of thermodynamics grinds its irresistible way to that far future when Darkness is the Universe.

In Stoppard’s play, Hannah recites the above lines of Lord Byron, using poetry as evidence that even before our thermodynamic doom was understood mathematically, it was possible to glimpse the cold, dark truth.  This dark truth hangs over all the characters in Arcadia.

But we are not alone, either in space or time.  Septimus says of the endless succession of human generations:

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.

I can’t help but hear an echo of T. S. Eliot here:

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Indeed, I find much in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which illuminates Arcadia.  Consider:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

Arcadia is fundamentally about creativity in the face of the Second Law.  it is about life as a local reversal of entropy and what a marvellous gift that reversal is.  Arcadia is about the quest to find out, to learn. Hannah says:

Comparing what we’re looking for is missing the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.

Yes, Death is there, but, before all else, Even in Arcadia is Life.

Some, having little understanding of the Second Law, have tried to argue that Darwinian Evolution, for example, contravenes that law by increasing order when order must decrease.  But, of course, there is nothing in the Second Law which makes impossible localized, temporary increases accompanied by a greater decrease elsewhere or elsewhen.  Each pleasantly arranged dessert, each beautiful poem, every evening at the theatre, is made possible by the distant future cinder we now call The Sun.  These local eddies of increased order are what Stoppard offers us — not as consolation — as purpose and meaning.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the universe will sink into a lightless heat-death.”

Eliot again:

….he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Near the end of the play Gus, the non-verbal youth picks up what has been shed, as he had earlier picked up a trans-temporal apple for Hannah (a reference, I think, to Theocritus’ third Idyll). Gus gives Hannah the unexpected clue she needs to clinch her argument about the identity of the Hermit.  In that moment, Gus and Plautus the tortoise are linked through time.  The silent watchers hold the answer, but there is a melancholy.

Septimus and Thomasina dance. Gus silently invites Hannah to dance.

Hannah says,

“Oh, dear, I don’t really . . .”

But, really, she does.

As the couples orbit each other into the night at the end of the play, we and they know that the journey and our companions, including those who have preceded us, and what we make of them, are all we truly have.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is published by Faber & Faber.

On a lighter note

From page 38 of my 1993 copy of Arcadia:

Et in Arcadia Typo

Et in Arcadia, Typo.

13 comments on “A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

  1. […] Richardson of Behind the Hedge has a few thoughts on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and the Citadel’s production of […]

  2. jennamarynowski says:

    Gorgeous response to Arcadia. Thanks for sharing John

  3. David Stein, TORONTO says:

    Stoppard wrote one excellent play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, but only because it belly-dances in the basement of a much better one, “Hamlet”.

    “Arcadia” is a turgid swill of PRETENTIOUS mental sewage, reeking of the decline of English drama, that began about 1642, when the Puritan squareheads shut the theatres. This includes all American drama, except a couple of plays by Williams.

    Arthur Miller and Charles Dickens are two of the most overrated authors of all time; Miller, grandiloquently maudlin; Dickens, a mouldy, Christmas pudding tossed in the faces of non-Christians.

    Tom Stoppard is a blathering, pointyheaded showoff, continuing to impress badly educated American tourists, who have owned the West End since the 1960s.

    The Citadel Theatre is a fitting memorial to Joe Shoctor.

    • Funny. I always sorta thought the decline of drama began with the start of Seneca’s carreer rather than with the depredations of the Roundheads. I’ll agree with you to a certain degree on Dickens, but I’m not sure why you mention him unless it’s because The Citadel keeps trotting out Wood’s adaptation each year. As for American tourists, educated or otherwise, or the West End, for that matter — I don’t much care.
      But thanks for your honesty 🙂

      Oh, and . . . Odd. I don’t generally find Stoppard pretentious (except maybe in R&G). And I’ve never found Arcadia to have a pretense: it is quite clear of reference (for those who have read a book or two).

      Personally, although I am neither American nor a tourist, I quite enjoy most of Stoppard’s work.

      Perhaps I’m simply uneducated.

      Oh well.

  4. David Stein, TORONTO says:

    I said ENGLISH drama. Who told you Seneca was English?

    • You said English. I said Drama. Sorry if I take a wider view.

      No wait.
      I’m not sorry that I take a wider view.

      Why is Toronto in ALL CAPS? Why are you yelling “Toronto”?

      • David Stein, TORONTO says:

        You are a tedious, petty, little, prairie HICK, showing off like your idol playwright, and I’m sorry I wasted my time yelling ANYTHING. Good night, sthweet prinsth.

      • GordLacey says:

        Hah, someone should tell him that you’re a “tedious, petty, little, prairie HICK” that comes from Ontario 😉

      • And how weird is it to dig up an obscure post about a production of a play you hate by a playwright you hate in a dramatic tradition you hate? A production that closed three months ago at a theatre you hate in a city you hate? And then to blather on about Dickens? And to put “Toronto” in all caps in your handle like some kind of chrome trucknuts on the back of your F 350 you need a step ladder to get into and a booster seat to see over the dashboard. “TORONTO”. What is that? Some misguided suggestion that your stupid opinion is worthy of respect because of the place you happen to live?

        I can’t help but wonder if “David Stein, TORONTO” isn’t actually some local who’s pissed off at Tom Wood for some reason. That would make a sort of sorry sense. But a South African-born Toronto IT entrepreneur going off like that about Stoppard, Wood, The Citadel, and Dickens on an obscure little blog? That would just be weird.

  5. David Stein, TORONTO says:

    And I cannot count on all my toes the number of people I know who have adapted “A Christmas Carol”. All it requires is a middling mind and a blue pencil. It adapts itself. Rather like … mmm… “See Spot. See Spot run”.

    Time for some TESTICLES at The Citadel. A first.

  6. For the record, I’ve seen Wood’s Christmas Carol once. I thought it was blandly pleasant enough but please don’t do it again. Why you brought it up I have no idea, except that perhaps you have some sort of juvenile hate on for The Citadel. Fine. It’s not my favourite place either.

    But I have to say, when someone says “All English drama since the Closing of the Theatres is crap, nothing good’s been done and Stoppard is pretentious and anyone who disagrees with me is uneducated or American or both or a prairie hick [I’m from Ontario, BTW]. TORONTO!” comes across as a bit of a poseur and, embarrassingly pretentious.

    And rude.

    But thanks for your honesty (if it was actually that rather than ignorant Trolling).

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