Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

It's a remarkable play, much easier to enjoy than to produce, I’m sure.

It isn’t that easy to describe, either.

It’s based on parallel plot-lines both of which involve a lot of talk about mathematics, poetry, and the contrast between classical and romantic temperaments. The stories unfold roughly two centuries apart, but in the same house. The scene shifts back and forth at irregular intervals, though the action usually stays put for a quarter-hour at least. 

When the MC announced at the beginning of the performance that the play ran to two hours and forty minutes, I groaned inwardly in disbelief. We’d been out biking all day through the spectacular autumn leaves on the Root River trails near Lanesboro, and suddenly the idea of capping off the evening at the local Comonwealth Theater seemed like a very bad one.

Never has a play set entirely within a single room flown by so fast.

Two of the protagonists of the modern-day story are literary scholars—though strangers to one another as the play begins. One is intent on discovering exactly what took place in the house several centuries ago, when Byron may have visited and perhaps killed one of the estate’s guests in a duel. 

The other scholar, Hannah, is the fiancee of the house’s current owner, Valentine Coverly, who's hard at work on some equations that will expose arcane relationships that recur repeatedly in the natural world—as recorded, for example, in the estate’s grouse-hunting records. These equations bear an uncanny relationship to notions worked out two hundred years ago by a young woman named Tomasina who lived in the house. Her notebooks survive.

Affinities and antagonisms abound in both worlds, and the play’s appeal also derives from the resolution of questions raised in the course of it: Was Byron there? Did he kill someone? Who was the mad hermit in the garden? But viewers are likely to draw even greater pleasure from the sophisticated conversation and frequent soliloquies that bubble through the production.

For example, the precocious young student Thomasina at one point exclaims, during her Latin lesson, that she hates Cleopatra, because “the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue!... How can we sleep for grief?” 
Her tutor comes back with an eloquent defense of how knowledge is preserved:  

“By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. 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. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?” 

Our mathematical Valentine, a descendant of the family who owned the estate in Byron’s day, has some of the best lines:

“It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing.... A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It's the best possible time of being alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” 


“The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.” 

Valentine bears graciously the crass intrusion of the thoroughly-modern academic Nightingale, who is eager to publish his theory of Byron’s duel. In fact, Valentine even helps the man by pointing out that Byron’s name appears in the game book—thus proving, at least, that he was there at the time of the incident.

But Nightingale is no fool. He can defend his position cogently, and even aggressively, and he can deliver a philosophical salvo with the best of them.   

“If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing 'When Father Painted the Parlour'? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you."

After which he eloquently recites Byron’s celebrated poem—
 'She walks into beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies,
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes…” 
 Nightingale inspires the enduring enmity of Valentine’s fiancée Hannah, not only because he wrote a scathing review of her last book, but also because he’s an arrogant sexist pig. Yet Valentine’s younger sister Chloe, who is no match for Hannah intellectually, takes a fancy to Nightingale immediately, and she gets in a few pithy comments too. For example:

“The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it's trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be in that part of the plan.” 

I came into the theater with one advantage over some members of the audience. By sheer coincidence, I had recently been reading a book called Ubiquity: the Science of History or Why the Universe is Simpler than We Think. This book describes precisely the kind of equations that Valentine is working on and that Tomasina intuited, two hundred years ahead of her time, though she lacked the computer technology to test her insights. The book’s analysis of “critical state universality,” as it applies to earthquakes, avalanches, grasshopper populations, stock market crashes, epidemics, and other disasters, is more or less the same as Valentine’s analysis of grouse populations on his ancestral state. (It’s interesting to note that when the book came out in paperback, it carried the shorter but more accurate subtitle, Why Catastrophes Happen.)

Do we need to understand all of this to enjoy the play? I don't think so. Though it does help to know that the theories being bandied about are reputable, and beyond that, perhaps integrate the worlds of Newtonian physics (classically true but generally irrelevant) and that of landscape gardening, poetry, and illicit trysts in the gazebo. 

It strikes me that we probably understand less than half of the things Shakespeare’s characters say. Does it matter?

Am I saying that Stoppard is a sort of Shakespeare update? Yes, I am. The dialogue is complicated, heady, and fast-paced. Also more than occasionally rhapsodic and heart-felt.

Which brings me to the Commonwealth production itself, in which director Leah Cooper emphasizes pacing rather than comprehensibility. That’s a good strategy. Even if we understood everything that was being said, it would be difficult to hear the rapid-fire dialogue about a third of the time. Every member of the cast brought great energy to their roles, though Anna Lee Murray, as the youthful Tomasina, deserves special mention for effectively conveying the precocity of a sweet teenage girl who might also be a genius.

Digging a little deeper into the cast, Nightingale (Scott Dixon) was a whirlwind of bad and good qualities, an entertainment dynamo; Hannah (Adrienne Sweeney) projected a subtle blend of intelligence, accommodation, and fragility (with hints of frigidity, they used to say); and Hodge (Gary Danciu) was acerbic, libidinous, and crisply polite. Lady Croom (Catherine Glynn)? Perfectly hospitable, self-centered, and edgy. And so on.         

When Arcadia was revived in London in 2009, the Guardian ran a story musing whether it might be the greatest play of our age. They describe the plot and underscore the play’s enduring significance a lot better than I can.

It's interesting that Stoppard chose the word Arcadia to serve as his play's title. As you probably know, Arcadia is a province on the west coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece, which was taken up during the Renaissance as a rustic paradise. The issues of landscape gardening in the play (which I did not have the time to describe in detail) raise the question of whether classical restraint (Newton) or romantic excess (Byron) are better suited to paradise. But Stoppard would never be as didactic as that, and I get the impression that his notion of paradise is one in which this issue is flamboyantly, conversationally alive and under intense debate, with both points of view delivering some compelling arguments in their defense.  

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