Wednesday, April 30, 2014

ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard

            Arcadia is a play that takes place at Sidley Park, a stately country home in Derbyshire. The play shifts back and forth between the early 19th century and modern day Sidley Park.  The action in both time periods takes place in a bare room with a large table.

In the 19th century, Thomasina, the daughter of the house, is working with her tutor, Septimus Hodge; there are books and Hodge’s tortoise.  In the modern time, Hannah Jarvis, an author, is working on a book about the history of the gardens – or, more precisely, about the hermit-genius who lived in the 19th century gardens like a “garden ornament” or “pottery gnome”.  She is joined by, among others, Valentine, a son of the house, and his tortoise.

            In each time period, people come and go and dramas unfold. But the room and table remain constant. As the play proceeds, everything from both time periods remains on the table. The table and its contents are period neutral, and, by the end of the play, the table has become quite cluttered with objects.

There are striking parallels between the two time periods. Early on, questioning her tutor whether God is a Newtonian, Thomasina asks “[a]m I the first person to have thought of this?” (p. 9).  In the modern time, Chloe asks her brother “Valentine, do you think I’m the first person to think of this?” (p. 77).

            There is humor. Valentine explains to Hannah how her tea is getting cold – by itself. “Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere….It’ll take a while but we’re all going to end up at room temperature.” (p. 82).

            The modern day dramas involve the 19th century dramas – an attempt to sort out the past with meager historical evidence. There is poetry and duels; parks and a hermitage; heat exchange and Lord Byron.

            And, there is Entropy. As the play progresses, so does the chaos. Toward the end of the play, the distinct time periods begin to bleed into one another. They proceed at the same time and intertwine. Chaos ensues.

            The result is a fascinating, intellectual drama. Arcadia is a great read, and I hope one day to see it performed.


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