Written by Tom Stoppard
Original language English
Playwright Tom Stoppard
Place premiered Royal National Theatre
Date premiered 13 April 1993
First performance 13 April 1993
Nominations Best science book ever
|Subject History, science, philosophy, mathematics, love, death|
Setting A Derbyshire country estate in both the past (1809, 1812) and "the present"
Characters Valentine Coverly, Lady Croom, Ezra Chater
Similar Tom Stoppard plays, Dramas
Arcadia part 1
Arcadia is a 1993 play by Tom Stoppard concerning the relationship between past and present, order and disorder, certainty and uncertainty. It has been praised by many critics as the finest play from one of the most significant contemporary playwrights in the English language. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it one of the best science-related works ever written.
- Arcadia part 1
- Highlights from arcadia
- Scene 1 Act 1
- Scene 2
- Scene 3
- Scene 4
- Scene 5 Act 2
- Scene 6
- Scene 7
- Characters of 1809
- Characters of the present
- Contextual information
- Awards and nominations
Highlights from arcadia
Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an English country house in Derbyshire, and takes place in both 1809/1812 and the present day (1993 in the original production). The activities of two modern scholars and the house's current residents are juxtaposed with those of the people who lived there in the earlier period.
In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is a precocious teenager with ideas about mathematics, nature and physics well ahead of her time. She studies with her tutor Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron (an unseen guest in the house). In the present, writer Hannah Jarvis and literature professor Bernard Nightingale converge on the house: she is investigating a hermit who once lived on the grounds; he is researching a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their studies unfold – with the help of Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology – the truth about what happened in Thomasina's time is gradually revealed.
The play's set features a large table, used by the characters in both past and present. Props are not removed when the play switches time period; books, coffee mugs, quill pens, portfolios, and laptop computers appear together, blurring past and present. An ancient but still living tortoise also appears in every scene, symbolising long-suffering endurance and the continuity of existence.
Scene 1 (Act 1)
The play opens on 10 April 1809, in a garden-front room of the house. Septimus Hodge is trying to distract 13-year-old Thomasina from her curiosity about "carnal embrace" by challenging her to prove Fermat's Last Theorem; he also wants to focus on reading the poem "The Couch of Eros" by Ezra Chater, a guest at the house. Thomasina starts asking why jam mixed in rice pudding can never be unstirred, which leads her on to the topic of determinism and to a beginning theory about chaotic shapes in nature. This is interrupted by Chater himself, who is angry that his wife was caught in the aforementioned "carnal embrace" with Septimus; he has come to demand a duel. Septimus tries to defuse the situation by heaping praise on "The Couch of Eros". The tactic works, because Chater does not know it was Septimus who savaged an earlier work of his, "The Maid of Turkey". Then landscape architect Richard Noakes enters, shortly accompanied by Captain Brice and Lady Croom; the three discuss proposed modifications to the gardens, while Thomasina sketches an imaginary hermit on Noakes's technical drawing of the garden.
The setting shifts to the present day. Hannah Jarvis is researching the house, the garden, and specifically the hermit, for a study of hermits and the Romantic imagination. Bernard Nightingale enters with Chloe Coverly; she conceals his identity from Hannah, as he had given Hannah's last book a poor review. Chloe's brother, Valentine, is gathering data on the population biology of the grouse in the surrounding grounds, using the house's "game books". When Chloe accidentally reveals Bernard's identity, Hannah reacts angrily; but she agrees to share her research material, which enables him to propose the theory that one of the 1809 inhabitants, Ezra Chater, was killed in a duel by Lord Byron. Bernard notes that records of Chater the poet disappeared after 1809, and the only other Chater of record is a botanist.
The third scene returns to the earlier time frame; Septimus is again tutoring Thomasina, this time in translating Latin. Again their focus diverts, this time to the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, which upsets Thomasina. She mourns the loss of the knowledge stored there, and Septimus responds that all that was lost will eventually turn up again. They are again interrupted by Chater, who succeeds in challenging Septimus to the duel, having learned (from Lord Byron off-stage) that Septimus wrote the damning review.
Hannah rediscovers Thomasina's primer containing her ideas on iteration and chaos theory; this recalls Septimus' assertion that what was lost is eventually rediscovered. Valentine reacts with interest to the notes, as his own research centres on similar concepts.
Scene 5 (Act 2)
Still in the present, Bernard gives Hannah, Valentine, and Chloe a preview of his lecture theorising that Lord Byron shot and killed Chater in a duel. When Hannah and Valentine challenge his logic, Bernard launches into a diatribe about the irrelevance of science, then departs for his lecture (and a promotional media appearance) in London. Hannah begins to suspect that the hermit of Sidley Park – who was reportedly obsessed with algebraic computations about the heat death of the universe, the theory suggested in Thomasina's diagram – could have been Septimus.
Returning to 1809, we learn that the duel never occurred. Instead, the Chaters left for the West Indies with Captain Brice, Mr. Chater serving as the expedition's botanist and Mrs. Chater as the captain's secret paramour. Lord Byron has also left the country. Septimus has gone rabbit hunting for Thomasina, who favours rabbit pie; he returns to find Lady Croom searching for him. She has found two letters Septimus wrote in case he should die in the duel: one to Thomasina, is about rice pudding, and the other is a love letter addressed to herself. Lady Croom invites Septimus to an amorous rendezvous.
The final scene takes place in both 1812 and the present, the actions running concurrently. Some present-day characters are in fancy dress for a party, so that both casts appear similarly attired. Chloe reads a newspaper report on the Byron murder theory and then talks about determinism with Valentine, echoing the discussion between Septimus and Thomasina. Chloe, however, believes that sex is the force disrupting the universe's ordered plan. Valentine, using his computer to extrapolate Thomasina's ideas, relates them to the concept of entropy; he wonders whether Thomasina or Septimus was the genius behind the theories. Hannah and Valentine mention that Thomasina died in a fire on the eve of her seventeenth birthday.
Meanwhile, Thomasina asks Septimus to teach her to dance, for her forthcoming birthday party. Lady Croom enters, complaining to Noakes about the noise of his steam engine; Thomasina notes that the machine obeys the laws of entropy (which have not yet been formalized), which describe the universe as winding down. In the present, Bernard arrives and is met by Hannah, who has found a letter detailing the facts of Chater's death – this discovery totally discredits his theory and vindicates Lord Byron's reputation. While Septimus awaits appropriate music for Thomasina's dance lesson, he examines the sketch she made to illustrate the irreversibility of heat; his action mirrors that of Hannah and Valentine, who also pondered the same diagram. Bernard is caught in a compromising position with Chloe, and is asked to depart.
Eventually a waltz starts, and Septimus dances with Thomasina, their relationship increasingly complicated by hints of romance. Gus (Valentine and Chloe's younger brother, who has been silent for the entire play) hands another of Thomasina's drawings to a surprised Hannah. It depicts Septimus and the tortoise, confirming her suspicion that the hermit, who had a tortoise called Plautus, was actually Septimus. After Thomasina's tragic death, he apparently became a hermit; accepting her challenge to the laws of the universe as propounded by Newton, he worked for the rest of his life to apply "honest English algebra" to the question of the universe's future.
Characters of 1809
Characters of the present
Arcadia is, on the surface, somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy. It involves some elements of classical tragedy — "noble" characters and the audience's foreknowledge of Thomasina's death — but the predominant element is comedy, in the way that the characters interact with each other and in their witty, epigrammatic dialogue.
Arcadia explores the nature of evidence and truth in the context of modern ideas about history, mathematics and physics. It shows how clues left by the past are interpreted in the present, by both laypeople and scholars. Stoppard has said that his initial inspiration came from reading James Gleick's 1987 bestseller, Chaos: Making a New Science, "which is about this new kind of mathematics. That sounds fairly daunting if one's talking about a play. I thought, here is a marvellous metaphor." Besides chaos, the play attends to a wide array of subjects, including thermodynamics, computer algorithms, fractals, population dynamics, determinism (especially in the context of love and death), classics, landscape design, Romanticism vs. Classicism, English literature (particularly poetry), Byron, 18th century periodicals, modern academia, and even South Pacific botany. These are all concrete topics of conversation; their more abstract resonances rise into epistemology, nihilism, and the origins of lust and madness.
Arcadia's themes are presented in a series of dichotomies. Most prominent is chaos versus order. The play's characters and action embody this, moving from a settled social order, in which relationships arise, toward the final scene, where the social order – and even the separation of the two eras – dissolve in the party's chaos, relationships collapse, and the characters die or disperse. Yet within that chaos, order can still be found. As Valentine declares: "In an ocean of ashes, islands of order. Patterns making themselves out of nothing." Although the play's world grows increasingly chaotic – with overlapping time periods, increasingly complex ideas, and ever greater variations in social norms and assumptions — connections and order can still be discerned. The characters attempt to find and articulate the order they perceive in their world, even as it is continually overturned.
The center-stage table that collects props from both time periods throughout the play is a vivid metaphor of the chaos/order dichotomy. As Paul Edwards, professor of English and History of Art at Bath Spa University, explains: "At the end of the play, the table has accumulated a variety of objects that, if one saw them without having seen the play, would seem completely random and disordered. Entropy is high. But if one has seen the play, one has full information about the objects and the hidden 'order' of their arrangement, brought about by the performance itself. Entropy is low; this can be proved by reflecting that tomorrow night's performance of the play will finish with the table in a virtually identical 'disorder' — which therefore cannot really be disorder at all."
A closely related theme in Arcadia is the opposition of Classicism and Romanticism. This appears most clearly in the running argument between Noakes and Lady Croom about proposed changes to the garden. They all involve moving from the tidy order of Classic style to the rugged naturalism and Gothic mystery of the Romantic. A parallel dichotomy is expressed by Septimus and Thomasina: He instructs her in the Newtonian vision of the universe, while she keeps posing questions and proposing theories that undercut it. Hannah's search for the hermit of Sidley Park also touches on this theme. "The whole Romantic sham!" she passionately exclaims to Bernard. "It's what happened to the Enlightenment, isn't it? A century of intellectual rigour turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius ... The decline from thinking to feeling."
Another major theme is entropy and the irreversibility of time. Thomasina examines this scientifically, remarking that while Newtonian equations work both backwards and forwards, things in reality – like her rice pudding – cannot be "unstirred." Heat, too, she notes, flows in only one direction (the second law of thermodynamics). This is embodied by the characters, who burn bridges in relationships, burn candles, and burn letters – and in the end, Thomasina herself (like a short-lived candle) burns to death.
Thomasina's insights into thermodynamics and heat transfer, and the idea that the universe is cooling, echo the poem Darkness by her "real life" contemporary, Lord Byron. Written in 1816 — the "Year Without a Summer", caused by atmospheric ash from the volcano Mount Tambora erupting in the Dutch East Indies — "Darkness" depicts a world grown dark and cold because the sun has been extinguished.
The play's end brings all these dichotomous themes together, showing that while things may appear to contradict — Romanticism and Classicism, intuition and logic, thought and feeling — they can exist, paradoxically, in the same time and space. Order is found amid the chaos.
Jim Hunter writes that Arcadia is a relatively realistic play, compared to Stoppard's other works, though the realism is "much enhanced and teased about by the alternation of two eras". The setting and characters are true-to-life, without being archetypal. It is comprehensible: the plot is both logical and probable, following events in a linear fashion. Arcadia's major deviation from realism, of course, is in having two plotlines that are linear and parallel. Thus we see Thomasina deriving her mathematical equations to describe the forms of nature; we later see Val, with his computer, plotting them to produce the image of a leaf.
The language of Arcadia switches between the colloquialisms of early 19th century England and those of modern England. Stoppard's language reflects his periods, historical and modern, and he uses speech patterns and lexicons in keeping with his characters.
But his is a stylised dialogue, conveying the "look and feel" of the past as perceived by the modern audience. Still, it has sufficient latitude in register to make plain the relationships between the characters. For example, Septimus, after failing to deflect a question from Thomasina with a joke, bluntly explains to his pupil the nature of "carnal embrace" – but this bluntness is far removed from that with which he repudiates Chater's defence of his wife's honour (which he says "could not be adequately defended with a platoon of musketry"). With Lady Croom, who sees Mrs. Chater as a "harlot", Septimus delicately admits that "her passion is not as fixed" as one might wish.
In the modern sequences, the dialogue is more realistic. But Bernard consciously assumes some stylisation of language: He rehearses his public lecture in heightened, flamboyant rhetoric; and he unleashes a "performance art" polemic against Valentine's scientific thought, not from spite but for "recreation".
The play's scientific concepts are set forth primarily in the historical scenes, where Thomasina delivers her precocious (or even anachronistic) references to entropy, the deterministic universe and iterated equations in improvised, colloquial terms. In the modern era, Valentine explains the significance of Thomasina's rediscovered notebook with careful detail, reflecting Stoppard's research into his play's scientific materials.
Consciously echoed phrases, across the time frames, help to unify the play. For example, Chloe asks Valentine if "the future is all programmed like a computer", and whether she is the first to think that theory discredited "because of sex". Thomasina has been there before: "If you could stop every atom in its position and direction ... you could write the formula for all the future," she tells Septimus, then adds, "Am I the first person to have thought of this?" The difference is significant: Chloe's intuitive version allows for the effects of chaos, illustrating Stoppard's theme of the interdependence of science and art, and of professional and amateur thinking.
The play's title is abbreviated from its initial version: Et in Arcadia ego. Arcadia refers to the pastoral ideal; the phrase literally translates, "and in Arcadia I". The tradition of placing a tomb in a pastoral idyll can be traced to Virgil's Eclogues, while the phrase first appears in Poussin's 1637 painting. Both the image and the motto are commonly considered a memento mori, with the phrase being spoken by Death: "I, too, am in Arcadia". But the enigmatic phrase remains a subject of much academic discussion.
Lady Croom, enthusing about paintings of pretty landscapes, translates the phrase as "Here I am in Arcadia!" Thomasina drily comments, "Yes Mama, if you would have it so". Septimus notices; later, suspecting his pupil will appreciate the motto's true meaning, he offers the translation "Even in Arcadia, there am I". He is right – "Oh, phooey to Death!" she exclaims. Although these brief exchanges are the only direct references in the play to its title, they presage the two main characters' fates: Thomasina's early death, and Septimus's voluntary exile from life. Stoppard originally wanted to make this connection more explicit by using Et in Arcadia Ego for the title, but "box office sense prevailed".
In a more obvious sense, the title also invokes the ideal of nature as an ordered paradise, while the estate's landscape steadily evolves into a more irregular form. This provides a recurring image of the different ways in which "true nature" can be understood, and a homely parallel to Thomasina's theoretical description of the natural world's structure and entropic decline using mathematics.
In Arcadia, Stoppard presents his audience with several highly complex but fundamental mathematical and scientific concepts. He also uses these theories and ideas to illuminate relationships among his characters, adding to their poignancy.
One of the play's main thematic concepts is chaos theory. Paul Edwards, in his essay "Science in Hapgood and Arcadia", notes that "chaos mathematics is about the recovery of information from apparently chaotic and random systems where entropy is high. [...] It is 'asymmetric' (unlike the equations of classical physics), yet it finds regularities that prove to be the regularities of nature itself. Strikingly, this mathematics can generate patterns of amazing complexity, but it also has the power to generate seemingly natural or organic shapes that defeat Newtonian geometry. The promise, then, (however questionable it is in reality) is that information, and by extension, nature itself, can overcome the tendency to increase in entropy".
John Fleming, in his book Stoppard's Theatre: Finding Order amid Chaos, makes a similar observation. "Deterministic chaos", he writes, "deals with systems of unpredictable determinism. ... [T]he uncertainty does not result in pure randomness, but rather in complex patterns. Traditionally, scientists expected dynamic systems to settle into stable, predictable behavior." But as systems respond to variations in input, they become more random or chaotic. "Surprisingly, within these random states, windows of order reappear. [...] There is order in chaos — an unpredictable order, but a determined order nonetheless, and not merely random behavior."
Closely related scientific and mathematical concepts in Arcadia are the second law of thermodynamics and entropy. Fleming describes these two principles. "Entropy is the measure of the randomness or disorder of a system. The law of increase of entropy states that as a whole, the universe is evolving from order to disorder. This relates to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat spontaneously flows in only one direction, from hotter to colder. Since these equations, unlike Newton's laws of motion, do not go backward and forward, there is an 'arrow of time' that points toward the eventual 'heat death' of the universe."
In Arcadia, Stoppard uses all these concepts to reveal that "there is an underlying order to seemingly random events." The characters discuss these topics, while their interactions reflect them.
Some ideas in the play recall Goethe's novella Elective Affinities: Stoppard's characters "Thomasina" and "Septimus" have parallels in Goethe's "Ottilie" and "Eduard", and the historical section of Stoppard's play is set in 1809, the year of Goethe's novella.
Arcadia first opened at the Royal National Theatre in London on 13 April 1993, in a production directed by Trevor Nunn with Rufus Sewell as Septimus Hodge, Felicity Kendal as Hannah Jarvis, Bill Nighy as Bernard Nightingale, Emma Fielding as Thomasina Coverly, Alan Mitchell as Jellaby, Derek Hutchinson as Ezra Chater, Sidney Livingston as Richard Noakes, Harriet Walter as Lady Croom, Graham Sinclair as Captain Brice, Harriet Harrison as Chloe Coverly, Timothy Matthews as Augustus and Gus Coverly and Samuel West as Valentine Coverly. It won the 1993 Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Play.
The first New York production opened in March 1995, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It was again directed by Trevor Nunn, but with an entirely new cast. It starred Billy Crudup as Septimus, Blair Brown as Hannah, Victor Garber as Bernard, Robert Sean Leonard as Valentine and Jennifer Dundas as Thomasina. This production was the Broadway debut of Paul Giamatti, who played Ezra Chater. The other actors were Lisa Banes (Lady Croom), Richard Clarke (Jellaby), John Griffin (Gus/Augustus), Peter Maloney (Noakes), David Manis (Captain Brice, RN) and Haviland Morris (Chloe). This production won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and was nominated for the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play, losing to Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!.
In December 1996, the first major US regional production was mounted at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
On 27 May 2009, a London production, directed by David Leveaux, opened at the Duke of York's Theatre starring Dan Stevens (Septimus Hodge), Samantha Bond (Hannah Jarvis), Jessie Cave (Thomasina Coverly), Nancy Carroll (Lady Croom), Trevor Cooper (Richard Noakes), Sam Cox (Jellaby), Lucy Griffiths (Chloë Coverly), Tom Hodgkins (Captain Brice), Hugh Mitchell (Augustus/Gus Coverly), Neil Pearson (Bernard Nightingale), George Potts (Ezra Chater) and Ed Stoppard (Valentine Coverly). The production recouped its costs and closed on 12 September 2009.
Arcadia returned to Broadway, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, on 17 March 2011, again directed by David Leveaux. The cast included Margaret Colin (Lady Croom), Billy Crudup (Septimus in the original Broadway version, now playing Bernard Nightingale), Raúl Esparza (Valentine Coverly), Glenn Fleshler (Captain Brice), Grace Gummer (Chloë Coverly), Edward James Hyland (Jellaby), Byron Jennings (Richard Noakes), Bel Powley (Thomasina Coverly), Tom Riley (Septimus Hodge), Noah Robbins (Gus Coverly/Augustus Coverly), David Turner (Ezra Chater), and Lia Williams (Hannah Jarvis). The production was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
The Times, reviewing the first production in 1993, praised it as a "perfect marriage of ideas and high comedy". But for some, the ideas overwhelmed the comedy: "[T]oo clever by about two-and-three-quarters," noted The Daily Mail. "One comes away instructed with more than one can usefully wish to know." After an eight-month run at the National, the play's transfer to the West End gave an opportunity for re-appraisal. The Daily Telegraph critic commented: "I have never left a play more convinced that I had just witnessed a masterpiece".
Vincent Canby of The New York Times described the play as "Tom Stoppard's richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and, new for him, emotion". But other New York reviews were mixed or unfavourable, complaining of the anachronisms and lack of realism.
The 2009 London revival prompted more critics to laud the play as "Stoppard's finest work". Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian that the play "gets richer with each viewing. ... [T]here is poetry and passion behind the mathematics and metaphysics." Johann Hari of The Independent speculated that Arcadia would be recognised "as the greatest play of its time".
The 2011 Broadway staging met with a mixed reception. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called the production "a half-terrific revival of Mr. Stoppard's entirely terrific Arcadia", noting that "several central roles are slightly miscast", and "some of the performances from the Anglo-American cast are pitched to the point of incoherence." Similar concerns were raised by critics from the New York magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Time Out New York and Bloomberg News.