A Few Words about Arcadiaposted on November 19th, 2009 by Neil Baldwin
First word: funny.
Then, in no particular order: sexy, witty, moving, elegant, touching, poignant, nostalgic, sad, thoughtful, mysterious, literary, scientific…and yes, complicated. But always entertaining. All you have to do is listen carefully.
Two more helpful words: Pay attention! From the opening instant of Tom Stoppard’s play—when the precocious and brilliant Thomasina Coverly looks up from her math textbook, leans across the table, and asks her astonished tutor, Septimus Hodge, an amazingly preposterous question—to the breathtaking choreography of the final scene (which, of course, I dare not reveal) Arcadia will share its many riches.
The action of the play shifts in time, shuttling back and forth from April 1809 to the present day. However, the place remains the same throughout: Sidley Park, a Derbyshire country house in scenic central England.
Two hundred years ago, the occupants were the aristocratic Coverly family along with various relatives, attendants, and houseguests, including the celebrated and notorious Romantic poet Lord Byron.
Today, the modern descendants of the Coverlys are visited at Sidley Park by Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, two researchers into its secret history with separate motives. Here is the intriguing literary murder story—the mystery at Arcadia’s heart—who did what…who wrote what…and to whom—and how can we the living ever come to know the absolute truth about those who came before us simply by tracking down and reading old letters, lesson primers, and journals?
You will notice a lot of scientific detail threaded through the play. Long conversations among the intellectual characters in both past and present delve into such matters as the flow of time; the physical world around us and the different ways we see and experience it; and the deep meaning of infinitely repeating patterns in nature called fractals. At first hearing, these conversations may sound abstract and dense. Be patient. Our versatile student actors understand exactly what they are talking about. Their intense training and awareness will shine a clear spotlight on the story.
You will also notice that Lady Croom, charming young Thomasina’s domineering mother, presides over a huge makeover of the family estate. Obsessed with the buildings, foliage, and lawns of her vast property, and all it represents, Lady Croom nags at the gardener, Mr. Noakes, to the great amusement of all.
The changing household and landscape play an important role in the contemporary scenes as well. In the here and now, Valentine Coverly and his younger sister, Chloe, are more concerned about the disruption in their daily domestic routine caused by the frantic arrangements for an ornate garden party at Sidley Park to which the entire town has been invited.
Arcadia is a very “English” play. We are immediately and magically transported into a world and a culture where people speak, act, and interact differently. The proper social etiquette of the early nineteenth century is delightful to behold; as is the competition for affection and attention between the modern-day Coverlys and Hannah and Bernard, the sleuthing scholars in residence.
And without giving too much away—what is the fun in that?—I want to alert you to the images of apples as helpful symbols and props in Arcadia. Think back to the very first apple in the Garden of Eden, and how the original taste of that forbidden fruit made us into truly human beings giving in to temptation and, as Hannah says so well, to the hunger for knowledge, “wanting to know.”
Tom Stoppard is a challenging writer. Those of you familiar with his other works, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties, Rock ’n’ Roll, or The Coast of Utopia, know that he delights in playful mind-bending.
Which brings us to a final word, more relevant to this play than to any other Stoppard work. Arcadia touches upon many themes, some of which I have sketched in this brief introduction.
In the end, one sentiment, and the hope it embodies, rules the day: love.
Neil Baldwin, production dramaturg for Arcadia, is a widely-published cultural historian and critic. He is a Professor in MSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance where he teaches dramaturgy, theatre criticism and arts administration. His Web site is www.neilbaldwinbooks.com.