Five Star Book: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

I was going to start with some perfunctory, half-apology for writing about another play, but if you aren’t interested in plays, you probably gave up on this blog awhile ago.

I have never been that big of a Tom Stoppard fan (with the obvious exception of Shakespeare in LoveI mean, come on). Mostly this indifference was based on the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was on the reading list of an “Existentialist Theater” class one of my friends took. I have a deep seeded disdain for existentialism, it’s based partly in the fact that I resent the amount Beckett I have had to read in Irish literature classes and my basically positive outlook on life.

But last year my friend Julia told me about how much she loved Arcadia and how it was one of those books/plays for her. You know one of those pieces of art (literary or otherwise) that you love so much that you feel like they are a part of you, that you are almost scared to describe them, because you know you won’t do it justice. Which made me run out and buy Arcadia and then wait a year to get around to actually reading it.

Well, I really shouldn’t have waited. It’s absolutely brilliant. So good in fact that when I finished it on the train yesterday morning I put in my bag and then picked up again and started leafing through it to reread what I’m sure will become my favorite passages.

It’s not an easy play to summarize, as I discovered trying to describe it to my mom last night on the phone. It takes place in one room in a grand English house in two vastly different time periods: the early 1800s when Lord Byron was a guest at the house, and the present when a couple of scholars are trying to prove their theories about Byron and his companions.

Theatrically, Stoppard is very specific about how he wants the transition between the periods to blend and blur as the show goes on and I would love to see a production to really see how I feel about that, but on paper that almost seems beside the point. The point for me is about the central characters and their pursuit of knowledge – and not just knowledge but discovery.

In the 1800s a young girl named Thomasina (which I  just think is such a Romantic name) learns from her tutor Septimus (which is a ridiculous name of course) enough about geometry that she tries to form a picture of the whole universe with it. The two characters have a delightful rapport, which is a wonderful contrast to the manor house melodrama going on around them.

The modern sections of the play function as a kind of treatise on the nature of scholarship, with its own manor house farce in the background. The three scholars, Bernard, Valentine and Hannah all have lots of, often very wordy, opinions about what makes their own work important or provable (while of course none of it is really provable.) This sounds like it should be dry, but Stoppard is witty enough that their jabs and petty jealousies become sort of fascinating and in the end, all of their work is trivial, but as Hannah sums it up for a despairing Valentine,

“ Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.” 

Which sums it all up really, as all the characters in both times find, there’s no grand answer, but we still have to look.

I want to say more, but it will just be gushing. Will someone in Chicago produce this please? I’m dying to see it on stage.

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