Review of Arcadia
Tom Stoppard is one of Britain’s premier playwrights. His work stands out because of his intellectual and witty style. His most well-known work is perhaps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which the two of us had to read in high school. Together, we decided to embark on Stoppard’s thought-provoking Arcadia.
With a first line like, “What is carnal embrace?”, you know you’re in for something a little different, especially when that question is being asked by a thirteen year-old girl from the nineteenth century. That girl is Lady Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of Sidley Park and without question the most intelligent person in a play full of clever individuals.
One of the stand-out themes in Arcadia is, in fact, knowledge, as well as the acquisition and loss of it. Thomasina mourns to her tutor, Septimus, that the burning of the library of Alexandria is a terrible tragedy . “How can we sleep for grief?” she cries. Septimus scoffs at this. “By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles… You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe […] 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?” Septimus firmly believes that all of time and knowledge is circular. What is lost today will be rediscovered in the future; therefore, nothing is ever truly lost. Humans, for whatever reason, have a knack for trying again and again, and it is this willingness to find things out yet again that makes human life possible. “The procession is very long and life is very short,” Septimus tells Thomasina. “We die on the march.”
Spoiler alert- both Thomasina and Septimus die on the march for knowledge. As mentioned, Thomasina is an incredibly intelligent individual. While not exactly limited to learning tea-serving and practicing curtsies, Thomasina has a natural math ability that is almost unheard of for a girl of her age and in her era. In an old primer, she begins what we would call a proof and she calls a bit of fun. After her untimely death at seventeen, Septimus brings it upon himself to finish the proof, and dies decades later with a cottage stacked full of paper and no answer. Tragically (or not so tragically, as Septimus would argue), when the proof is picked up again by a present-day character, he remarks that even if both individuals had worked long entire lives on the math, they’d never have finished it: ““There wasn’t enough time before. There weren’t enough pencils. This took her I don’t know how many days and she hasn’t scratched the paintwork… Now [they]’d only have to press a button, the same button over and over. Iteration. A few minutes.”
But even with all her cleverness, there are still some things that Thomasina doesn’t get- one of them being carnal acts. Septimus is reluctant to tell her, finally saying that it is the act of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef. But as hesitant as he is to reveal the true answer, he himself has been, er, throwing his arms around many a side of beef around the estate. Sex is just as big a theme as knowledge is, perhaps moreso. At least half of the characters are in pursuit of sex in one form or another, and it’s a highly discussed topic within the text. Bernard, a present-day character, is attracted to Hannah, a scholar who wants nothing of it. Eventually, eighteen year-old Chloe, the present-day lady of the house, wins him over with some not-so-subtle hints; unlike Thomasina, she knows exactly what sex is and how to get it, and brings it up nearly every time she’s onstage.
Even Thomasina, to a point, chases sex. While Septimus is busy having relations with her mother, Thomasina is pining after Septimus. Though she does it innocently at thirteen, when we see her later as an almost-seventeen year-old, she is certainly after physical contact. After being horrified by the actual definition of carnal embrace in the first scene, in her final moments onstage, she and Septimus kiss and she asks him to come up to her room. There can be no mistake of her intentions, and Septimus resists. Lighting a candle so she can find her way up to her room alone in the dark, he reminds her, “Be careful with the flame.” But she is not cautious enough; minutes later, off-stage and off-script, she is burned to death, hours before she turns seventeen, just as her beloved library of Alexandria was. With Septimus lighting the wick of Thomasina’s candle, one can’t help but wonder if it’s symbolic of his reciprocated feelings for her. If so, it might explain why he spends the rest of his life poring over her equation which is itself a study of heat and bodies in space: thermodynamics.
It is a sad fact that Arcadia is not produced often, at least not in the States, and the reason for this might be its large cast. The play could get away with the show being doubled up if it weren’t for the pesky final scene, in which the events of both times periods happen at once, in the same room. This scene is an on-stage representation of what Septimus tells Thomasina, that time is cyclical and knowledge eternal. Though every life in the play is working, however slowly, toward its end, the knowledge that they find will outlast them because it outlasted those before them. The very same cycle that caused such bereavement in Thomasina is, in fact, the thing that keeps every human going.
THOMASINA: Septimus, do you think I will marry Lord Byron?
THOMASINA: Why not?
SEPTIMUS: For one thing, he is not aware of your existence.
CHLOE: The future is all programmed like a computer- that’s a proper theory, isn’t it?
VALENTINE: The deterministic universe, yes […] I mean, you’d need a computer as big as the universe, but the formula would exist.
CHLOE: But it doesn’t work, does it?
VALENTINE: No. it turns out the maths is different.
CHLOE: No, it’s all because of sex.
CHLOE: That’s what I think. The universe is deterministic all right […] I mean, it’s trying to be but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be part of the plan.
THOMASINA: I hate Cleopatra […] Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love- I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex.
THOMASINA: What was incorrect [in my math assignment]? Alpha minus? Pooh! What is the minus for?
SEPTIMUS: For doing more than was asked.
THOMASINA: You did not like my discovery?
SEPTIMUS: A fancy is not a discovery.
THOMASINA: A gibe is not a rebuttal.
HANNAH: You can stop being silly now, Bernard. English landscapes were invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour.