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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1999
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 5. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Character overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 27
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 34



When asked once about the origins of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard replied that he had been reading Chaos, a book about mathematical theory and at the same time wondering about the contrasts between Romanticism and Classicism in style, temperament, and art. Few playwrights find source material in subjects as diverse, and unlikely, as Stoppard and his literary achievements are often considered more amazing for someone who left school at the age of seventeen and never attended a university.

For some, Arcadia represents a pinnacle in Stoppard’s career. After years of writing clever, witty plays with intellectual appeal, he managed to produce one that tugs at the heart as well as the mind. After its Broadway debut, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “There’s no doubt about it. Arcadia is Tom Stoppard’s richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio, and, new for him, emotion.”

Arcadia premiered on the Lyttelton stage of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain on April 13, 1993. It opened on Broadway two years later, March 31, 1995, at the Lincoln Center Theater. Both productions were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by critics and the public alike. In London, the play garnered the prestigious Olivier Award for best play (comparable to Broadway’s Antionette “Tony” Perry Award), while in America Arcadia received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Even the small handful of reviewers who found Page 35  |  Top of Articlefault in Arcadia grudgingly hailed it as Stoppard’s greatest play to date.

As the action bounces back and forth in time, Stoppard explores the nature of truth and history, the conflict between Classical and Romantic thought, mathematics and chaos theory, English landscape architecture, and, ultimately, love both familial and familiar. In the words of Time reviewer Brad Leithauser: “In Arcadia we have been given a major English drama, one of those by which, ultimately, the theater of our time may be evaluated. It is a play that holds up beautifully not only on the stage but on the page.”


Tom Stoppard is regularly cited as one of England’s greatest playwrights, alongside such national treasures as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, John Osborn, David Hare, and Alan Ayckborn. Yet, even among such lauded company, Stoppard’s place is considered unique, for he writes plays, and creates worlds, unlike other dramatists. In a career that has spanned three decades and more than two-dozen plays, Stoppard has consistently made his audiences laugh, cry, and think, all at the same time. In a New Yorker review of Stoppard’s Arcadia, critic John Lahr explained, “The three-ring circus of Stoppard’s mind pulls them in at the box office, where news of the intellect, as opposed to the emotions, is a rarity. . . . Stoppard’s mental acrobatics flatter an audience’s intelligence and camouflage the avowed limits of his plotting and his heart.”

Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, on July 3, 1937. When he was only two, his family moved to the island republic of Singapore. In 1942, when the Japanese invaded, he was evacuated to India with his mother and brother. His father, who remained behind, was killed. In 1946 his mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a British army major, and the family moved to England. Stoppard attended English public school from the age of nine to seventeen, then left to become a journalist. (Later reviewers suggest that his lack of a complete formal education may be the greatest asset to his work—it is often held that his lack of knowledge in areas such as history and formal literary structure allow his plays to be freewheeling dramatic escapades.) He wrote for a couple newspapers during the next few years, eventually specializing in theatre and film. His first work as a dramatist was on

Tom Stoppard Tom Stoppard

radio; he had two fifteen-minute radio plays broadcast on the BBC in 1964, The Dissolution of Dominic Boot and “M” Is for Moon among Other Things.

After only a couple minor productions of his first stage plays were performed in 1965-66, Stoppard became a sort of overnight sensation in 1967 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a seriocomic absurdist farce about two minor courtiers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play was given a major staging by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and has been playing on stages around the world ever since. In many ways, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern set the standard by which Stoppard’s future work would be judged. By most critics’ estimation, it contains all of the hallmarks of a “Stoppard play.” It is intelligent and fiercely philosophical, yet at the same time witty, sometimes physically farcical, and it often appears to not take itself too seriously.

These same qualities are found in other Stoppard successes, such as The Real Inspector Hound (1968), in which two theatre critics are murdered on stage by characters in the play they are watching; Jumpers (1972), a farcical parody of modern philosophy; and Travesties (1974), a fantasy play that imagines the results if communist forefather Vladimir Lenin, author James Joyce, and Dadaist founder Tristan Page 36  |  Top of ArticleTzara all lived together in Zurich during World War I. In all these plays, Stoppard examines similar themes: the relationship of art to life, the frustrating quest for knowledge and ultimate truth, and the fragile bonds formed between all sorts of human beings. They are the same ideas that are brought to fruition in his 1994 work, Arcadia. With the debut of this play, many critics heralded Stoppard as one of the most influential and revered playwrights of the twentieth century.


Act I, scene 1

The action begins in April, 1809. The setting is Sidley Park, the Derbyshire, England, estate of the Coverly family. Thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly is studying with her tutor, the young Septimus Hodge, in a large room facing a garden. Thomasina is exceptionally intelligent for her age, and her current project is a search for proof of Fermat’s last theorem, an algebraic conundrum that has perplexed mathematicians since the seventeenth century. Meanwhile, Septimus is reading “The Couch of Eros,” a particularly horrible poem written by one of the manor’s current guests, Ezra Chater.

Thomasina has an insatiable curiosity, and her main interest for the day, other than her math lesson, is in a phrase she overheard: “carnal embrace.” Septimus comically tries to spare his young pupil the adult explanation and convince her that it simply means “hugging a side of beef,” but Thomasina is not fooled. She overheard some of the house staff talking about Mrs. Chater, who was discovered in “carnal embrace” in the gazebo. Septimus relents and explains the alternate meaning of the phrase (“sexual congress”); he does not admit, however, that he was the culprit embracing Mrs. Chater in the garden.

As the two resume their studies, Jellaby, the manor’s butler, delivers a note from Mr. Chater, calling upon Septimus to meet him immediately to fight a duel over the honor of his wife. Septimus slips Mr. Chater’s invitation into the pages of “The Couch of Eros” and returns a message suggesting he will be available later that day, after his lesson with Thomasina. Undeterred, the enraged Chater bursts in, demanding satisfaction.

Chater is boisterous, passionate, and vain but not very bright. Septimus sends Thomasina from the room, then disarms the cuckholded husband by flattering his poetry and praising his wife. He admits making love to the woman but convinces Chater that she did it out of loyalty, in order to persuade Septimus to write a glowing review of her husband’s poetry. Septimus lavishes compliments on Chater’s writing and promises to publish a review that will make him one of England’s most prized poets—though not if he is forced to kill him in a duel. Chater is fooled—and so excited at his good fortune that he inscribes Septimus’s copy of his book with the words, “To my friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the Author—Ezra Chater, at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, April 10th, 1809.” (Chater’s note between the pages of the book, and his inscription inside the cover, become important clues in the mystery that unfolds later in the play.)

As the two men settle their compact, other members of the household burst into the room, arguing loudly. Lady Croom and her brother, Captain Brice, are protesting the plans of Richard Noakes, a landscape architect who Lord Croom has hired to refashion the grounds of Sidley Park. Noakes has assembled a series of watercolor paintings that depict the gardens of the country house “before” and “after” his recommended treatment. At the moment the gardens are a vision of classical splendor—trees neatly and symmetrically grouped on the hillside and a lake surrounded by meadows “on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged.” Noakes’s new design transforms Sidley Park into a Gothic wilderness—the Romantic style of the era—complete with gloomy forests, artificial ruins, rampant briars, and a rustic hermitage. Lady Croom and Captain Brice are mortified but young Thomasina, who heard the commotion and returned to the room, judges Noakes’s scheme perfect.

The sound of gunfire is heard outside, where the poet Lord Byron is hunting with Lord Croom and his young son, Augustus Coverly. The group marches out of the room to meet the hunters and continue debating the transformation of the Croom estate, leaving Septimus and Thomasina alone again. Innocently, she draws a picture of a hermit in Noakes’s hermitage and hands Septimus a note from Mrs. Chater, which he reads then inserts into the pages of “The Couch of Eros.” (Both the drawing and the note also become essential clues later in the play.)

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Act I, scene 2

The next scene takes place nearly two centuries later, at the present day Sidley Park. The room remains the same but its inhabitants change. Hannah Jarvis, an author in her late thirties, is visiting the estate, which still belongs to the Croom family. She has written one bestselling book already and is conducting research for her next work, which she thinks will focus on the breakdown of the Romantic Imagination in the early-nineteenth century.

Hannah’s hosts are the current children of the Croom family, who wander in and out of the room throughout the scene, preparing the house for a big costume garden party. The children are Valentine Coverly, an Oxford postgraduate student conducting mathematical research on the number of grouse reported killed in the family’s game books over the years; Chloe Coverly, the Crooms’ eighteen-year-old daughter; and Gus Coverly, the fifteen-year-old, apparently mute, youngest son.

The mysteries which are at the root of Arcadia’s, plot develop with the arrival of Bernard Nightingale, a Sussex professor who has come seeking information about Lord Byron. Bernard has stumbled across Septimus’s copy of “The Couch of Eros” and discovered the notes and inscription inside. Because the book was found in Byron’s personal library, Bernard has taken a few creative—and erroneous—mental leaps. He has developed the theory that Lord Byron, who was visiting the Croom estate at the same time as Chater in 1809, killed the hapless would-be poet in a duel and fled the country. A mistake of sorts is also at the root of Hannah’s work. Finding Thomasina’s drawing of the “hermit” in Noakes’s landscape sketches, Hannah assumed the figure was a real person, who died on the estate in 1834. She is making the “Sidley hermit” the metaphorical centerpiece for her book about the decline of Romanticism in England.

Hannah and Bernard get off to a rocky start when she discovers that the pompous professor is actually the same man who wrote an insulting review of her first book. Two heads appear better than one, however, as they each have information to offer that helps them piece together the clues of their separate puzzles. They declare a truce and spend the day ransacking the estate’s library for proof of their theories. At the same time, Chloe expresses an interest in Bernard and tells Hannah she plans to ask him to the party that evening; and young Gus seems to have developed a similar crush on Hannah. At the end of the scene, the silent boy presents her with an apple, freshly picked from the orchard.

Act I, scene 3

The scene changes to the past. It is 1809 once more, a day after the previous skirmish between Septimus and Chater. Thomasina is once again studying in the great garden room, attempting to translate a poem from Latin into English. Septimus is writing his review of Chater’s “Couch of Eros.” Again Jellaby delivers a note from Chater, which Septimus chooses to ignore. Thomasina reveals that her mother, Lady Croom, is angry with Lord Croom for allowing Noakes to destroy the garden and has become interested in their houseguest, Lord Byron.

Thomasina continues to insist, over Septimus’s objections, that the universe can be reduced to a mathematical formula. In order to prove it, she offers to plot the leaf off an apple (the same piece of fruit, left on the set from the previous scene, that Gus gave to Hannah) and deduce its equation.

Chater storms in with Captain Brice, once again demanding a duel with Septimus. He has heard about Septimus’s scathing review of his previous work, “The Maid of Turkey,” and is convinced the tutor means to insult him again when he writes about his new book. Before the men can take steps to settle the matter, Lady Croom appears and borrows Septimus’s copy of “The Couch of Eros” to give to Lord Byron. Byron wishes to satirize Chater and his awful poetry in the next edition of his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. (An important plot development: This is how Chafer’s book ends up in Byron’s library for Bernard to find generations later.) Lady Croom remarks with some concern that Byron intends to leave Sidley Park and go adventuring through Europe, right in the middle of the Napoleonic wars.

Lady Croom rushes off with “The Couch of Eros,” leaving the quarrelsome men alone again. This time Septimus agrees to duel. He will meet Chater behind the boathouse at five o’clock the next morning, followed by Chater’s subsequent duel with Captain Brice five minutes later (the naval officer has also been dallying with Mrs. Chater). Afterward, Hodge rails angrily: he will leave the country, Byron can remain behind to tutor Thomasina, and everybody will be happy.

Act I, scene 4

Present day Sidley Park: Hannah and Valentine are poring over books in the garden room. Hannah is Page 38  |  Top of Articleexamining Septimus’s math primer, while Valentine leafs through Thomasina’s lesson book. They have discovered a note Thomasina wrote in the margin of the primer, similar to Fermat’s last theorem, that suggests her intent to explain nature through numbers. The graphs in her lesson book, Valentine explains, are primitive iterated algorithms, created using the same mathematical theory Valentine is applying to his study of the grouse population in the game books. He is surprised by the find, since iterated algorithms weren’t widely known until computers made them practical, late in the twentieth century.

Bernard sputters into the room, excited about a recent find. He has discovered a copy of Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers with a penciled inscription insulting Chater’s poetry. To Bernard, this is proof positive that Byron killed Chater. Hannah adds fuel to the fire by telling him about a discovery of her own. She ran across a letter from Lady Croom to her husband that describes the marriage of Captain Brice to Mrs. Chater, again suggesting that Mr. Chater had been recently killed. More crucial, if misleading, information comes from Valentine, who affirms that Lord Byron was indeed a guest at Sidley Park; the game books he has been studying record that Byron shot a hare there in 1809.

Bernard rushes off in search of the records, while Valentine leads Hannah to a new revelation in her own work. He notes that it would take innumerable pencils, stacks of paper, and years and years of concentrated time for someone to complete the iterated algorithm that was started in Thomasina’s lesson book. To do so, Valentine wryly remarks, someone would have to be insane. Hannah’s thoughtful look suggests she is putting some new pieces together—linking the Sidley hermit to Thomasina’s discovery.

Act II, scene 5

Bernard’s theory about Lord Byron has rocketed from speculation to spectacular find in a single afternoon. Armed with the “facts” he has been provided by Hannah, Valentine, and the books in the Coverlys’ library, he has already prepared a lecture he plans to read at the Byron Society, prior to publishing his version of history in pursuit of wealth and academic fame. He reads the lecture to the smitten Chloe, who listens adoringly; to Valentine, who listens semi-attentively while feeding his turtle; and to Hannah, who punctuates his address with continuous objections to his findings. In the end, she warns him, “You’ll end up with so much fame you won’t leave the house without a paper bag over your head.”

In the course of arguing about his research, Bernard manages to offend everyone in the house except Hannah, who knows his insults and intellectual bullying are only tools of rhetoric—he uses them to win points, not to seriously hurt people. Bernard packs up his research and heads off to town in a cab, promising to return that evening to accompany Chloe to the costume party. On his way out he drops another piece of Hannah’s puzzle in her hands: a small book, written in 1832, that describes the hermit of Sidley Park and his pet tortoise, Plautus. She adds this to a letter she found, announcing the death of the hermit at the age of twenty-seven, and is more convinced than ever that the hermit and Septimus Hodge are one and the same, but she has yet to find the final clue that will prove it.

Act II, scene 6

The briefest scene of the play describes how the events of 1809 came to a climax in the middle of the night at Sidley Park. It is early in the morning, just before dawn, and Septimus returns from the boat-house, where he was supposed to have dueled Chater but instead shot only a rabbit. He is met by Jellaby, who explains that Mrs. Chater was caught leaving Byron’s room the night before, and in the tumult that followed, Captain Brice, the Chaters, and Lord Byron all left the estate. Lady Croom interrupts the gossip, sending Jellaby off to work. She is infuriated at Septimus for leaving behind two letters to be read in the event of his death. One was a love letter, addressed to her, the other a note of encouragement from teacher to student, addressed to Thomasina.

It turns out that Septimus’s real passion all along has been for Lady Croom—Mrs. Chater was merely a diversion. For her part, the Lady has always been fond of Septimus and merely toyed with Lord Byron. She reveals that her brother, Captain Brice, has enlisted the help of Mr. Chater to serve as an amateur botanist on an expedition to the Indies. His ulterior motive, of course, is to be near Mrs. Chater. Septimus and Lady Croom agree to put the events of the past few days behind them. To please her, Septimus even burns a letter he received from Lord Byron without reading it. Grateful for his discretion, Lady Croom invites Septimus to come to her room later that morning. When she is gone, the Page 39  |  Top of Articleyoung tutor burns the two letters he wrote as well, leaving no clues for future detectives like Bernard and Hannah.

Act II, scene 7

The final scene of the play combines the past and present on stage at the same time. In the present, it is the night of the costume garden party, hosted by the Coverlys. Chloe, Valentine, and Gus are all dressed in Regency clothes, typical of Byron’s era. Bernard’s “discovery” has landed him in all the newspapers, while Hannah still struggles with her hermit. Valentine has fed Thomasina’s equations into a computer, taken them a few million steps further than she was able, and produced beautiful pictures out of simple numbers. While looking over Valentine’s shoulder at his computer-generated model, Hannah reveals the most startling surprise of the play: Thomasina died in a fire at Sidley Park the night before her seventeenth birthday.

While Valentine and Hannah continue their work in silence, Thomasina and her little brother, Augustus, run onstage. A few years have elapsed in the nineteenth century setting. It is now 1812, and Thomasina is sixteen and nearing her birthday. Septimus joins the children for the daily lesson, which Augustus chooses to abandon. Left alone, Thomasina insists that Septimus should make good on his promise to teach her how to waltz. The piano has been playing in the next room throughout the scene. At the keys (though unseen) is Count Zelinsky, Lady Croom’s new piano tuner and, apparently, her new lover. When she whisks into the room Septimus treats her coldly. She ignores his jealousy and remarks on her new dahlias, which Captain Brice recently brought back from his expedition to the Indies, where Mr. Chater died of a monkey bite and Mrs. Chater subsequently became Mrs. Brice.

Switching to present-day action, Bernard appears for his date with Chloe and is hounded immediately by Hannah, who has found the last, and fatal, piece of his puzzle. In one of Lady Croom’s garden books, Hannah ran across an entry describing the dahlias and Chater’s unfortunate accident in the Indies. Since he was killed picking flowers by a monkey, he obviously could not have been killed in a duel by Lord Byron. Bernard finally realizes he should not have rushed to judgment and that his newfound fame will soon be over when Hannah reports her find in the press. Life, for the moment, goes on, and Chloe assembles a costume for Bernard to wear to the party.

A few hours pass and it is evening. In the offstage room, the Count is playing piano for Lady Croom. Septimus is studying Thomasina’s work when she appears in her nightgown for her waltzing lesson. The work she has drawn in her lesson book, it turns out, is a diagram of heat exchange. It suggests what hadn’t been discovered yet by scientists: that heat could not work backwards. The second law of thermodynamics, as described by Thomasina, meant the universe must someday wind down, grow cold, and die. Disturbed by the implications, Septimus takes his young pupil in his arms and begins to dance.

While Septimus and Thomasina waltz, and stop to kiss, the action in the present day continues around them. Bernard suddenly rushes in, adjusting his clothes, followed by Chloe. They explain to Valentine and Hannah that Chloe’s mother caught them together in the hermitage. A little embarrassed but not very repentant, Bernard dresses himself and prepares his escape, leaving a crestfallen Chloe behind. On his way out the door Hannah tells him she thinks she knows who the hermit of Sidley Park was but still lacks proof. Still his impetuous self, Bernard advises her: “Publish!”

Septimus and Thomasina stop their dancing. He returns her lesson, lights her candle, and tells her she should go off to bed, being careful of the candle’s flame. Too in love to leave, she asks for another dance. As they twirl around again, Gus enters with a folio for Hannah. It contains a drawing of Septimus and Plautus, the final piece of her puzzle, linking the tutor to the hermitage. In a gesture of gratitude, she dances, awkwardly, with Gus. The final haunting image of the play is of the past and present dancing together.


Captain Edward Brice

Captain Brice is the bold and blustery brother of Lady Croom. He is not as refined or witty as his sister, but he can be equally as stubborn. When on duty, he serves in the British Royal Navy. While off duty, he has been staying at Sidley Park with his sister and pursuing Mrs. Chater, the wife of Ezra Chater. Because Mr. Chater is even less perceptive than he is, Captain Brice has been able to conduct his love affair with Mrs. Chater right under the poor man’s nose. At one point, faced with the possibility that Septimus Hodge might be dallying with Mrs. Chater Page 40  |  Top of Articleas well, Captain Brice offers to stand up for Mr. Chater in a duel for her honor. The twice cuckolded Chater never realizes he is caught between two of his wife’s lovers. When the Chaters are finally thrown off the property for their scandalous behavior, Captain Brice offers Mr. Chater a job as a botanist on an expedition he is leading to the Indies. Once there, the hapless Mr. Chater dies from a monkey bite, and Captain Brice finally gets to marry the object of his affection.

Ezra Chater

Ezra Chater is one of the play’s greatest fools and one of literature’s biggest cuckolds. He is quick-tempered, slow-witted, vain, and married to a woman who cannot stay faithful. He ended up at Sidley Park as the guest of Captain Brice who, in amorous pursuit of the lusty Mrs. Chater, flattered his poetry and paid fifty pounds to have him published. Chater views Brice as his doting patron, and Brice views Chater as a nit-wit.

When Chater hears that Septimus Hodge, the estate’s tutor, has been seen in “carnal embrace” with his wife, he quickly challenges Septimus to a duel. He changes his mind, however, when Septimus falsely praises his poetry and offers to write a glowing review in a London periodical. Later he discovers he has been fooled again, and reissues his challenge. He is prepared to meet Septimus behind the Coverly’s boathouse at dawn, but is rushed off the property in the middle of the night when his wife is caught with yet another man, the rakish poet, Lord Byron. Sometime later, while accompanying his wife and Captain Brice on a voyage to the Indies, Chater is bitten by a monkey and dies abroad. Hardly pausing a day to mourn, the widowed Mrs. Chater marries Captain Brice.

Augustus Coverly

Augustus Coverly is seen only briefly, near the end of the play. He is Thomasina’s younger brother, fifteen years old in 1812, and a student at Eton. The first time he appears he is taunting his sister and is rude to Septimus. He returns briefly, however, penitent and hoping the tutor will have a brotherly talk with him about sex.

Chloe Coverly

Chloe Coverly is the daughter of the modern day Croom family at Sidley Park. She is eighteen, extremely impressionable, and immediately falls for Bernard’s flamboyant appearance and insistent intelligence. Though not as academically inclined as her older brother, Valentine, or as intuitively gifted as her younger brother, Gus, she manages to supply one of the play’s more interesting ideas. While everyone seems determined to find sense, some kind of ordering theory, in chaos, Chloe suggests that sex is the wrench in the works. “The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be,” Chloe claims, “but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.” The human element, as unpredictable as anything chaos could muster, is what the others weren’t considering. In the end, Chloe is caught up in the chaos, when her mother finds her in “carnal embrace” with Bernard at the family garden party.

Gus Coverly

At fifteen, Gus is the youngest of the modern Coverly children, the descendants of Thomasina and Augustus Coverly. He is an autistic and mute, given to shyness with unpredictable spurts of sociability. Valentine, his brother, tells Hannah that Gus spoke until he was five, then he mysteriously went silent. The modern day Lady Croom (unseen in the play) believes he is a genius. After spending months, and hiring experts, to help her find the foundations of an old boathouse on her property, Gus led her right to it. The enigmatic boy seems to function as some kind of symbol in the play, perhaps as a representative of intuition over reason. Near the end, it is Gus who provides Hannah with the final clue she needs to solve the puzzle she has been working on: a sketch of Septimus holding Plautus the tortoise.

Thomasina Coverly

The progress Thomasina Coverly makes in Arcadia is from precocious to poignant. She begins the play as the nearly fourteen-year-old daughter of Lord and Lady Croom, owners of Sidley Park. Young as she is though, Thomasina knows—and guesses at—truths far beyond her years. While studying her mathematics, she asks her tutor, Septimus Hodge, with mock innocence, “What is carnal embrace?” She is undeterred when he tells her it is “the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef,” and proceeds to relay a story she heard about one of the house guests caught in carnal embrace in the gazebo. Sometimes she is childlike and impish, while at other times her deadly seriousness is disarming.

In many ways, Thomasina is the central character of Arcadia. She searches for truths, in people, in Page 41  |  Top of Articlemathematics, and in poetry, and her ideas send the other characters scurrying for answers—or scratching their heads. Her genius is intuitive. She struggles to learn things, such as Latin, by rote, but she can perceive things and draw conclusions that others cannot. For example, she realizes while eating her rice pudding that the jam can be stirred outward and into the pudding, “making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas.” But, she notes, you cannot stir backward and bring the jam together again. From this experiment, Thomasina concludes that if every atom in the universe could be momentarily stopped in its place and examined, a brilliant mathematician could write a formula for all the future, just by predicting the motion of matter.

Thomasina spends much of the play trying to prove her theory to Septimus, who simply tries to keep up with his young protege and continually challenge her with new ideas. It is not until three years later, during the final scene of the play, that Septimus finally begins to understand what his student has stumbled upon. In trying to explain chaos and thermodynamics, Thomasina has produced a theory that suggests the universe is spiraling outward, cooling off, and will someday grow cold and die. By this time, teacher and student have begun to develop a physical relationship. In the play’s haunting final moments, they dance and kiss, just hours before Thomasina’s seventeenth birthday, when she is destined to die in a fire in her bedroom.

Valentine Coverly

The oldest of the modern Coverly children, Valentine is a postgraduate student at Oxford, studying biology, mathematics, and, recently, chaos theory. Although he is capable of some dry humor (he jokes, for example, that Hannah is his fiance, and he takes his pet turtle “Lightning” out for a “run”), Valentine is mainly a serious-minded, analytical individual. He draws his inspiration from the wonders of science, and finds Bernard’s pursuit of Lord Byron’s history “trivial,” because, he says, personalities don’t matter, it’s the knowledge they produce that is important.

While Hannah tries to find a reason for the collapse of Romanticism as well as a connection to the Sidley Park hermit, and Bernard flails about, grasping at straws to support his wild theories about Lord Byron’s escape from England, Valentine occupies himself with cold, clear, calculated statistics—his family’s game books. The books are a centuries-old record of all the animals that have been hunted and killed on the estate, and Valentine is analyzing the data to find a pattern for the life cycles of grouse in the area. A formula describing the cycles, he explains, must exist, and it would create some order out of chaos. Like Hannah, Valentine gets caught up in the research Thomasina was conducting in the house two centuries before, though he initially cannot believe she knew what she was doing, since science had yet to discover the theories she put forth. “There’s an order things happen in,” he insists, “You can’t open a door till there’s a house.” In the end, though, his scientist’s resolve is shaken, and he recognizes Thomasina’s ideas for genius—and the consequences her ideas have for the rest of the universe.

Lady Croom

Lady Croom is the archly witty resident aristocrat of Sidley Park in the 1809 scenes. Highborn and highbred, she still manages to misquote the painter Nicolas Poussin, insult all her guests, and stoop as low as any other character in the play to satisfy her desires—mostly with any man willing to dally in her dressing room. Lady Croom’s principal objective in the play is to prevent Richard Noakes from ruining the countryside around her home with Lord Croom’s vision of a Romantic wilderness. She is happy with the current arrangement, which includes trees neatly grouped on the hillside and a winding creek flowing from an artificial lake in the middle of neatly trimmed meadows with just the right amount of sheep “tastefully arranged.” In short, she says, “It is nature as God intended.” As her view of nature demonstrates, she is often unaware of contradicting herself, despite her cleverness in conversation and incisive wit.

Lady Croom’s other objective seems to be casual affairs. In the course of the play she manages to find her name connected with no fewer than three of her guests—Lord Byron, the poet; Septimus Hodge, her daughter’s tutor; and Count Zelinsky, an expatriate Polish aristocrat hired as Sidley Park’s piano tuner. Septimus seems to take his relationship with Lady Croom seriously, for he wrote her a love letter, to be opened in the event of his death, before going off to duel with Chater and Captain Brice. Like others before him, however, he is abandoned when the Lady’s affection turns toward Count Zelinsky at the end of the play.

Septimus Hodge

After studying mathematics and natural philosophy at Cambridge, where Lord Byron was one Page 42  |  Top of Articleof his classmates, Septimus Hodge came to Sidley Park to work as the tutor for the Croom family’s daughter, Thomasina Coverly. Septimus is young, intelligent, clever, and apparently attractive. He begins the play aged twenty-two. His brief encounter with Mrs. Chater in the estate’s gazebo is choice gossip among the servants, and he is conducting an ongoing affair with Lady Croom, his protege’s mother.

For Septimus, the passions of the flesh compete with the quest for knowledge as his most important defining characteristics in the play. His first responsibility is to Thomasina, who is an exceptionally gifted student, and it often takes all his resources to keep up with her questions and ideas. While studying mathematics and trying to find proof for Fermat’s last theorem, for example, Thomasina wonders about the meaning of “carnal embrace.” Septimus cleverly dodges the uncomfortable question by providing a technically true, if somewhat misleading, answer. “Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef,” he tells his mischievous charge. Septimus’s ability to think quickly on his feet gets him out of a few scrapes in the play. When confronted by Ezra Chater, the husband of the woman he was found embracing in the gazebo, he admits to his indiscretion but turns Chater’s vanity against him. In exchange for avoiding a duel over Mrs. Chater, whose reputation, Septimus claims, “could not be adequately defended by a platoon of musketry deployed by rota,” the young tutor offers to publish a glowing review of Mr. Chater’s book of poetry, “The Couch of Eros,” which Septimus actually hates.

Like Valentine in the modern scenes, Septimus is initially skeptical of Thomasina’s attempts to create order out of chaos in the universe through a simple mathematical theory. He doesn’t doubt her creativity or intelligence, but he is more comfortable when she sticks to traditional lessons from her books. Though he doesn’t immediately recognize it in Thomasina, Septimus does believe genius exists. To him, it is a property shared by humanity across the ages, and great ideas are part of the continuum of life. “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece or be written again in another language,” he reassures Thomasina. “Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” In the end, he realizes Thomasina is right, and her theory suggests the eventual end of the universe. What he mourns, however, is not the end of life but the loss of innocence. “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore,” he laments before joining Thomasina in her first, and last, waltz.

Hannah Jarvis

Hannah Jarvis is a cool, capable, and seemingly impenetrable historian who has been invited to Sidley Park by the current Lady Croom to research landscape changes on the estate over the past two centuries. Her specialty area of study is landscape and literature between 1750 and 1834, and she has already written Caro, a best-selling book about Lord Byron. Because she is not an academic, but an actual field researcher and writer, her success has infuriated professors and would-be literary pundits around England. Now she is on to something new. While rooting around the libraries and landscape of the Croom estate she has discovered a new topic, a sort of mystery, to work on. She is trying to find clues about the Sidley hermit, who she calls “my peg for the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination.”

Hannah’s search intensifies when she is joined by an unlikely ally—Bernard Nightingale, a snooty college don who published a scathing review of her last book and has turned up looking for clues to a Lord Byron scandal. Though they seem to be opposite personalities, and quarrel continuously, Hannah and Bernard manage to help one another find pieces to their respective puzzles. One of the biggest differences between them, however, is a proper respect for the process of research and the reporting of history. While Bernard is prepared to rush off to press with his story without all the necessary information, Hannah bides her time, looking for more and more information that will link a small sketch of a hermit found in one of Lady Croom’s garden books to Septimus Hodge, author, tutor and, in Hannah’s mind, a symbol of the descent of Romanticism into the age of scientific reason.


Jellaby is the butler at Sidley Park in the 1809 scenes. He says little, and his principal part in the play is delivering various notes between Ezra Chater, Septimus, and Mrs. Chater. At one point, Septimus bribes Jellaby into telling him about the events of the previous night, when Mrs. Chater was caught leaving Lord Byron’s room and everyone was ushered off the property.

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Bernard Nightingale

In his New Yorker review, critic John Lahr called Bernard Nightingale “a whirlwind of spurious intellectual connections” and “a literary climber of the first order.” Other reviewers have called him greedy, self-centered, and a loose cannon. He is all these and more. Bernard is a professor at Sussex University, though his real passion lies in publishing, not in the classroom. When asked if teaching shouldn’t be the first priority for a professor he snidely retorts, “Good God, no, let the brats sort it out for themselves.”

In a way, Bernard is a satirical portrait of the worst kind of scholar academia has to offer. He is an irresponsible intellectual snob who is willing to string together scattered clues on the tiniest shreds of evidence in order to produce grand theories that will make him famous and his colleagues jealous. What’s worse, he dresses the part. Bernard appears at Sidley Park wearing the typical garb of a Sussex don—suit, tie, and large leather satchel—along with some flamboyant touches of his own, like a peacock-colored display handkerchief bursting out of his jacket pocket.

He has come to assemble evidence for his most recent ambitious theory: a connection between the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron and one of the guests at Sidley Park in 1809. He manages to enlist the help of Hannah Jarvis, a writer who is also studying the history of the estate, and the manor’s current occupants, descendants of Thomasina Coverly. One of these, eighteen-year-old Chloe Coverly, he finds time to seduce along the way. Together, they find a series of clues that may or may not support Bernard’s idea that Byron shot and killed a shoddy poet in a duel at Sidley Park in 1809, then fled the country for two years. Heedless of Hannah’s warning that he doesn’t have enough proof yet to take his findings public, Bernard presents a lecture for the Byron Society and even appears on a morning talk show. Immediately afterward, Hannah finds another clue that proves him wrong, and his dreams of lifelong academic fame disappear—for the moment.

Richard Noakes

The part Richard Noakes plays in the plot of Arcadia is quite small, only a few lines, yet his presence embodies the Romantic sentiment of his age. He is a landscape architect, hired by Lord Croom to transform the grounds at Sidley Park from their current state, an orderly pastoral paradise in the style of Capability Brown, into a chaotic, Gothic wilderness, in the picturesque fashion of Salvator Rosa, a popular Romantic painter. While the unseen Lord Croom seemingly supports Noakes and his designs for unkempt, “natural” surroundings, the rest of the household is barely civil toward him. Lady Croom continually hounds him, complaining of the noise his new steam engine makes and insulting his design ideas, and Septimus refers to him as the Devil, sniping, “In the scheme of the garden he is as the serpent.”


Enlightenment vs. Romanticism

By setting much of Arcadia in 1809, Stoppard pits two opposing historical epochs against each other: Enlightenment and Romanticism. The eighteenth century age of Enlightenment stressed orderly, rational thought, and conformity to accepted rules and forms, and looked to the Classical Greeks and Romans as models of simplicity, proportion, and restrained emotion in culture, art, and literature. Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was a deliberate revolt against Enlightenment ideals. Romantic philosophers and artists experimented with literary forms and stressed individuality, freedom, and the wildness of nature in their work.

The characters in Arcadia, in both the past and present scenes, represent both kinds of thought. Lady Croom wants to preserve her classically-inspired gardens where, “The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged.” Her adversary in taste is the landscape architect Richard Noakes (hired by the unseen Lord Croom), who is prepared to tear down the neatly manicured shrubbery and carefully groomed hillsides and convert Sidley Park into a Gothic wilderness, complete with a waterfall, gloomy forest, and picturesque hermitage. He defends himself, saying simply, “It is the modern style.”

The battle fought between Lady Croom and Noakes over the condition of Sidley Park’s gardens is reflected in some of the play’s less tangible ideas as well. In the contemporary scenes, Bernard Nightingale and Valentine Coverly line up on each side of

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  • Like many playwrights who write about ideas, Stoppard relies on symbolism to convey deeper levels of meaning. In Arcadia, one of the more important symbols is the landscape of Sidley Park, which undergoes several changes in the course of the play and is talked about by all the characters, past and present. Examine the ways the landscape at Sidley Park is viewed by the people who stay there and explain how it becomes an important symbol in the play.
  • One of the principal themes in Arcadia is a collision between passion and reason, the heart and the head. The Romantic movement of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries influenced all of Europe. Explore Romanticism by investigating some of the great Romantic literary figures of the age like Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and Victor Hugo. What are some of the great Romantic works of literature written by these artists? What is the Romantic view of the world? How do these Romantic artists express this view in their work?
  • Very few plays rely on mathematics and scientific theory as essential plot elements, yet they are essential to Arcadia. Investigate the most important scientific theories of the play: Fermat’s Last Theorem, Chaos Theory, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (brief information about each is available in most encyclopedias). What do each of these theories suggest? How or why is each theory symbolically important to the events, characters, and themes of Arcadia?
  • In Arcadia, Stoppard uses a technique known as juxtaposition to place characters and thoughts next to each other for the audience to compare and contrast. This happens each time the scene changes from the historical past to the contemporary present. It seems there are characters in Sidley Park’s past (the 1809-12 scenes) who have counterparts in the modern scenes. They may share personality traits, express similar ideas, or share the same interests. Who do you suppose is Septimus’s counterpart in modern day Sidley Park? How about Ezra Chater’s? Does anyone in the present come close to resembling Thomasina and her powers of intuition? Compare two or three sets of character counterparts and explain how the juxtaposition of these characters helps your understanding of the play.

the debate between intellect and emotion. Bernard is acting on instinct and emotion, pursuing the unlikely theory that Lord Byron left England in 1809 because he killed a minor poet in a duel. He persists in his notion, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, because of “Gut instinct. The part of you which doesn’t reason. The certainty for which there is no back-reference.”

Valentine, on the other hand, is a graduate student at Oxford, studying chaos theory, and trying to find a pattern in the rise and fall of numbers in his family’s centuries-old hunting books. To him, Bernard’s interests are trivial. “The questions you’re asking don’t matter, you see,” he tells the arrogant professor, “It’s like arguing who got there first with the calculus. The English say Newton, the Germans say Leibnitz. But it doesn’t matter. Personalities. What matters is the calculus. Scientific progress. Knowledge.”

In the end, each combatant learns a lesson about the other’s viewpoint. Bernard rushes ahead to publish and promote his theory before learning all the facts and is publicly embarrassed to discover he was completely wrong. A little more analysis and a little less gut instinct would have served him well. For his part, Valentine must admit to the existence of genius, a human impulse that surpasses science, when he works his way through Thomasina’s lesson book and finds she perceived a theory for chaos long before scientists knew one existed.

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A genius is someone with natural talents, possessing exceptional intelligence or creative ability. Their powers of perception may be broad and encompass many areas of study and craft, or they may be gifted in a very particular area, such as writing, math, or communications. A couple characters in Arcadia are referred to as geniuses while others are trying desperately to gain that status. Others doubt the existence of genius in the same way they don’t believe in fate or God.

Thomasina Coverly is probably a genius. At thirteen, she is seeking proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem and trying to devise a numeric formula that will describe the shape of a leaf. She perceives things others do not and can match wits with anyone at Sidley Park. When she asks Septimus, her tutor, if she is more clever than her elders, he admits: “Yes. Much.” For his part, Septimus believes genius is a primal ability, existing somewhere in all human beings of every age. When Thomasina laments the loss of the historic library at Alexandria, Septimus reassures her, “You should no more grieve for the rest [of the lost Greek tragedies] than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.” Lost plays, mathematical theories, and creative inventions will all be discovered again by geniuses of the future, who will appear, Septimus believes.

Thomasina’s counterpart in the present day is Gus Coverly. Like the ancient prophets, ironically struck blind by the gods in order to “see” the future, fifteen-year old Gus is a genius who can’t speak and shies away from most human contact. The nature of his ability is not as apparent as Thomasina’s, though he is described as someone with great powers of intuition, capable of guessing the needs of others. He found the ruined foundations of the estate’s boathouse for his mother, after experts spent months searching; and he provides Hannah with her most important clue: a sketch of Septimus Hodge, the Sidley Park hermit, and his pet tortoise, Plautus.

Valentine doubts the nature of genius when it reaches beyond what he feels are ordinary limitations. After studying Thomasina’s lesson books with Hannah and considering the stacks of algebraic illustrations left behind by the Sidley Park hermit, he still can’t bring himself to believe someone could have imagined such a theory years before the existence of calculators. “There’s an order things happen in,” he insists, “You can’t open the door until there’s a house.” Hannah has a unique definition for genius. To her, genius can be found not only in extraordinary abilities but in the rigorous pursuit of knowledge. “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” she stresses to Valentine, “Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.”



While Arcadia is set in only a single location, a large room in the Sidley Park manor, the action of the play occurs in two very different time periods: 1809-1812 and the present day. Setting the play in both eras allows Stoppard to use a literary device known as juxtaposition to cleverly compare and contrast characters and ideas. Juxtaposition occurs when two things are placed side by side, or on top of one another, and their dominant qualities are compared.

In Arcadia, pairs of characters are sometimes juxtaposed and compared this way. For example, Ezra Chater is a vain, would-be poet, given to fits of overreaction. In some ways, he finds his counterpart in Bernard Nightingale, the flashy, blustery Sussex don who, though he is vastly more intelligent than Chater, is still easily led astray by his pride and search for glory.

The continuation of ideas through both time periods is another effective use of juxtaposition in the play. By experimenting with primitive chaos theory, Thomasina seems to be following a natural human tendency to try to explain and bring order to her world. Though she dies before completing her work, her experiments are picked up in the present by Valentine Coverly, who feeds them into a computer and takes them leagues further than the young Thomasina could ever have done with pencil and paper. In the process, he learns a lesson about present human condition from the past.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of juxtaposition in Arcadia is the dramatic irony it provides the audience, who are allowed the omnipotent ability to see events of the past take place and then watch characters in the present attempt to reconstruct them. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience of a

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Scene from the 1800s setting in Arcadia: Septimus and Thomasina are joined by Jellaby the butler during one of their lessons Scene from the 1800s setting in Arcadia: Septimus and Thomasina are joined by Jellaby the butler during one of their lessons

play, or the reader of a novel, knows something the characters do not. Stoppard’s audience knows that it is Septimus, and not Lord Byron, who was supposed to have dueled Ezra Chater in 1809. When contemporary scenes are juxtaposed on the scenes of the past, the guessing-game nature of historical studies is highlighted. The audience gets to watch Bernard and Hannah try to piece together the clues, repeatedly coming up with the wrong answers. From this, they can assume that history is often put together through such lucky (and unlucky) guesses, and that at best it is, like Thomasina’s formula for chaos, only a theory.


In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else. Symbols are often used to communicate deeper levels of meaning. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel The Scarlet Letter, for example, the red letter “A” worn by Hester Prynne is a symbol not only of her supposed crime (adultery) but also of her neighbors’ bigotry and her own courageous pride. Like many playwrights who write about important ideas, Stoppard relies on many symbols in his work to communicate deeper levels of meaning to his audiences.

In Arcadia, one of the prominent symbols is the landscape around Sidley Park, which represents, among other things, the battle between Enlightenment and Romanticism, or intellect and emotion, that is raging among the characters inside the house. Heat becomes another important symbol. Early in the play, Thomasina is considering the effects of motion and friction on the jam in her rice pudding. By the end, she has perceived the Second Law of Thermodynamics which insures that Mr. Noakes’s steam engine will always take more energy to operate than it is capable of producing. Ultimately it is heat, in the form of a terrible fire, which kills Thomasina. By then, the symbolism is clear: Eventually the loss of heat will be the end of the entire universe; Thomasina perishes by that which she sought to understand.

Pastoral Poetry

While Arcadia is not itself a pastoral poem, the title is taken from the tradition of pastoral writing, and the play shares many of the form’s best known qualities. Arcadia was a region in ancient Greece that was regarded as the ideal of rural simplicity and happiness. Pastoral poetry is a form of literature in which an author uses simple shepherds and country Page 47  |  Top of Articlefolk, such as those who may have dwelt in Arcadia, and presents an idyllic vision of rural life in marked contrast to the misery and corruption of life in the city. The Roman poet Virgil is known for pastoral poetry in the first century B.C., and the Italian writer Sannazzaro is credited with reviving the form during the Renaissance.

The characters in Stoppard’s play, like the farmers and shepherds in pastoral poetry, live in the countryside, away from the chaos of city life. Lady Croom even brags to her daughter,” ‘Et in Arcadia ego!’ ‘I too have lived in Arcadia,’ Thomasina.” Whether Sidley Park is a paradise, however, is questionable. In the present day, Hannah laments that even the grounds as Lady Croom knew them were becoming unnatural: “There’s an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep. Paradise in the age of reason. By 1760 everything had gone—the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes—the whole sublime geometry was ploughed under by Capability Brown. The grass went from the doorstep to the horizon and the best box hedge in Derbyshire was dug up for the ha-ha so that the fools could pretend they were living in God’s countryside.”

In either event, the pastoral setting becomes essential if the arguments the characters make are to have their full impact. Like simple country folk, proud of the peaceful lives they lead, the characters at Sidley Park, both past and present, all seem to be searching for ideals—in mathematics, science, poetry, and love—and Arcadia’s rural setting, far removed from the bustle of civilization, helps magnify the importance of their quests.


History is practically a character itself in Arcadia. The play takes place in England in two different time periods, the early nineteenth century and the present day. While the scenes in the present day often seem disconnected from the world outside, other than scattered references to advancements in math and science and television as the modern day mass media of choice, they are intensely interested in the past. The entire plot, in fact, hinges on the events of 1809-1812, when, in the world of the play, a young girl was formulating theories decades ahead of their time, Lord Byron was writing the poems that would make him famous, and Europe was transforming itself through wars, experiments in art, and the inventions of science.

The period Stoppard chose to contrast with the present has been labeled a transformative era in world history, the twilight of one age and the dawn of another; much of the creative energy and tumult of the period can be found in Arcadia. Three of the most important historical influences on the play are England’s Industrial Revolution, European political upheaval and empire building, and Romanticism in art and literature.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution

The first Industrial Revolution in Britain began late in the eighteenth century and almost immediately altered the way products were manufactured, what products were created, the location of industry, and the transportation of goods around the country and around the world. Because greater production efficiency could be achieved when the resources required by industry were centrally located, the population of Britain began a gradual shift from scattered rural dwellings to primarily urban communities.

In England in the Nineteenth Century, David Thomson noted: “Most Englishmen in 1815 still worked on the land or in trades connected with agriculture, though within the next generation most Englishmen became townsmen engaged in industry: sixteen years after Waterloo probably half the population already lived under urban conditions. . . . During the first thirty years of the century Birmingham and Sheffield doubled in size, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, and Glasgow more than doubled. London, in 1815, was above the million mark, and five years later numbered 1,274,000.”

The people who moved to the new centers of industry found working conditions quite different from what they had known before. Individual craftsmanship was superseded by collective manufacturing efforts: Instead of handling goods from start to finish, workers were taught a particular part of the job, given the tools necessary, and placed in a factory setting where, by sheer force of numbers, they could produce greater amounts of goods than ever before (a process that came to be known as the “production line”). Britain very quickly became the workshop of the world and a major exporter of

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  • 1809-1812: Britain’s Industrial Revolution makes it the workshop of the world. England transforms from a primarily agricultural society to an increasingly skilled working class system built on venture capitalism. Inventions like the steam engine, patented in 1769 by Englishman James Watt, make possible industrial marvels like the locomotive, which first appears in 1804.

    Today: Another technological revolution, the “Information Age,” is sweeping the globe. The work of industry is increasingly handled by automated machines run by computers. Automation and high speed information gathering, storage, retrieval, and dissemination came about through a series of technological discoveries beginning with the transistor in 1948, followed by integrated circuits in the 1960s, and the microprocessor in the 1970s. Automated machinery and sophisticated communications tools such as personal computers, cellular telephones, fax machines, and paging devices rely on more and more powerful microprocessors. By 2010 the computer industry is expected to be the largest industry on earth.

  • 1809-1812: The Romantic style dominates the literature of Europe. Authors such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley rely on imagination, freedom of thought and expression, the creation of new forms, and an idealization of nature.

    Today: Postmodernism defines the literature of the late-twentieth century. These works often invoke or borrow from earlier periods, using a technique known as pastiche. Another technique found in postmodernist literature, music, art, and, the postmodern medium of choice, film, is montage. Rather than telling a story in traditional, linear fashion, montage often presents a series of seemingly unrelated, sometimes contradictory images that defy explanation. Traditional elements like plot, character, and language are fragmented and disoriented.

  • 1809-1812: Women in England are treated as second-class citizens and widely regarded as intellectually inferior to men. They receive only limited schooling, no higher education, and have access to a limited number of vocations. They are subjected to an extremely rigid, conservative code of sexual behavior and hold almost no legal rights, especially once married.

    Today: After an arduous, sometimes violent suffrage movement, women received the right to vote in Britain in 1918 and now enjoy equal rights under the law as well as equal access to education and employment. Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in 1979, serving until 1990.

  • 1809-1812: Although it lost its colonies in America in 1783, Britain is still building its worldwide empire. By the end of the nineteenth century the empire stretches across all seven continents, in countries as far-flung as Trinidad, Newfoundland, South Africa, and Hong Kong.

    Today: Territories in the British Empire began resisting colonial rule after World War I. Egypt, India, Malaysia, and a host of other holdings have reverted back to their citizens during the past few decades. In 1997, Britain returns control of Hong Kong, one of its last colonies, back to the Chinese.

all sorts of goods from furniture to textiles to fine china.

Exporting goods, of course, relied heavily on transportation, both within the country, to transfer goods from factories to shipping centers, and without, to get goods from rail stations and ports to their foreign destinations. To accomplish this, enormous improvements and advances were made in the country’s Page 49  |  Top of Articletransportation system. In England in the Eighteenth Century, J. H. Plumb wrote:

The canals, the roads, the ships of England were the nation’s pride. Inexpensive Irish labor was used to cover Britain with a network of canals. By 1815, 2,600 miles of canal had been built in England; 500 in Scotland and Ireland. They cheapened production and lowered prices. . . . But the revolution in road transport was more vivid, more exciting, to contemporaries. Road engineering did not begin to improve until the last quarter of the century, and it was given a strong stimulus, in 1784, with the introduction of the mail coach for the rapid transport of letters and passengers. The stage coaches responded to the threat of competition and road surfaces were improved to help faster travel. In 1754 it took four and a half days to travel from London to Manchester; in 1788 the journey had been reduced to 28 hours.

At the same time, Britain’s ports and shipping abilities were being improved to handle all the additional trade. By 1810 the total freight weight of ships using British ports reached 2 million tons. Between 1800 and 1810, thirty acres of new iron docks were built in London, along the Thames River, making Britain’s capital the greatest port in the world.

All this industry was accompanied by equally important gains in efficient agricultural techniques. Researching and perfecting new methods of tilling, the rotation of crops, and improved stock-breeding relied on capital and returned their investments a thousandfold, which meant that England’s rich were getting richer. Landed aristocrats, like the Coverlys bearing the Croom lordship title in Stoppard’s play, owned more and more land, which they would let to tenant farmers or hire laborers to farm for them. Through this method, they became the “leisure class” in England, allowing their money to work for them, while they enjoyed comfortable lives in elegant country houses, such as Sidley Park.

One of the residents of Sidley Park, Lady Croom, considers herself cursed by the advancements in industry and technology, particularly by Noakes’s new steam engine, which she feels is systematically ruining her garden. “If everybody had his own I would bear my portion of the agony without complaint,” she wails. “But to have been singled out by the only Improved Newcomen steam pump in England, this is hard, sir, this is not to be borne.”

Military Conflict in the Nineteenth Century

At the same time that they were radically improving transportation methods, agriculture, and manufacturing techniques, Britons, along with most of Europe, were embroiled in a series of wars that shaped the modern European continent. Two of history’s greatest revolutions had already been fought: the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799). By the following century, the fallout from these great wars was still echoing through the politics and social structure of Europe. The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century was the age of Napoleon and the infancy of America. At various times during this period England fought against the forces of the French, the Spanish, and the Americans. Some of Britain’s greatest victories were achieved—such as Lord Nelson’s triumph over the French-Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and Napolean’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 by British general Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington.

Although the armed conflicts of Europe do not intrude directly into the peaceful lives of the residents at Sidley Park, they are certainly aware of them. Lady Croom, upon hearing that one of her favorite house guests, the poet Lord Byron, is planning an adventure abroad warns, “The whole of Europe is in a Napoleonic fit, all the best ruins will be closed, the roads entirely occupied with the movement of armies, the lodgings turned into billets and the fashion for godless republicanism not yet arrived at its natural reversion.”

The Romantic Age

Coursing throughout the action of Arcadia, and somehow affecting the lives of all the characters, past and present, is the spirit of the Romantic Age. Broadly speaking, Romanticism was a movement that bridged the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, affecting the literature of most European countries, the United States, and Latin America. Romantic writing is characterized by a reliance on imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, unfettered by traditionally accepted forms of literature and an idealization of nature in its pure form—a marked contrast from the increasingly mechanized and industrial world that surrounded Romantic writers. It also contrasted severely with the preceding Enlightenment era, which stressed orderly, rational thought, strict adherence to form, and a reliance on Classical Greek and Roman models. In essence, Romanticism was, for a time, the triumph of feeling over thinking, the heart over the head.

This battle between intellect and emotion rages through Arcadia. Stylistically, Lady Croom continues Page 50  |  Top of Articleto live in the past. She adores her well manicured gardens, steeped in the balance and order of Classical Greece and the Enlightenment age. The unseen Lord Croom, however, is pitching headlong into the new age and has brought in the landscape architect Noakes to sculpt Romanticism into the countryside. In the present, Hannah, Valentine, and Bernard quarrel over the efficiency of science in the face of the intuition of genius. Bernard “feels” his theory about Lord Byron is right. He advocates “a visceral belief in yourself. Gut instinct.”

Young Thomasina, of course, is central to the debate, as she is central to the play. In her can be found the best elements of both logic and emotion. She is as comfortable seeking a solution for Fermat’s Last Theorem and plotting the shape of a leaf with numbers on a graph as she is reveling in the poetry of the age. She laments the loss of the library at Alexandria and in the same breath scorns Cleopatra for not being more sensible and logical. Like the age in which she lives, Thomasina is filled with marvelous contradictions. In the final scene of the play, after happening on what would one day become the Second Law of Thermodynamics governing the exchange of heat between objects, she quickly discards the thrill of discovery, longing only for the pleasure of learning to waltz and her romantic love for Septimus.


Arcadia premiered at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain in 1993, won the prestigious Olivier Award for best play then transferred to London’s West End for a lengthy and successful run. In London, everything about the play was praised—its plot, characters, fascinating ideas intricately woven into witty dialogue, the scenery, the acting, and the directing. The play received its American debut at New York City’s Lincoln Center Theater in 1995, where—in spite of actors who were generally considered less fit for their roles than their English counterparts and a theatre with poor acoustics—the play earned acclamation from excited Stoppard aficionados. The work also earned the playwright newfound respect from some of his severest critics. “Arcadia is wonderfully inventive and funny, full of the epigrams, puns, and verbal pyrotechnics characteristic of this dramatist,” wrote Anne Barton in the New York Review. Clive Barnes crowed in the New York Post,“It is a work shot through with fun, passion and, yes, genius.”

Michael Feingold, a longtime critic of the playwright’s work, admitted in the Village Voice: “Until Arcadia, you couldn’t have convinced me that Tom Stoppard was a playwright. At best, I’d have called him a sometimes diverting entertainer, whose show-offy, cerebral houses of cards usually turned up a few ace witticisms before collapsing into a litter of pasteboard. Arcadia changes all that.” Other critics welcomed Stoppard back into popular consciousness. Donald Lyons suggested in the Wall Street Journal that “Arcadia is Mr. Stoppard’s happiest invention since 1974’s Travesties.” In Variety, Jeremy Gerard said, “Arcadia fulfills the promise of Stoppard’s 1983 boulevard comedy, The Real Thing. In Arcadia, he gets everything right.”

Many reviewers remarked on Arcadia’s collection of eccentric characters—a schoolgirl genius and her handsome, romantic tutor; insultingly witty members of the aristocracy; a flamboyant, puffed-up university professor and his antagonist, a no-nonsense historian as comfortable in garden trenches as she is at her typewriter. Typical of Stoppard’s critical reception, however, even more attention was paid to the thoughts of the characters and the themes of the play.

“This is one of Stoppard’s guessing game plays,” Howard Kissel wrote in the Daily News, where the interest lies less in the characters’ changing relationships than in the ideas the playwright so adroitly juggles.” Barnes noted, “Nothing is safe from the intoxicating whirl of ideas which it draws into a vortex, be it English landscape gardening, Newtonian physics, Byron’s mysterious flight from England in 1809, the classicism of Claude and the Gothic romanticism of Salvator Rosa, Horace Walpole and Thomas Love Peacock, the second law of thermodynamics, the conundrum of Fermat’s mathematical theorum of numbers, the lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, even dwarf dahlias in the botanically unlikely region of Mazambique.”

The way Stoppard successfully assembled such a range of characters and ideas in one place struck some critics as an amazing feat. John Lahr noted in the New Yorker:“The brilliance of Arcadia is not so much in the wordplay as it is in the construction.” Lahr explained Stoppard’s use of two different time periods, set in the same household, and Page 51  |  Top of Articlesuggested, “By crosscutting the Coverly family story and the story of the contemporaries trying to reconstruct it, Stoppard utilizes the ironies of history—the symmetries and accidents that lead, nonetheless, to a kind of order—as a way of demonstrating the outcome of chaos theory.”

The New York Review’s Barton appreciated that, while the play is a whirlwind of ideas and emotions, Stoppard did not resort to some of the theatrical tricks employed by his previous plays. “In theatrical terms . . . Arcadia is muted by comparison with most of Stoppard’s previous work,” she wrote, “No yellow-suited gymnasts dangerously construct and implode human pyramids (Jumpers); nor does an entire troupe of traveling actors stow away and improbably contrive a musical performance inside three barrels (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1967); no drama critic gets surprised and killed by the play he is reviewing (The Real Inspector Hound, 1968), nor is there any equivalent to the public librarian in Travesties, who seems to strip on top of her desk while delivering a heartfelt panegyric on Lenin.”

Despite the majority of praise, at least one critic found some major problems with Arcadia, mainly with the way the play pushes the boundaries of probability. Comparing Stoppard to his popular predecessor, Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), in New York, John Simon complained, “[Wilde] would not have an Englishman in 1809 use the Yiddishism tush, or have two characters—including the 13-year old Thomasina-interpret Poussin’s famous Et in Arcadia Ego (“I too have lived in Arcadia”) as being spoken by Death, i.e., the skull in the picture, a theory first proposed by Erwin Panofsky a century and a half later.” Simon also regretted that some of the more interesting characters (such as Lord Byron and Mrs. Chater) never appeared on the stage while the more foolish ones (Chater and Captain Brice) did. In summary, Simon felt, “There are goodly chunks of the play that seem to have been written for the delectation of graduate students in literature and science, and you often wish Stoppard would rein in his parade.”

In spite of its possible faults, the dominant opinion of Arcadia was that it is one of Stoppard’s finest works. It is “pure entertainment—entertainment for the heart, mind, soul and all those interstices between we forget about,” wrote Barnes. “It’s brief candle lighting up a naughty world.”


Lane A. Glenn

Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature. In this essay he examines Stoppard’s critical reputation as a wordsmith, and his use of language in Arcadia as a means of creating humor, identifying characters, and exploring themes in the play.

In his Poetics (c. 335 BC), Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and literary theorist, suggested six elements that are crucial to theatre: plot, character, thought (or theme), diction, music, and spectacle. He explained each element in what he felt was its order of importance and devoted to each a corresponding amount of space in his treatise. When he arrived at “diction,” the words the playwright places in the mouths of his characters, Aristotle explained the difference between common and elevated vocabulary, riddles, and jargon. He suggested: “The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius—for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”

In more than two-thousand years of plays, playwrights, and players since Aristotle, different eras have found one or the other of his six elements to be more important than the rest. The Neo-classicists of the eighteenth century, for example, prized plot like the Greeks. Writers of “problem plays” in the late-nineteenth century, like George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, often emphasized important themes in their work. Many twentieth century dramas are noted particularly for their characters, while modern musicals often draw crowds for the spectacle they offer audiences. From every era, however, it is the playwrights with a masterful command of language—the greatest gifts for metaphor—who are passed along to the generations that follow.

The Greeks gave Aristophanes to posterity—a writer of satire and wit so dexterous, politicians of his day avoided him for fear they would appear in one of his plays. In sixteenth century England, the Elizabethans loved language. They experimented with it. They played games with it (“quibbling” was a pub pastime that relied on clever wordplay). And, of course, they produced William Shakespeare, who managed to create a great deal of it.

While there are several contenders poised to represent the twentieth century as the era’s great master of dialogue and dialectics, Tom Stoppard

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  • Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) is a play about the absurdity of life as seen through the eyes of the two minor courtiers in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Like Arcadia, the work is noted for its ferocious wordplay and lofty ideas.
  • Also by Stoppard, Travesties (1974) is a comedy-drama that imagines three of history’s quirkier characters—Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara—all living together in Zurich during World War I.
  • Other playwrights with a distinctively British flair for characters and comedy include Alan Ayckbourn, whose series The Norman Conquests: A Trilogy of Plays (1988) is an hilarious family farce packed with witty one-liners, and Alan Bennett, the author of The Madness of George III (1992), which became a popular film a year later (retitled as The Madness of King George), and Talking Heads (1993), a collection of six unique monologues that were originally broadcast on the BBC.
  • The Selected Poems of Lord Byron, available in a variety of editions, is a wonderful introduction to the poetry of the Romantic era. For a wider sampling, try English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology (1996), edited by Stanley Appelbaum, which contains poetry by six of the best-known Romantics: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats.
  • Foolscap: A Novel (1991) is Michael Malone’s satirical take on the research of literary history and the pursuit of academic fame. Like Bernard Nightingale in Arcadia, Theodore Ryan, the protagonist of Foolscap is out to make a name for himself in the cutthroat world of academic scholarship. Since no one will produce his play about Sir Walter Raleigh, Theodore devises a way to pass the play off as Raleigh’s own work and have a forged copy “discovered” by a well-known Renaissance scholar.

appears at the top of many critics’ lists. In Tom Stoppard’s Plays: A Study of His Life and Work, Jim Hunter observed:

Perhaps it is the words one notices first, in Stoppard. Later the sense of theatre, the craftsmanship, the thinking and the caring may seem more important; but at first one is dazzled—the cliché; seems accurate—by the brilliance of the verbal polish. Stoppard comes across as fluent to the point of facility, gifted with the gab of the Irish: Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, and perhaps through these if not directly, Swift. The brilliance also seems to have an academic element: he might well be taken for a University Wit.”

High praise indeed for an artist who left school at seventeen, received no university education, and is whose facility with letters is largely self-taught. Yet the praise is entirely apt. Throughout his thirty-year career as a playwright, critics and scholars have attuned themselves to the language in Stoppard’s plays. Writing about the debut of Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties in Plays and Players, Garry O’Connor observed, “Clever, all this stuff, and occasionally very funny indeed: full of acrostics, limericks, parody, absurdity; quite exhilarating: altogether a relief to be teased and dazzled by words for once.”

Stoppard’s unique talent for language lies in his ability to turn words upside-down and inside-out in a search for ambiguities, contradictions, double-meanings, humor, and half-hidden truths. Not since Shakespeare has an English playwright so strenuously exercised his native tongue. In an article Stoppard wrote for the Sunday Times early in his career, he admitted:

[I have] an enormous love of language itself. For a lot of writers the language they use is merely a fairly efficient tool. For me the particular use of a particular word in the right place, or a group of words in the right Page 53  |  Top of Articleorder, to create a particular effect is important; it gives me more pleasure than to make a point which I might consider to be profound. On the other hand, when one does concentrate mainly on the language itself, with luck this appears to have some meaning, often in a general sense and, when one is very lucky, in a universal sense.

Stoppard’s love of language is extremely evident in his 1994 work, Arcadia. The first words of the play, in fact, are the set-up for a pun. “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” the youthful genius Thomasina asks her harried tutor. “Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef,” comes the carefully chosen reply. It is a simple, clever piece of verbal humor, with layers of meaning lurking beneath the surface. As John Lahr noted in his review of the play for the New Yorker,“The question mirrors the image of Paradise about to be lost, and Stoppard’s play goes on to answer her question. To embrace the flesh is also to embrace all the sins that the flesh is heir to—the sins to which Stoppard’s labyrinthine plot, whose ingenious twists and turns involve greed, rapacity, vainglory, skullduggery, cruelty, delusion, confusion, and genius, bears ample witness.” All this promised, and the play has only just begun.

Each of the characters in Arcadia is recognizable for his or her own idiosyncratic style of speaking. In the presence of his student, the tutor Septimus Hodge is the picture of propriety, as when he delicately explains the truth about “carnal embrace” or scolds his young protegé for her unique take on her homework, saying, “A fancy is not a discovery.” For her part, Thomasina Coverly is precocious but in the very best ways. She is clever beyond her years and responds to Septimus appropriately by returning, “A gibe is not a rebuttal.” Their dueling dialogue escalates through the play until finally, by their final scene, Septimus is bested by his student, struck silent, and his only recourse is to dance with her.

Their present-day counterparts are Bernard Nightingale, the flamboyant university professor, and Hannah Jarvis, the best-selling, no-nonsense author. Nightingale flaunts his gift for language and, when pressed, uses it as a weapon. Upon meeting Hannah walking up from the “ha-ha” (a sort of scenic moat used in landscape architecture) he corrects her pronunciation as “Ha-hah!” and explains, “A theory of mine. Ha-hah, not ha-ha. If you were strolling down the garden and all of a sudden the ground gave way at your feet, you’re not going to go ‘ha-ha’, you’re going to jump back and go ‘ha-hah!’” Hannah is unimpressed, and later tells Valentine Coverly that Bernard’s verbal jousting is just for show. “[His] indignation is a sort of aerobics for when he gets on television,” she quips.

In reviewing Arcadia, critics found themselves praising Stoppard’s use of language and comparing him to other great writers. In Time magazine Brad Leithauser wrote, “It is a play that holds up beautifully not only on the stage but on the page. When Thomasina, hungry for a new mathematics, exclaims, ‘If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell,’ we might have stepped into an Auden poem. When a formidable lady [Lady Croom] silences her brother [Captain Brice] by snapping, ‘Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit,’ we can hear Wilde whispering, ‘I wish I’d said that.’ As for concentrated lyricism, the scene in which Thomasina bewails the burning of the classical library of Alexandria—a doomed girl genius lamenting the conflagration of ancient genius—is absolutely stunning.”

In the New York Post Clive Barnes noted, “Stoppard pays his audience the sensible compliment of assuming we know more than we do, while his language ranges from gutter-chic to epigrams that sound Wildean, but without Wilde’s smug sense of gotcha-self-congratulation.” Anne Barton wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Arcadia is wonderfully inventive and funny, full of the epigrams, puns, and verbal pyrotechnics characteristic of this dramatist. From the interchange between thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly and her tutor with which the play begins. . . to the end, Stoppard’s highly individual love affair with the English language never slackens . . . Stoppard’s puns, far from being drearily Derridean, are something Shakespeare would have understood. He loves to demonstrate how exciting it can be when two meanings. . . lie down together irregularly in the same bed: as they do when Thomasina’s ‘carnal,’ meaning ‘sensual,’ cohabits disconcertingly with its other connotation of ‘meat.’”

For all the careful craftsmanship that goes into writing a play with such a marvelous flair for language, sometimes, Stoppard has admitted, his gift for metaphor and symbolism is happy circumstance. In a conversation with critic Mel Gussow, Stoppard revealed how he stumbled upon the name for Bernard Nightingale, Arcadia’s eccentric Sussex don, then chanced into a clever bit of character confusion: “The odd thing about these names is that they kind of detonate in a way that looks pre-planned,”

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Charter recites some of his terrible poetry as Septimus and Thomasina look on in amusement Charter recites some of his terrible poetry as Septimus and Thomasina look on in amusement

Stoppard explained. “In Arcadia, Hannah makes reference to Thomas Love Peacock. She believes Bernard’s called Peacock and she says, ‘Your illustrious namesake.’ He says, ‘Florence?’ If I’d called him Thrush, God knows what he would have replied. There’s a wonderful element of good luck in these things.”

Stoppard’s wordplay may not be for everyone. In reviewing Arcadia for New York magazine, John Simon complained, “Stoppard—who never went to university and has an autodidact’s infatuation with his homemade erudition—overdoes it: There are goodly chunks of the play that seem to have been written for the delectation of graduate students in literature and science, and you often wish Stoppard would rein in his parade.”

For the playwright, however, there is no other way to work. “I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself,” he once cleverly revealed to Gussow in the New York Times. “I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.”

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Tim Appelo

In this essay, Appelo positively reviews Arcadia, placing the play among Stoppard’s best work. Of particular note to the critic is the vibrancy and emotion of the central characters.

In Ulysses, there is an Oxford don who goes around pushing a lawnmower that chuffs “Cleverclever-clever.” Though he quit school at 17 and ran off to the circus of newspaper journalism, Tom Stoppard has always been very like Joyce’s professor, forever cramming his head with arcane books and emitting their more entertaining notions in clipped, endlessly articulate, witty disputations. The question has always been whether Stoppard is anything more than clevercleverclever—is he simply a prestidigitator of prose and a joke mechanic, a whiz kid staging fantastically elaborate intellectual collisions as if they were toy-train wrecks? Or is he in it for deeper satisfactions than the transitory sparks a nice crackup tosses off?

Stoppard himself has admitted that his early play The Real Inspector Hound (1968) was “a mechanical toy,” but his work has been getting more human ever since. There’s more of him in his later work, too; he is a recovering drama critic who Page 55  |  Top of Articlebegan as a playwright by occupying other people’s plays like a hermit crab. Pre-fame, he aped Robert Bolt and Arthur Miller; in Rosencrantz and Guilden stern Are Dead it was Beckett and Shakespeare; in Hound, Agatha Christie; in Travesties, Oscar Wilde. Starting with Night and Day (1978), he’s tended to cling less to coattails and be more his own man, owning up to real emotions. He retains a perverse sense of humor akin to Beckett’s; he’s debate-besotted like Shaw, but he can see both sides of most questions; he’s unearthly fluent and funny like Wilde, though he’s grown more earnest. Yet his dramatic ideal remains what it was back in 1960, when he raved Richard Attenborough’s The Angry Silence because it fused “entertainment and education as completely as a row of chorus girls explaining Einstein’s theory of light.” His plays are, I think, a highly refined, mutant strain of journalism.

If all we had to go on was Hapgood, the 1988 faux-spy thriller that recently closed at Lincoln Center after a smash production, we might think the old rap on Stoppard still had some currency. The gratuitous beauty of the staging and the performances by David Straithairn as a droll physicist-philosopher and Stockard Channing as the eponymous spymaster heroine (whose name, according to Stoppard scholar Katherine E. Kelly, refers to turn-of-the-century Russian literature translator and Nation contributor Isabel Florence Hapgood) might blind us to the fact that Hapgood is lively without being good. Stoppard seems not to give a rip about his incomprehensibly intricate le Carré-pastiche plot, let alone his characters. (“I’m no good at character,” he once confessed, amazingly. “It doesn’t interest me very much.”) What has interested him lately is post-Newtonian physics, and Hapgood is a physics essay masquerading as a play. As Updike said of Bellow’s, The Dean’s December, a novel that began as an essay, “This book has swallowed the earlier one but has transparent sides, so that we can see the non-fiction book inside the novel and can observe how incomplete the digestion process has been.”

Incomplete intellectual digestion is a besetting sin of authors who read too much. Stoppard has been the chief of sinners in this regard, conducting his education at public expense; but he now redeems himself with Arcadia, at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, his most important work since The Real Thing (1983). Unlike the spy-jive mac-guffins he juggles in Hapgood, the mystery addressed in Arcadia is one to which Stoppard is fully emotionally committed. If all those cigarettes kill him shortly,

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Arcadia is almost good enough to serve as the capstone to his career.

The setting, nicely realized by Mark Thompson, is the English country house of the Coverlys (I assume Stoppard alludes to Addison’s squire Roger). There are two dueling story lines, exhilaratingly orchestrated by director Trevor Nunn, concerning the Coverlys of 1809 and of today. In the earlier frame, we are introduced to chaos theory by teenager Thomasina Coverly, who is based on its modern prophet, Benoit Mandelbrot, whose “Mandelbrot set,” infinitely iterated images of the order lurking within nature’s seeming disorder, you have seen depicted in a million articles about chaos. Like Mandelbrot, Thomasina (fetching but conventionally so, as played by Jennifer Dundas) is no math prodigy, but she can actually see the subtle geometry of chaos in her head. Her tutor is the Newtonian college math major Septimus Hodge. (Hodge was the name of Samuel Johnson’s spoiled, oyster-eating cat, and this cat, smartly portrayed by Billy Crudup, is the spoiled, horny house guest of the Coverlys.) Hodge is baffled by Thomasina’s dazzling musings about how post-Newtonian physics demolishes determinism. Forget Euclid and his lovely inviolable rules, Thomasina pouts, and let’s look at the real world: “Mountains are not pyramids and trees are not cones.”

Hodge is more preoccupied with brassiere cones, and the calculations necessary to remove them while dallying with another’s wife in the gazebo by night. His machinations after being discovered inflagrante with fellow house guest Charity Chater by her sputtering husband, Ezra, propel the Feydeau-style Restoration comedy that leavens the mathematical Page 56  |  Top of Articledebate. But the sex farce isn’t purely frivolous—in Stoppard’s mind, romance is the welcome snake that saves Eden from the overdetermination of natural law. As one character puts it, illicit sex is “the attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden.”

Arcadia’s twentieth-century scenes are devoted to two interrelated detective stories about the 1809 characters. In the first, Thomasina’s modern relative and fellow mathematician Valentine (the vulnerably lovely Robert Sean Leonard of Dead Poets Society fame) incredulously discovers Thomasina’s eerily prescient equations (just as Mandelbrot rediscovered Gaston Julia’s World War I-era documents in 1979), and, like Mandelbrot, uses a computer to extend and validate the earlier work.

Thomasina’s vindication is a foregone conclusion, because her “New Geometry of Irregular Forms” is simply modern physics, and because her theme is the point of the play: that determinism is false, that fate and free will are like waltzing mice, that life is messy, so eat it over the sink. A similar lesson is learned by the second set of modern-day detectives: two literary historians, Hannah Jarvis (brassy Blair Brown) and Bernard Nightingale (vainglorious Victor Garber), who have descended on the Coverlys’ Arcadia to mine the place for career advancement. Nightingale’s ingeniously erroneous theory about what really happened in the house in 1809—he believes Lord Byron shot Ezra Chater dead in a duel—is the entertainment engine of Arcadia, a tour de force of scholarly folly that sets up Garber as the star of the show. We may have to struggle to keep the rest of the plot straight, but since we’ve seen what really happened in 1809, we can have great fun watching Nightingale pump up his ego until it explodes. “Is the universe expanding?” he demands. “Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you.”

In making a laughingstock of Nightingale, a Euclidean type without a trace of humility in the face of nature, Stoppard is really recanting his old line about maintaining “the courage of my lack of convictions” through a scrupulous aestheticism. Now he seems more on the level, less distanced from his material, as the art-for-art’s-sake, inflexibly arrogant argument loses big.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Arcadia’s deeply moving final scene, where the worlds of 1809 and the present do not so much collide as coincide. It is the night before Thomasina’s 17th birthday, and if she knows something about the future of physics that nobody else does, the modern Valentine and Hannah (and we in the audience) know a terrible secret about her future that she does not. I can’t indicate on the page just how he does this, but Stoppard blends the dialogue and actions of modern and long-vanished characters in a way quite different from his usual comic convergences. He’s long been the master of people talking past each other, but here their conversations embrace across the centuries. Valentine finally figures out Thomasina’s immortal discovery—that she, and we, are demonstrably, mathematically, doomed—but instead of going for the sixties-style cosmic laugh, Stoppard makes the revelation a moment of rueful acceptance. The dialogue pointedly echoes Eliot’s Four Quartets, and the vibe is that of the late Shakespearean fables, spectral but deeply charged with feeling.

David Merrick, the producer of Stoppard’s first hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, complained that if you took the main characters and put them on a graph, “they would all come out as one line.” Arcadia’s plots may leave the play with more characters than it can comfortably handle, but the main ones describe an elegant arabesque worthy of Mandelbrot himself.

Source: Tim Appelo, review of Arcadia in the Nation, Vol. 260, no. 17, May 1, 1995, pp. 612–13.

John Lahr

In this laudatory review of Arcadia, Lahr calls the work Stoppard’s “best play so far,” finding brilliance in the construction and deft wordplay. The critic ultimately termed the drama “brave and very beautiful.”

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Source: John Lahr, “Blowing Hot and Cold” in the New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, no. 8, April 17, 1995, pp. 111–13.


Aristotle. Poetics, S. H. Butcher; translation in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1974, p. 50.

Barnes, Clive. Review of Arcadia in the New York Post, March 31, 1995.

Barton, Anne. “Twice around the Grounds” in the New York Review, June 8, 1995, pp. 28-32.

Canby, Vincent. Review of Arcadia in the New York Times, March 31, 1995.

Feingold, Michael. Review of Arcadia in the Village Voice, April 11, 1995.

Gerard, Jeremy. Review of Arcadia in Variety, April 3, 1995.

Gussow, Mel. “Stoppard Refutes Himself, Endlessly” in the New York Times, April 26, 1972, p. 54; reprinted in File on Stoppard, edited by Malcolm Page, Methuen, 1986, p. 87.

Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard’s Plays: A Study of His Life and Work, Grove Press, 1982, p. 93.

Kissel, Howard. Review of Arcadia in the Daily News, March 31, 1995.

Lahr, John. Review of Arcadia in the New Yorker, April 22, 1995.

Leithauser, Brad. Review of Arcadia in Time, April 10, 1995.

Lyons, Donald. Review of Arcadia in the Wall Street Journal, March 31, 1995.

O’Connor, Garry. Review of Travesties in Plays and Players, July, 1974, p. 34; reprinted in File on Stoppard, edited by Malcolm Page, Methuen, 1986, p. 50.

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Plumb, J. H. England in the Eighteenth Century, Penguin Books, 1990, p. 147.

Simon, John. Review of Arcadia in New York, April 10, 1995.

Stoppard, Tom. “Something to Declare” in the Sunday Times, February 25, 1968, p. 47; reprinted in File on Stoppard, edited by Malcolm Page, Methuen, 1986, p. 85.

Thomson, David. England in the Nineteenth Century, Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 11-12.

Winer, Linda. Review of Arcadia in New York Newsday, March 31, 1995.


Cahn, Victor L. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard, Associated University Presses, 1979.

A treatise that places Stoppard’s early work in the context of the Theatre of the Absurd, a style of drama that breaks conventional forms, presents a “comic-pathetic” view of life, and emphasizes the chaotic nature of the universe.

Grosskurth, Phylis. Byron: The Flawed Angel, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

A biography of George Gordon (aka Lord Byron) the Romantic poet, womanizer, and soldier of freedom. The book also provides a history of the times in which the poet lived.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Stoppard, Nick Hern Books, London, 1995.

A series of conversations between Stoppard and theatre critic Gussow between 1972 and 1995, covering many of Stoppard’s plays, as well as his personal life.

Hall, Nina, editor. Exploring Chaos: A Guide to the New Science of Disorder, W. W. Norton, 1994.

In scientific circles, chaos theory has been called the twentieth century’s third revolution, alongside relativity and quantum mechanics. This collection of reports, complete with photographs, by the foremost researchers of chaos theory attempts to bring order to the disorder by describing all sorts of phenomena, from dripping faucets and swinging pendulums to weather patterns.

Harty III, John, editor. Tom Stoppard: A Casebook, Garland, 1988.

A collection of essays about Stoppard’s most important plays, accompanied by a chronology of his work and an annotated bibliography of Stoppard criticism.

Page, Malcolm. File on Stoppard, Methuen, 1986.

A collection of excerpted criticism of Stoppard’s plays, taken largely from theatre reviews in London and New York newspapers and magazines. Also includes a chronology of the playwright’s work.

Singh, Simon. Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem, Bantam Books, 1998.

The story of Andrew Wiles, a mathematician at Princeton University who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1994. Also includes a 350-year history of “Fermat’s Enigma,” and some mathematician humor.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693000013