I saw the play Arcadia years ago… it must be 10 years at least. By now I remembered little of the story. I just had a very strong memory of finding it fabulous – one of the best plays I have ever seen. (I still think that.) My verdict after reading the play is that it’s simply brilliant.
Arcadia is set in a large country house in England, switching between 1809 and the present day. It is almost a kind of detective story: the present-day inhabitants and visitors are researching different aspects of what was going on in 1809. For example, one visitor, a garden historian, is interested in the transformation of the garden from a classical Capability Brown-style to a romantic “gothic” or “picturesque” style, complete with ruins and a hermitage. Another attempts to find proof that Lord Byron stayed in that house and was involved in a scandal or two. A third studies the dynamics of grouse populations, based on old records of game shot at the estate.
As they do this, the provide a sort of living commentary on the nature of truth and knowledge. They are all fitting together incomplete information. Sometimes they overlook pieces of information, because they see what they want to see. Other times, some of their unfounded guesses later turn out to be right.
Another central theme is the differences between the classical and the romantic world views – science vs. art; facts vs. intuition. Sometimes the two are in opposition, and sometimes one inevitably contains the other. But the play also contains discussions of garden history, thermodynamics, chaos theory, iterative processes etc. – all of them echoed in the events of the play.
The plot is impressively well-crafted. It’s not set of threads running in parallel, but rather a whole intricate web: almost everything touches everything else, and the ends are tied together very neatly. The story is very “tight”: no line is superfluous, and there is never a dull moment.
These ideas and the plot structure get a lot more attention than the characters. The characters do all have quite distinct personalities, and Stoppard gently shows us their loves, joys and frustrations. But in the end this play is far more intellectual rather than passionate. (There’s that classical vs romantic dichotomy again.) I got as much out of reading it, as I did from seeing it. (I couldn’t say that of Shakespeare in Love, the only other work by Stoppard that I’ve seen – although not read.)
To really enjoy this book, it needs to be read with great attention. While the book isn’t complicated as such, there are lots of things going on, and lots of small but important things are said and done. Ignore a detail, and you’ll miss a later joke. I read the first half twice and found it more rewarding the second time. (On the other hand, the book is only 130 pages, so it won’t take too long to read even with maximum attention.)
The language also rewards attentive reading. Stoppard is witty in a very pleasing way: the play is full of subtle jokes, puns, and double entendres. Yet it is all done with such grace and good judgement that there is never a feeling of forced jollity or excessive comedy.
To top it all off, Stoppard’s language is a joy to read. Every line is elegant; every phrase worth savouring. It’s hard to do describe it in a way that does it justice… and likewise hard to find a representative line to quote, because each one is so much better in its proper setting. Here is the very beginning of the play. Thomasina is the precocious 13-year-old daughter of the lady of the house; Septimus her tutor.
Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.
Thomasina: Is that all?
Septimus: No… a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse… caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.
Thomasina: Is it a sin?
Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED.