It’s not all straightforward in Arcadia

Arcadia is perhaps Tom Stoppard’s best play.  Its eclectic blend of literary history and science bubbles and fizzes with ideas and wit.  Stoppard not only explores the shifting mindscapes between between science and literature, he tackles the divisions between classicism and romanticism, and deterministic and unpredictable theories of the universe.  

The play spans two centuries and is set in Sidley Park in Derbyshire, the large country home of the Coverleys.  What makes the play intriguing is that while one group of characters seeks to determine the future,  the other tries to reconstruct the past. But as the play builds to its tragic conclusion and a kind of truth is revealed, past and present converge and the quest for knowledge itself becomes the essence. 

The play opens in April 1809.  Thomasina Coverley, aged 13, is in the midst of a lesson with her tutor, a Mr Septimus Hodge.  Thomasina is precociously clever; she is not taken in by Septimus’ ‘literal’ evasion of her enquiry about carnal embrace.  But Septimus has his reasons to be evasive since it is he who has been observed in carnal embrace with Mrs Chater.  And now Mr Chater demands satisfaction.  To Septimus, this is tiresome.  

‘Good God, Man!  First your wife wants satisfaction; now you!.  I can’t be spending all my days satisfying the Chater family.’ 

To Septimus, this is tiresome.  To evade unnecessary bloodshed, he flatters Chater by praising his latest book of poetry, ‘The Couch of Eros’, even though he has previously written a damning anonymous review of his previous work.  Septimus knows about poetry.  He is a contemporary, a friend even, of  Byron.  Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey, is close by and Byron has been a shooting guest at Sidley. 

Fast forward two centuries.  Hannah Jarvis, a successful author is researching her book on the Coverleys.  Bernard Nightingale is interested in the possible reasons why Byron fled to Portugal shortly after his stay in Sidley Park.  Finding the letters from the Chaters, he assumes that Byron has killed Chater in a duel.  He is wrong.  There is no duel.  Chater and his wife go plant hunting with Captain Brice.  Chater discovers a new kind of dahlia but dies abroad after being bitten by a monkey.  Brice marries Mrs Chater.  Byron has his own reasons for his dash to Lisbon; probably fear of exposure of his ‘illegal’ homosexual liaisons.  

There is a tangible sexual chemistry between  Bernard and Hannah that manifests itself in  a lacerating repartee, so wonderfully created by Neil Pearson and Samantha Bond.  In fact the whole play seems to sizzle with sexual opportunity.  Septimus is clearly a red blooded romantic.  Not only is he susceptible to Mrs Chater’s rural charms, but he is inflatuated by Lady Croome and by the end of the play, is clearly not averse to his pupil’s budding attractions. In a clever interweaving of plot and time, Thomasina persuades Septimus to teach her to waltz on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but we already know that on that same night, she is consumed by a conflagration in her bedroom.   Septimus becomes the mad hermit in the park.  Byron prowls in park and gazebo.  Valentine conducts a futile wooing of Hannah.  Even his autistic brother, Gus, is taken by Hannah and presents her with an apple to go with her computer.

The plot is set against a back drop of change.   The Enlightenment and the Millennium are  exciting times to be alive.  The intellectual landscape was changing along with the physical.  In many country houses in England, the formal continental gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries had been ploughed and planted with grass and trees, streams had been dammed up to create lakes, sweeping vistas have been opened up. The aristocracy were no longer hemmed in by the continental confines, of hedge and flower bed, they were  now masters of all they surveyed.   Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has created an environment that represented the freedom and confidence of an expanding empire.  But hard on the heels of empire, something different is taking place.  The sweeping vistas are being turned into something romantic, picturesque, clandestine even.    Rocky hillsides are being planted with trees, grottos are being created, ruins are preserved,  waterfalls constructed.  This is an environment of privacy, secrecy where assignations can take place and the feminine principles of sex and romance can prevail. The formal appearance of the great house is preserved, but in the garden, there are more exciting opportunities. Nancy Carroll’s Lady Croom simmers; she doesn’t approve of the changes, her new landscape architect, Mr ‘Culpability’ Noakes is wreaking on the estate.   

A similar change is occurring in the mental landscape of ideas.  Newton had created the formulae for a new order.  Thomasina is precociously aware of Newtonian calculus and philosophy.  ‘You cannot stir things apart.’  Two centuries before computers will do the job for her, she conceives the iterative algorithm, an algebraic equation the describes the nature of natural phenomena by encapsulating the forces acting on them, and then putting the solution ‘y’ back into the equation as ‘x’, to create a three dimensional model.  She uses it to build a model of an apple leaf, but two centuries later, the intense Valentine uses the same approach to describe fluctuations in the populations of grouse on the estate.    Everything, it seemed, could be described by mathematical rules.  If we knew the rules we could predict the future; the weather, politics, financial markets, illness, the natural world – everything.  The solutions may be complex, but a confident, emerging Empire understood these and could control them.  Since the outcomes were predictable, the future could be controlled.     

Two centuries later, it is so different.  We cannot predict the weather accurately, any more than Valentine can predict the populations of grouse on the estate because as Valentine expresses in his frustration, there is too much fucking noise. The new mathematics is the mathematics of unpredictability, chaos; how a seemingly disconnected event occurring a long way off can set in train events that make a fundamental change in whatever we are studying.  A butterfly flaps in wings in China and a hurricane occurs in North America.  A building society goes bust in America and creates a world wide credit crisis.  A junior minister has a meaningless sexual liaison with a call girl and brings down a government.  We are beginning to understand the how minor, seemingly disconnected chance events, can have profound effects.   

The greatest source of perturbation and noise confounding the outcome of human endeavour, is love.  And in Arcadia, the very air sizzles with sexual energy.  Bernard bounces with it, Septimus, his friend Byron, and Mrs Chater, Hannah fears being overwhelmed by it and defends herself strenuously,  but the innocents, Mr Chater and the tragic clever Thomasina are destroyed by it. 

Love can confound the most robust equations, generating chaos out of order,  threatening to disrupt the most ordered lives, but at the same time, making what seems remote and impossible, a frightening, risky possibility that could lead to destruction but also, if one keeps one’s nerve,  re-creation. 

Stoppard is one of most exciting living playwrites because he, like Septimus, Thomasina, Hannah and Valentine, has the sheer balls to expose the destructive forces within our society while at seeking to harness them to discover truth.