Book – Arcadia
Author – Tom Stoppard
Year – 1993
Genre – Play
Pages – 97
I know that I said towards the beginning of the year that you could expect to see a lot more plays from me. Well, I haven’t quite lived up to that yet, but that has been mainly due to the glut of brilliant novels I have sat on my shelf. I resolved to at least up my quota a little however, and thus grabbed a play by Tom Stoppard from my shelf – Arcadia.
As part of my drama degree, I took a module titled ‘Science On Stage’. For this, I had to read a dozen or so plays which focused on theatre built around the idea of science. Of course, this being me, I read one – the one that I had to give the presentation on. This is one of the plays that I was supposed to have read. Well, my homework may be late, but at least it can’t be said that I didn’t get it done.
I read my first Stoppard play – Hapgood – as part of the first (failed) book challenge in 2009, and I remember commenting at the time how one of the really nice things about it was that the stage directions are actually there to be enjoyed. Rather than just the typically humdrum announcements of ‘Exit Left’ or in a play that prides itself on its non-typically exciting stage directions, ‘Exit Left rapidly’, Stoppard peppers his directions with other comments. For instance, at one point he describes how a book on the stage is arranged in the style of Repton. He then carries on unnecessarily to tell us that, of course, Repton did his pictures the other way round to described. Completely not necessary, but there for the play reader rather than the audience. He also describes the scene at the beginning as being a stately home which is in a big park. He says this might be seen from the windows. Or not. It’s our call. Whilst these asides are less frequent in Arcadia than Hapgood, it is an interesting style, and one that makes me inclined to read more by Stoppard.
As for the play itself, it is pretty confusing. The action takes place simultaneously in the 1800s and in 1993, and follows a family of the aristocracy who are hosting Lord Byron, and later in time, by scholars trying to piece together what happened in the stately home some couple of hundred years ago when Byron was there. This makes for a nice set up, and I can imagine the play flowing well on stage. The confusion comes from the aforementioned science. One of the modern day scholars is researching a recurring pattern in nature to attempt to form mathematical sense from a natural world. As it goes, the groundwork for this has gone unnoticed in the work of the young girl of the house in our past time. This much is easy enough to understand, but the difficulty comes in trying to tie the scientific fact into the allegories for the characters relationships which is implied. Stoppard gives you little of the actual science, and instead relies on your understanding of either theoretical physics and biology, or scholarly speech in order to figure this out. A skilled company could probably help to put this on stage in a way that would not alienate the audience (and not in a Brechtian way drama fans, but in a bad way), but to the reader, it necessitated plenty of trips to Wikipedia, or blind faith that the particular bit I didn’t understand would not be of vital importance.
This does not mean that it isn’t a play to be read, but just be aware that unless you are pretty much au fait with a lot of the science behind it, it may not be the easiest of things to get everything from. If only I had paid more attention in Science on Stage…