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Friday, May 01, 2009

cover of Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia'

This is the first time in a long time that I've picked up a play to read just for fun, but I saw this book on the shelf and it just called to me. Stoppard's writing is witty and brilliant and entertaining and moving. This play juxtaposes people in two different time period but in the same location-- in an English estate in the early 1800s, where renovations are being done to update the place to the latest fashions, and in the present day, where scholars are doing research on the historical materials from the earlier time periods. Hannah is studying the renovation of the gardens as a microcosm of the shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism; Bernard is convinced there is a connection to Byron; and Valentine Coverley is hoping to use the centuries of grouse hunting logs as a dataset for his mathematical research. One of the most fascinating characters is Thomasina Coverley, a young girl who is a mathematical genius and intuits the second law of thermodnyamics long before anyone else (she sees that Newton's equations run the same forwards and backwards, but that a heat engine does not), and who sees that mathematical formulas can describe nature, like an apple leaf-- but she wants to learn to dance, to know what love is.

The layering of time and place here is brilliant; the landscape is being crafted by man, and then redesigned into the latest ideal of what is stylish or "picturesque." The contemporary and historic scenes are layered on top of each other, sharing the same room and even the same, overlapping props. As the play progresses, the papers and books and various objects get piled on top of each other, the layers of all the historical details and records that are left behind, the "trivia" that scholars dig into to try to find something of significance, to make a story of. Reading the play, it's a little hard to keep track of who all is in the room at the same time, when the two timelines start to overlap more (with even conversations overlapping), but the one time I saw the play performed this worked just brilliantly.

It's also fun to watch the scholars trying to make sense of the pieces they have left, the way they interpret things and try to make sense of it-- this is particulary entertaining because the audience has seen the history they are researching. Bernard says at one point, "There is a platonic letter which confirms everything-- lost but ineradicable, like radio voices rippling through the universe for all eternity." In this case, we find out later in the play that there actually was a letter, exactly like he described.

I love the way that Stoppard's stage notes and descriptions of scenes and characters are suggestive, but not exact or demanding-- it may be done this way or that. There is an overlapping character, Augustus/Gus Coverly in both time periods, who is apparently meant to be played by the same actor, and at one point he appears (in period costume, for a party), but the audience isn't supposed to know which Augustus it is until we see who responds to him.

Some favorite lines...

Thomasina: If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.
Hannah: A century of intellectual rigour turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius. In a setting of cheap thrills and false emotion. The history if the garden says it all, beautifully. 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 whole sublime geometry was ploughed under by Capability Brown. ... And then Richard Noakes came in to bring God up to date.
Valentine: There was someone, forget his name, 1820s, who pointed out that from Newton's laws you could predict everything to come - I mean, you'd need a computer as big as the universe but the formula would exist.
Chloe: But it doesn't work, does it?
Valentine: No. It turns out the maths is different.
Chloe: No, it's all because of sex. ... That's what I think. The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean, it's trying to be, but the only wrong thing is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be in that part of the plan.
Valentine: Ah. The attraction that Newton left out.
Thomasina: Well! Just as I said! Newton's machine which would knock our atoms from cradle to grave by the laws of motion is incomplete! Determinism leaves the road at every corner, as I knew all along, and the cause is very likely hidden in this gentleman's observation. ... The action of bodies in heat.
Valentine: She didn't have the maths, not remotely. She saw what things meant, way ahead, like seeing a picture. ... That you can't run the film backwards. Heat was the first thing which didn't work that way. Not like Newton. A film of a pendulum, or a ball falling through the air-- backwards, it looks the same. ... But with heat-- friction-- a ball breaking a window-- ... It won't work backwards. ... She saw why. You can put back the bits of glass but you can't collect up the heat of the smash. It's gone.
Author:Tom Stoppard
Date published:1993
Number of pages:97
Notes:repeat reading


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