It’s all trivial – your grouse, my hermit, Bernard’s Byron. Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter. — “Hannah,” in Arcadia
Consuming academic ambition like a cup of tea, Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is more than palatable. Originally produced in 1993 with revivals now playing in London and Washington, D.C.‘s Folger Shakespeare Library (staged by director Aaron Posner), “Arcadia” pays homage to the pursuit of knowledge, and has been hailed as one of the finest plays of the last century.
“I think that the ideas are the end product of the play, more than a play being the end product of a set of ideas,” Stoppard told Jeffrey Brown in November 2007, when the NewsHour profiled him for his most recent work, “Rock ‘n Roll.” (Rufus Sewell, past star of “Rock ‘n Roll,” gained early notice in the original production of “Arcadia.” And today Stoppard’s own son Ed is appearing in the London run.)
In “Arcadia,” dual storylines — separated by nearly 200 years — move across the same room of an English country home. In 1809, Septimus, the erudite tutor, (played by the charming Cody Nickell at the Folger), aims to teach common geometry to his 13-year-old pupil, Thomasina (a rambunctious Erin Weaver). Her inquisitive nature drives her to fill notebooks with ideas that add up to a discovery of chaos theory years in advance. But it isn’t math, it’s passion — in numerous forms — that takes center stage in Stoppard’s verbose web of a play. “If there is an equation for a curve like a bell,” ponders wunderkind Thomasina, “there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?” Throughout the restless household, talk (and more than talk) of carnal embrace abounds, as the cold, harsh rationalism of the Enlightenment gives way to the era of Romanticism. It’s a progression you can see even in the estate’s garden: its neat, manicured grounds are replaced by lush overgrowth (a hermit even takes up residence there). The home is a study of logic unraveled: as the women are wooed and duels declared, chaos abounds, in the classroom and beyond.
The pursuit of sex, science and literature transports the audience to the present day for the play’s mirror half, where a motley crew of academics and manor heirs have gathered to uncover the mysteries of the house in its 19th century heydays. One character, Hannah, is researching the man who became the hermit-in-residence, and the mystery that surrounds him; her would-be beau is researching the history of the estate by examining its hunting habits and game books, and an enterprising academic and lothario is trying to pin the poet Lord Byron’s famous mysterious departure from England on a short stay he spent at the manor as a guest of the tutor Septimus.
“Where was I?” asks Bernard, the Byron scholar, when he gets distracted during a mock lecture.
“Literature,” comes the refrain from each of the inhabitants, a representation of their varied resident obsessions.
“Life and death. Right…” says Bernard, picking up the lecture. These characters are connected not by their academic disciplines, but by their passion for the search, however flawed the results. In the last act — as beautifully written as it is staged — Septimus says, “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.” While their intellectual conclusions can be as flawed as the people drawing them, the emotions let loose during the pursuit light up the entire stage.
_Arcadia is playing at the Folger Theatre in D.C. through June 21, and in London until Sept. 12 at the Duke of York Theater
[Watch Jeff Brown’s 2007 interview with Tom Stoppard]