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August 03, 2009

It's Good to be Clever: Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (1993)
directed by David Leveaux
Duke of York's Theatre, London
11th June - 12th September 2009

So far as I'm concerned, it's just a lot of academic drivel.
Or so warbled the elderly, female, upper-middle class voice on its way to the bar at the interval The comment was meant to be noted and I note it, with predictable responses:

1. Would its author recognise a category of academic non-drivel?

2. How could one avoid the suspicion that anyone who says that is likely to be someone who hasn't been to university but wishes they had?

Arcadia was first produced in 1993 and won awards for best play in both London and New York. The Wikipedia article about it gives its subject as "History, science, philosophy, mathematics, love, death", but lust features more than love and it is, among other things, also about landscape and literature.

I won't attempt to summarise the plot, but for those who don't know the play the action takes place in the same room in a Derbyshire country house in both 1809 and 1989. Initially the two periods have separate scenes, but in the later stages they share the stage without interacting except in an historically realistic way because the contemporary characters are to different degrees engaged in researching the activities of the earlier ones.

I had never seen Arcadia on stage before the current production. When I read it I was very impressed and pencilled it in as a candidate for the finest play in English in the second half of the twentieth century. It is complex, very clever, witty and (not the same thing) funny. Stoppard is like Shaw in his unashamed cleverness and Wilde in his wit.

In this play there are also hints of Chekhov because the author places us firmly in a landscape - an English country house parkland with a thousand acres of grouse moor beyond - which we never see. As with The Cherry Orchard the landscape is part of the plot: the parkland is being redesigned in 1809 from Classical to Romantic-picturesque and the game book turns out to furnish evidence vital to contemporary research.

Watching Stoppard, having watched plays by other contemporary playwrights, is like being allowed to go to school with the bright kids. At last, someone who knows about stuff, who isn't afraid to be clever, who isn't part - to use a phrase from Arcadia - of "the descent from thinking to feeling", a descent signified here by the re-modelling of the park.

So it is with great regret that I report that I found Arcadia on stage at least marginally disappointing. I don't think it is the production which is the problem. While the cast is not as distinguished as the original by any means, it is pretty good. Neil Pearson is in his element as the shysterish modern academic - easily imaginable for anyone who saw him in the six series of Drop the Dead Donkey. Samantha Bond is excellent as the feminist biographer of Emma Hamilton. The greatest weakness is Jessie Cave as Thomasina Coverly, but playing a 13-year old prodigy who anticipates developments in mathematics by a over a century is not easy - a kind of intellectual Juliet, you might say.

The disappointment certainly doesn't occur at the beginning of the play because the device, the wit and the atmosphere prove captivating. It occurs progressively when characters fail to develop consistently. For instance, the lady author makes a great speech which includes her thoughts on thinking and feeling. The trouble is, it doesn't seem to belong to her, but to the playwright.

Similarly, the shyster academic eloquently attacks science as represented by the aristocratic mathematician who is here played by the playwright's son, Ed Stoppard. Why would anyone give a shit about the origin or size of the universe? he demands. But this, too, seems like a speech in search of a character. And when we learn that Thomasina was burned to death on her seventeenth birthday and that her tutor thereafter lived as a hermit, it all seems much more the solution to a puzzle than a tragedy.

So I want the clever guy to have written the best play of my lifetime, but I left the theatre doubtful. By comparison, I recently saw Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in Chicago. Inconveniently (for the purposes of this argument), the play is actually two years older than me, but it serves this comparison well. It is a claustrophobic little piece about decline, failure and the consequent littleness of lives, but its characters are relentlessly consistent and they cannot fail to engage the emotions. Thus - in a sense - it has much greater theatricality than Arcadia, for all the brilliance of the latter.

I might, here, be pandering to the descent from thinking to feeling? And a bit of brilliance occasionally is very enjoyable in its own right.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.


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