Listen to this article
Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia is to close today, after running for more than two years (first at the Lyttelton Theatre, then at the Haymarket Theatre Royal). The original-cast recording has been twice broadcast on Radio 3, and the play opened successfully in New York this March.
At a time when few productions - least of all new plays - survive for more than six months, this success is extraordinary. And though several popular and admired actors have appeared in it, it has plainly been Arcadia itself that has been the chief draw. Part of its appeal has been its mystery: what is it really about? And how does a play so constantly witty become so moving?
‘English art,’ as Nikolaus Pevsner once wrote, ‘is the formal house and the informal, picturesque garden surrounding it.’ In the scenes of Arcadia Georgian windows and doors open on to the spreading garden outside. Within this unity of place, the play shuttles between two times - the morning of English Romanticism (1809-12) and the present. In the earlier period, we watch the two most enchanting characters Stoppard has ever created: Thomasina Coverley, the brilliant young daughter of the house, and her tutor Septimus Hodge.
Septimus happens to be an old friend of Lord Byron - who is a figure often just offstage, never seen, frequently mentioned. But Thomasina tells Septimus: ‘You will be famous for being my tutor when Lord Byron is dead and forgotten.’ For she is a prodigy whose genius leads her to make a major scientific and epistemological breakthrough - discovering a ‘New Geometry of Irregular Forms ... whereby all the forms of nature must give up their numerical secrets and draw themselves through number alone’ - and Septimus is the only person in the household who understands this.
Meanwhile, characters in the present-day scenes find that their larger researches into the garden and Lord Byron bring up confusing bits of evidence of Thomasina and Septimus.
The two most appealing characters here are the historian Hannah Jarvis (researching a 19th-century hermit who is reported to have occupied the hermitage in the garden) and Valentine (a student quantum scientist, investigating the pure mathematics underlying the changes in nature - the ‘tune’ hidden amid its ‘noise’).
What is Arcadia? A rural idyll. The point that even Arcadia has had to be re-made, like so many other concepts, is among Stoppard’s smartest. But, to Stoppard, ‘Arcadia’ has further ambiguities. The play is, in large part, a meditation about the Garden of Eden (the Genesis near-equivalent of Arcadia) - about innocence, knowledge and mortality. (There are multiple Genesis echoes - even an apple.) And the comedy becomes shadowed by our discovery that Thomasina died in a fire on the eve of her 17th birthday.
We find out another haunting fact, about Septimus’s subsequent existence: that, after Thomasina’s death, he took up residence as the hermit in the garden’s new hermitage, madly using thousands of pages trying to prove the extraordinary theory of the rhythms of nature that she had conceived.
And so this schoolroom existence of theirs is itself another kind of Arcadia, an intellectual idyll, which her death will bring to an end.
In several earlier plays, Stoppard was a brilliant, heartless, almost pointless virtuoso. In Arcadia, he found a perfect blend of brilliance and feeling. There are perhaps four patches where he piles on the brilliance too thickly; but throughout the rest there is real beauty in the way he has past and present play off each other.
A whole book could be written on the craft of this play, and on its meanings. At each new encounter, it becomes more intricate, more lucid, more poignant, and more resonant.
In the final scene, Stoppard brings characters of 1812 and the present day onstage at the same time, unaware of each other. Valentine and Hannah, Thomasina and Septimus are all talking of knowledge - but Thomasina (on what, we realise, will be the last evening of her life) is also trying to learn the waltz.
Suddenly Septimus puts his finger on the issue of complete knowledge at the expense of innocence: ‘When we have found all the meanings and lost the mysteries, we will be alone, on an empty shore.’ Beautiful; but Thomasina caps him, very simply: ‘Then we will dance.’
Dancing is the ideal metaphor for living in the present, and it is Thomasina’s touching balance of sense and sensibility that leads her to understand this. And dance they do. While Eden/Arcadia lasts, enjoy it.