a play by Tom Stoppard, directed by Trevor Nunn
at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, New York City
by Tom Stoppard
Faber and Faber, 97 pp., $8.95 (paper)
“Allow me,” said Mr. Gall. “I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.”
“Pray, sir,” said Mr. Milestone, “by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?”
Mr. Gall bit his lips, and inwardly vowed to revenge himself on Milestone, by cutting up his next publication.
—Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall (1815)
In Headlong Hall, the earliest of Peacock’s satirical novels, a motley collection of guests assembles at Squire Headlong’s country estate for the Christmas season. Among them are Mr. Gall, the vitriolic reviewer, Philomela Poppyseed, the best-selling novelist, the poet Nightshade, Marmaduke Milestone, the landscape architect and “improver” of gentlemen’s grounds, Mr. Cranium, exponent of the new “science” of phrenology, and his lovely daughter Cephalis, Mr. Escot, the embattled vegetarian and believer in the steady deterioration of the world, and his opponent Mr. Foster, who maintains that mankind is progressing steadily toward perfection.
Real people can be glimpsed behind many of these characters as they argue, and pair off in marriage. Gall, for instance, is Francis Jeffrey of the contemporary Edinburgh Review; Miss Poppyseed is based on the novelist Amelia Opie; Escot and Foster embody different aspects of Peacock’s friend Shelley, while in Milestone he has amalgamated Humphry Repton (1752–1818) with his famous predecessor Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783). Repton liked to present clients with a book bound in red leather in which watercolor sketches of their estate could be folded back to reveal cutout projections of how it might look after his improvements. Brown, some of whose work still survives at Stowe and Blenheim Palace, acquired his nickname from a habit of assuring prospective patrons of the great “capabilities” of their grounds. The most celebrated of those eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century landscape gardeners who attempted to smooth out and compose nature until it resembled an idealized painting of Arcadia or the Elysian Fields by Poussin or Claude Lorrain, he once encountered a gentleman who expressed an earnest desire to predecease Brown, “because I want to see Heaven before you have ‘improved’ it.”
Tom Stoppard claims that for some years now he has seldom picked up a novel. But Headlong Hall, whenever he read it, clearly left a powerful impression. Squire Headlong’s country estate relates to Sidley Park, the equally fictitious setting for Arcadia, rather like one of the paired “before” and “after” views in Repton’s Red Books. Stoppard, indeed, wittily half-acknowledges his indebtedness in Act I, by way of an account of Sidley Park around 1830, written (we are told) “by the author of Headlong Hall.” When Bernard Nightingale, Stoppard’s pushy academic, requires an alias in a hurry, “Peacock,” not accidentally, turns out to be the chosen name. Like Headlong Hall, Stoppard’s play assembles disputatious visitors—among them a landscape architect, two poets, a female author, and a savage book reviewer …