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Twice Around the Grounds

Arcadia

a play by Tom Stoppard, directed by Trevor Nunn
at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, New York City

Arcadia

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—in a great country house. There they proceed to argue with the family and each other, not only about matters of taste in the formal landscaping of a park but about writers and literary critics, new scientific discoveries, and the future of the human race. They also find time to make love.

Arcadia is, at last, the full-length work Stoppard said in 1974—after the success of Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974)—he really wanted to write: “Something that takes place in a whitewashed room with no music and no jumping about…so that the energy can go into the literary side of what I do. I’d like to write a quiet play.”1 The schoolroom at Sidley Park, where all of Arcadia takes place, is not exactly a “whitewashed room”—it has scale and a certain architectural grandeur—but in Mark Thompson’s set at Lincoln Center, as in London, it “looks bare,” just as Stoppard specifies it should. Certainly, it furnishings are minimal. In Trevor Nunn’s New York restaging with American actors of his original (1993) English production, the landscape framed by the room’s French windows (some trailing foliage, and beyond it an expanse of grass obscured by mist that, between scenes, becomes low, fast-moving clouds) suggests extensive, hidden vistas.

The backdrop itself, however, remains timelessly noncommittal. Stoppard’s play alternates for six of its seven scenes between 1809 and now. Then, in a long final movement, the present is hauntingly made to coexist on stage with the year 1812. Only the theater audience is privileged to participate in both: seeing and overhearing all these characters, the living and the dead, whose voices Stoppard brilliantly interweaves across the gap of 183 years, in a room that all of them have known. Like the backdrop, the room scarcely alters. The few scattered objects visible in 1809 and 1812 are still present at the end of the twentieth century, including Plautus the pet tortoise, even if someone has changed his name. As for music, although Stoppard has certainly not abandoned it, Jeremy Sams’s score is for the most part unobtrusive and subdued: a clarinet, a saxophone, an early piano sometimes played badly, sometimes well, but always offstage.

In theatrical terms, too, Arcadia is muted by comparison with most of Stoppard’s previous work. No yellow-suited gymnasts dangerously construct and implode human pyramids (Jumpers); nor does an entire troupe of traveling actors stow away—and improbably contrive a musical performance—inside three barrels (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1967); no drama critic gets surprised and killed by the play he is reviewing (The Real Inspector Hound, 1968), nor is there any equivalent to the public librarian in Travesties, who seems to strip on top of her desk while delivering a heartfelt panegyric on Lenin.

Visually, nothing in Arcadia even approaches the dizzying play with briefcases and Russian twins in Hapgood (1988), let alone the surrealist tableau which confronts audiences at the start of After Magritte (1970)—Mother stretched out on the ironing board, while a man standing on a wooden chair, and wearing green rubber fishing waders over evening-dress trousers, apparently tries to blow out the electric light. In Arcadia, not only do two of the most important guests at Sidley Park, Lord Byron and the lascivious Mrs. Chater, remain tantalizingly offstage; all the really arresting events are invisible. It is typical of this play that the most startling (and also the most heart-wrenching) thing to happen in it should be the almost casual disclosure, close to the end, that nearly two hundred years earlier an exceptionally talented young girl met an accidental and senseless death.

Arcadia is wonderfully inventive and funny, full of the epigrams, puns, and verbal pyrotechnics characteristic of this dramatist. From the interchange between thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly and her tutor with which the play begins—“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” “Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef”—to the end, Stoppard’s highly individual love affair with the English language never slackens. For the very existence of that relationship, one is obliged to thank a combination of global warfare and pure chance. He was born Tomas Straussler, in the Czechoslovakia of 1937, and his family’s removal to Singapore, evacuation to India, then residence in England itself from 1946, after Stoppard’s widowed mother remarried, have determined the language in which he writes. Stoppard’s fascination with twentieth-century linguistic philosophy—Wittgenstein, G. E. Moore, A. J. Ayer—and with the perplexed relationship of words to the “reality” they purport to describe, is manifest in a number of his plays. It has always been partnered, however, by a freewheeling delight in words that seems distinctively Elizabethan.

Stoppard’s puns, far from being drearily Derridean, are something Shakespeare would have understood. He loves to demonstrate how exciting it can be when two meanings (as Tony Tanner puts it in Adultery and the Novel) lie down together irregularly in the same bed: as they do when Thomasina’s “carnal,” meaning “sensual,” cohabits disconcertingly with its other connotation of “meat.” Arcadia carries on and extends Stoppard’s long-term association of wordplay with sexual transgression. What is new here is that elegiac, almost Virgilian quality signaled in the title of the comedy itself. This “quiet play” is one of Stoppard’s finest. But it raises, in an acute form, the question asked by Peacock’s Mr. Milestone: Does it matter if you walk only once around the grounds, or twice?

Stoppard’s plays, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, now a prescribed text in many British schools, have provoked mixed reactions from academics and theater critics alike. No one has ever denied the cleverness and consummate craftsmanship of his twenty-odd works for radio, television, and the stage, or the urgency of Stoppard’s ambition to achieve what he calls “the perfect marriage between the play of ideas and farce or perhaps even high comedy.”2 His detractors, on the other hand, accuse him of game-playing for its own sake, of being persistently overweight with intellectual baggage, and of emptiness and chill. It has been said that he dodges political issues—an allegation harder to sustain after Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), Professional Foul (1977), Cahoot’s Macbeth (1979), and Squaring the Circle (1980–1981)—that most of his women are caricatures, and that when he does take them seriously (Annie in The Real Thing, 1982, or the protagonist of Hapgood), they fail to convince. Most consistent of all have been complaints that his plays, however masterfully constructed, are difficult for audiences to follow in the theater, or even (in some cases) on the printed page.

Stoppard has defended himself by pointing out that he writes in more than one mode, that it is inappropriate to judge an exquisite farce mechanism such as The Real Inspector Hound as though it aspired to the condition of high comedy, and that his real interest lies less in character than in dialogue and “the felicitous expression of ideas.” 3 When various philosophical journals sniped at his account of Wittgenstein and British logical positivism as incorporated in Jumpers, he was able to take comfort from the fact that no less a figure than A.J. Ayer instantly rose to his defense. (A lingering distrust of academics remains evident in Arcadia‘s portrait of Nightingale, the arrogant and insensitive Sussex don.) Stoppard has always maintained that his work, for all its dazzle, is grounded in humane and moral concerns, a claim that on the whole seems justified. Altogether more debatable is his insistence that, although he may in some instances want to mystify audiences (he has admitted to creating a number of deliberately incomprehensible first scenes),4 his plays are meant to communicate in the theater, with no need for elucidation through recourse to the published text. Certainly Arcadia, despite its readily available surface fun, is not easy to appreciate fully the first time around in its acted or (indeed) even its printed form.

Audiences are not required to digest a great deal of plot in Arcadia—certainly nothing resembling the narrative perplexities of Hapgood, Stoppard’s last full-length play. Basically, what happens is that in 1809, the young tutor in residence at Sidley Park, Byron’s schoolfellow Septimus Hodge, is detected in an al fresco “carnal embrace” with the wife of Ezra Chater, a visiting poetaster. A duel is avoided only because Mrs. Chater collides that night with her equally lustful hostess, Lady Croom, on the threshold of Lord Byron’s bedroom, and Byron and the two Chaters hastily leave the house. During all this, Mr. Noakes, the landscape architect, is preparing to replace Capability Brown’s Arcadian paradise at Sidley Park with grounds in the picturesque style of Salvator Rosa: irregular, gloomy, and mock-wild, complete with a Gothic hermitage for which a resident hermit has yet to be found.

  1. 1

    Interview with Ronald Hayman (June 1974), in Tom Stoppard, by Ronald Hayman (London: Heinemann), fourth edition, 1982, pp. 11–12.

  2. 2

    Ambushes for an Audience: Towards a High Comedy of Ideas,” in Theatre Quarterly (May–July 1974), p. 7. An interview with the Quarterly‘s editors.

  3. 3

    Full Stoppard,” an interview with Stephen Schiff (May 1989), reprinted in Paul Delaney, editor, Tom Stoppard in Conversation (University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 222.

  4. 4

    Welcome to the World of Tom Stoppard,” an interview with Thomas O’Connor (April 1989), reprinted in Tom Stoppard in Conversation, p. 225.

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