Arcadia book


by Tom Stoppard

Arcadia was voted Time Magazine's Best Play of 1995.

It is written by one of our greatest playwrights, Sir Tom Stoppard. His previous work includes Rozencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and screenplays for Shakespeare in Love, Enigma, The Russia House, and Empire of the Sun.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637-1638, Oil on Canvas. The meaning of the painting explained.


      If ever a play has mastered the trick of being at once intricate and undemanding, Arcadia, Tom Stoppard's 1993 intellectual parlour game about four generations of one family in one room but 180 years apart, is it.

The play demands acute awareness, a willingness to hunt for clues, and a lust for discovery. (JVS)

   Description: reason is simple; there are all sorts of theories to explain the world, many of which - chaos theory, fractals, Kelvin's theory of heat, the second law of thermodynamics, population theory - are given a good going-over in Arcadia, but, as the concupiscent Chloe Coverly (Adriane Daff) proclaims, it's sex that makes it go around.

And it's sex, in word and deed, which drives this satisfying revival. There is much bonking done or denied, conspired for or hankered after, in picturesque locations like gazebos and piano rooms - all, I have to report, safely off stage. The talk may be of literary criticism, landscape gardening and mathematics, but there's too, too solid flesh stirring urgently under those elegant muslins and linens.


This play seriously critiques the values thought to be encouraged by the romantic movement of the early 19th century.

Central to the play are two couples: first, Septimus Hodge, tutor and remarkable man, poet, scientist, romantic and Thomasina Coverly, his aristocratic genius-level pupil Thomasina is Lady Crome’s daughter, and Hodge a brilliant man who needs an income. The other couple analogously (so to speak) are also paired and they are the popular historical novelist, Hannah Jarvis and the professor, Bernard Nightingale.

Hannah’s excuse for living in the house & spending time in its landscape is she’s writing a history of gardens; Nightingale is there to ferret out more information and try out his theory on the family that Nightingale has discovered: George Gordon, Lord Byron duelled with and murdered Ezra Chater, who was with his promiscuous wife in the house on the same weekend in 1809 that Bryon is recorded as having been there at Sidley Park manor (the house).

It’s impossible to do justice to this play. Suffice to say it’s about two groups of people, so like a Booker Prize book (whose typical self-reflexivity and literariness it resembled), the play unfolds in both a historical past-time and is embedded in and interwoven with a parallel contemporary time.

Et in Arcadia Ego, or I (death) also am in Arcadia, or paradise.

There are two groups:

1) As usual with costume drama, it was the 1809 group which broke central taboos of life, experienced tragedy. Here Hodge who we learn became a half-mad hermit as a result of what happens in the play, and Thomasina who is burnt to death the night after the play ends, belong.

This group includes some famous and non-famous figures who do not appear, including Byron—who is never seen but said to be out in the house’s vast gardens, indulging in “carnal embraces” with one Mrs. Chater and then Lady Crome. We have a butler (Jellaby), an absurdly vain cuckold (who actually does not care if his wife has lovers, ( Ezra Chater), a landscape architect & gardener (Mr. Noakes).

2) The contemporary group is made up of caricatures & sympathetic portrayals of modern intellectual and sensitive types: adult aristocrats, the owners of the estate, the Coverlys: as Valentine, an older male who would marry Hannah if she’d agree; as Chloe Coverly, who dresses up as Jane Austen at one point and would become a lover of the professor if he’d agree. We have a silent suffering younger brother who flees everyone, Gus.

The stories are not so much parallel as run alongside one another as the contemporary modern characters try to discover what was the truth of what happened to the earlier ones.

The contemporary sleuths mostly get everything wrong until near the end when Hannah correctly tells the tale of what happened to whom and when. So there is much dramatic irony, and as the two sets of characters alternatively appear, gradually they begin to occupy the stage at one time.

This is a satire on modern sleuthing historical scholarship and the corruption of the academy by people who will argue anything as long as it has sex and a “marque” figure in it (reminding me of A. S. Byatt’s Possession). More deeply, the action and characters juxtaposed to one another and discussing math, geology, art, library and record research makes for a play about time, people’s relationship to love, to landscape, to writing and words, to history and “literature”. Stoppard knows how to conjure up beautiful places through simple words: shrubbery, bridge, pavilion, gazebo, lake; and we hear suggestively of countries far off. There is the usual delightful scene in a Stoppard play of some of the characters listening to, watching and interrupting by comments other characters performing: the professor gives an paper with hopelessly extravagant deductions about Byron.

At the heart of the Arcadia is Stoppard’s reaction to romanticism: he critiques it as an outcome of the secular enlightenment with its valuing of the individual, genius, nature over conformity to a group, religious ties and assurance of metaphysical continuity. Our modern characters are all romantics, caught up in their own obsessions, with the professor standing in for the worst kind of self-indulgence, vanity, destructiveness of other people to gain prestige and fame. A hermit is both an archetypal 18th century and romantic figure (see Isabel Colegate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries, Recluses).

Alas at ACESC conferences scholars who are themselves so successful and comfortable in social life usually give anti-Rousseauistic papers which more than half-mock the hermit, and the 18th century idealistic urge to sincerity, retirement.

Stoppard takes the figure seriously: his main insight is courageously pessimistic, for Hodge turns away from the world he was working so hard to improve in Thomasina and she dies ironically because he was noble enough to refuse to go to bed with her the night she turned 17.

But there are signs of hope: a turtle on the table exists in both eras; the later era does find the papers of the earlier one; I take it the discussions of math are to show a figuring forth of a lasting order & harmony in eternity, which we also see in the final dance and in the interweaving of the characters and their beautiful gardens.

The final scene has Hodge and Thomasina dancing to a candle at night, just before she goes upstairs (as we know as we watch) to her death, with Hannah dancing in the same space with a lost shy young Gus Coverly.

Excerpts from Ellen & Jim, Blog; Wordpress, May 22, 2009

Four views of the Sidley Park Estate

Arcadia is also available from Amazon.


Themes in Environmental Literature

Essential parts of a narrative.

Irving | Williams | Hemingway | Faulkner | Bishop