A week ago I attended the first night of the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
As of today, I'm still under the spell of the play: laughing at its jokes, pondering its philosophy, and occasionally overwhelmed by the profound grief that underlies the wit. The play is about gardening, math, sex, love, loss, weekend guests, and a turtle, and it is hilarious and thought-provoking in equal measure.Arcadia,
set in an English country house, moves back and forth in time between the Regency and the present day. The play poses and possibly solves several mysteries about the events of the past. What happened in 1809 that led to the disappearance of the poet Ezra Chater? Who was the mysterious hermit who took up residence in 1812 and lived many years in the grounds?
The nineteenth-century residents include the teenage Thomasina Coverly and her brother Augustus, her tutor Septimus (a friend of Byron's), and her mother, as well as Chater. (Neither Byron nor Mrs. Chater ever appear, but they are important characters nevertheless.)
In the present day, descendants of the Coverly family still live at Sidley Park: another teenage girl and her brother, a scientist, as well as a second brother who speaks only once in the play. This time their houseguests are a historian named Hannah who is researching the hermit, and Bernard who is trying to prove that Lord Byron was a guest in 1809 and killed Chater in a duel.
The present-day scholars are trying to decipher those events with, as it turns out, incomplete data, an inability to see the importance of what they do have, academic arrogance, and a great many theories in the way of the truth. Which is also true of the audience, at least of the audience members unfamiliar with the script. Stoppard inveigles the audience to misjudge the importance of almost every character; essentially, we see the play the way the modern-day characters see the past.
Stoppard is not generally considered an emotional playwright, but beneath the intellectual banter and the offhand adulteries runs a profound vein of love, sorrow, hope, and loss. Ironically, the repeatedly demonstrated point that we can never really know the past offers hope. So does the recurrence of lost ideas. And the house, Sidley Park, preserves the apparently meaningless artifacts that testify to the facts of the past; that continuity is essential to the play's action but also to its meaning. Individuals die; cultures and houses continue.
The production seems good. The basic set—a garden room with a table—serves for both eras. I was too ablaze with the play itself to pay much attention to nuances of performance. The American Conservatory Theater is housed in the spectacular Curran Theater, which is elegantly decorated but whose seats are sized for elves. (Seriously. Airplane seats offer more legroom.) It's worth going anyway. Go see this play. It runs through June 9. Then come back to talk to me about it. Quotations
“THOMASINA: ....the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! -- can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides -- thousands of poems -- Aristotle's own library!....How can we sleep for grief?
SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”
― Tom Stoppard, Arcadia