by Tom Stoppard

Paperback, 2009




London Faber and Faber 2009


In a large country house in Derbyshire in April 1809 sits Lady Thomasina Coverly, aged thirteen, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Through the window may be seen some of the '500 acres inclusive of lake' where Capability Brown's idealized landscape is about to give way to the 'picturesque' Gothic style: 'everything but vampires', as the garden historian Hannah Jarvis remarks to Bernard Nightingale when they stand in the same room 180 years later. Bernard has arrived to uncover the scandal which is said to have taken place when Lord Byron stayed at Sidley Park. Tom Stoppard's absorbing play takes us back and forth between the centuries and explores the nature of truth and time, the difference between the Classical and the Romantic temperament, and the disruptive influence of sex on our orbits in life - 'the attraction', as Hannah says, 'which Newton left out'.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nostalgebraist
Enough people love this play that it presumably has some good qualities. But I just couldn't get past the snide, obnoxious characters, and the facile, frequently inaccurate treatment of science and math, which panders to the "science is just the product of fallible human impulses and, like, we don't really know anything for sure anyway, man" attitude that has become the norm among intellectuals and wannabe intellectuals who, for one reason or another, aren't interested in science.

As a presentation of math and science to a lay audience, the play is a failure. It feels as though Stoppard read James Gleick's Chaos (or a similar popular text), misunderstood it, forgot half of it, and then wrote the play on this basis of what remained. When Stoppard tries to write about chaos theory, he fails to mention the central concept -- sensitive dependence on initial conditions (the famous "butterfly effect") and its appearance even in simple systems -- and instead only tells the audience that chaos has something to do with iterated maps.

He mentions that iterated maps can produce fractals that look very much like realistic mountains, leaves, ferns, etc., and implies that the failure of 18th/19th-century dreams of predictability has something to do with the failure to use these realistic, fractal models of objects in physics calculations. (One of the characters proleptically quotes Mandlebrot: "Mountains are not cones, clouds are not spheres.") This, of course, raises the question: if we do have fractals now, is predictability no longer doomed? The answer is no, because (almost) all interesting physical systems exhibit sensitive dependence on initial conditions; but Stoppard does not clarify this. An audience member unfamiliar with the material will leave the play under the impression that physicists like Newton and Laplace were overly optimistic about prediction because they did not know about iterated maps, which (somehow!) are supposed to make prediction harder. Since the idea of an iterated map is very simple (indeed, it is explained in the play), this makes these geniuses look rather stupid.

Of course, they actually did know about iterated maps. (One of the most famous iterated maps is called . . . wait for it . . . Newton's method.) They didn't appreciate the unpredictability of very simple systems, but that unpredictability is a subtle issue, and Stoppard's play doesn't begin to get into it.

There are other errors, too, and they too (uncoincidentally) serve to make early physicists look dumb or oblivious. For instance, at one point one of the characters -- Thomasina, a precocious child who is learning physics -- reads a paper which, given the date and the description of its content, must be Fourier's paper on the heat equation. This paper is famous for introducing Fourier series, but Thomasina seems to think it is remarkable for another reason. She exclaims that Fourier's equations are "not like Newton's equations," for they specify a direction of time, while "Newton's equations" are reversible. This claim comes as quite a surprise, since the heat equation studied by Fourier is simply a continuous version of an equation called . . . wait for it . . . Newton's Law of Cooling. Presumably by "Newton's equations" Thomasina specifically means Newton's three laws of motion. But even there, she's wrong: although in some special cases Newton's laws are reversible, they can also describe irreversible forces, and indeed Newton himself believed that the most fundamental forces were likely to be irreversible. (This would explain the fact that many real-life phenomena, like stirring milk into coffee, seem to be irreversible -- another case where Stoppard seems to imply that early physicists simply ignored something obvious.)

The play views the march of science with an amused sneer: oh, look at these funny plodding people, convinced that they know so much, yet battered this way and that by their culture, swelling with utopian ambition in the Enlightenment, inventing lurid tales of heat death in the age of Romanticism, and once the 20th century rolls around they create "jazzy" math and lose faith in the old verities . . . Now, I'm not denying that scientists are fallible human beings, but Stoppard's sneer is unearned. The issues involved in the development of theoretical physics are esoteric, irreducibly mathematical, and mind-bendingly subtle. This is serious shit. Really, really smart people have been working very, very hard on it for centuries. I'm sure that Stoppard and some parts of his audience would like to imagine themselves as Thomasina, instantly spotting the errors of those grim old scientists and dispatching them with a light, witty touch. Would that that were possible! But science is really hard; when our predecessors have made mistakes they tend to be subtle, recondite ones. Try to catch the masters making obvious blunders and you will just fall on your face, as Stoppard has done.

And Thomasina gripes about having to plot simple mathematical curves like parabolas, because they don't look like real natural forms. Never mind that simple curves are tremendously important in science anyway. Never mind that facts like this are precious and remarkable precisely because they are surprising; if science always conformed to our intuitions (about, say, which shapes are important) it wouldn't have much value. No, Tom Stoppard's audience just remembers its own confusion and displeasure over math in high school and would like its prejudices confirmed. Maybe all those funny curves we had to draw as children really were meaningless! Take that, school! Now let's go home from the theater and never think about math again.

(Also: love/sex is "the attraction that Newton left out"? Seriously??? I know it's just a joke but it's an awful, cringe-inducingly cutesy one. I have a high cutesiness tolerance and this play is too much even for me.)
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LibraryThing member iayork
In an ocean of ashes, islands of order . . .: Though I am very fond of "The Invention of Love," "Jumpers, " "The Real Thing," "The Real Inspector Hound," and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, " this is Stoppard's best play, his most beautiful and most moving. We get the usual Stoppard erudition and the usual Stoppard wit, but these never distract us from the play's structural felicities. Or its emotional force.

Idea-wise, we get order and creation versus chaos and entropy. Something not quite explicable about the arrow of time makes the tea always get colder, never hotter, and the same fate (heat death) awaits the universe and every person in it. Strangely, though, in this seemingly random, ever chillier place we find unexpected beauties, the unexpected "islands of order" that can also be found in Thomasina's equations as surely as they can in Tom S.'s imagination.

The real punch of the play, though, is in the immediate rather than the cosmic. Whether we know about entropy or not, we *have* noticed that things go awry and that eventually we will, too. Even if we are lucky enough to find ourselves in Arcadia, we're still going to die. Even worse, some people are going to die before us, leaving us utterly alone. On the other hand--the pretty hand--"Arcadia" suggests that the fact that neither art nor memory need follow the arrow of time might just offer some sort of escape from futility and grief. Time can overlap with time, as love can overlap with love. Two people can synchronize in time and space in a most uncanny way, and what is this but love or dancing?
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LibraryThing member tairngire
I loved this play right at 'carnal embrace'. The weaving of past and future, fact and fiction are so precise and the humor and drama so well played. This made me want to actually work on algorithms again.
LibraryThing member Carrie_Etter
Seeing this play at the Theatre Royal in Bath was one of the great theatre experiences of my life. A brilliant, devastating play.
LibraryThing member dczapka
Quite the surprise. I'd never read any Tom Stoppard before, and this was assigned as the introductory work to a course on reinventing the 19th Century.

This is one of the densest, most deeply-layered works I've read in quite some time. Stoppard is clearly a master dramatist, and the complexity of the material and the fluidity of the dialogue is top-notch. This is often proclaimed to be Stoppard's masterpiece, and it's easy to see why.

A brilliant work, perfect for fans of the Romantics, the Victorians, contemporary literature, drama, or just anyone looking for a good, insightful, and intensely thought-provoking read.
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LibraryThing member extrajoker
first line: "Septimus, what is carnal embrace?"

(which line can only be improved upon by the) second line: "Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef."

An amazing play, which follows two timelines (concurrently, in parts) on one stage, Arcadia manages to be engaging and witty while tackling weighty concepts of thermodynamics, competitive literary scholarship, gender roles and sexuality, Fermat's Last Theorem, and even the gothic trends in British gardening. Somehow, Stoppard makes it all work.… (more)
LibraryThing member pzmiller
One of Stoppard's best. Two parallel stories are told in a complicated weaving of such topics as mathematics, hermits, love, Lord Byron, and gardens.
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
This play is not a consistently funny as some of Stoppard's other works, but it definitely has its share of quotable one-liners. Some daring moves in staging, such as the overlap between the present and the past, which eventually reaches the point of having the two time periods represented on stage simultaneously, side by side at the table that remains a constant link between the characters. It is a look at science and literature; how does science discover the things it does? How does literature overlap with science? What constitutes evidence? (Though this last might be a bit subtle in places). It also looks at the question of what happened to the enlightenment, as the characters move through the changes leading from enlightenment thinking to romanticism. As usual when Stoppard assays science, he does it right, though it's often more in the mathematical and statistical realms that he wanders. His intellectuals also aren't cardboard cutouts, moving through the play without feeling, total logic suppressing the emotions they are assumed not to possess. They are real people, with all the roiling, burning emotions of real people, and able to be hurt in love and life just like everyone else.… (more)
LibraryThing member kettle666
Tom Stoppard's greatest play? Almost certainly, but that's just my opinion. It's crammed with powerful thoughts, and the author makes you feel you are damn near as smart as he is. Deeply moving, ultimately, it shuffles between two different historical times but never moves from the one location.
LibraryThing member stephenmurphy
Glorious. When I was reading this i could not weait to get home, get the kettle on, and dive into Stoppards twisting labyrinth of time, taste and love. If you don't get it, read it again. You'll cry.
LibraryThing member frizero
I have just seen the current production of "Arcadia" in London and it was love at first sight. The play is fantastically well written and it is fascinating how Stoppard manage to work with two different periods of time on the same scene and give the audience the perfect idea of what is going on. Reading the text itself is great, but this is a play that works much better when seen on stage.… (more)
LibraryThing member Carissa.Green
Now I want to see a staging of this play. So many nuances in the text -- I believe the craft of acting would bring even more to extra-textual meaning. -cg
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This is a strange play that you really should plan on reading in one sitting where you can concentrate and enjoy the language play. Incredibly different from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern..., but a fun and worthwhile read. I'm waiting patiently for a chance to see it live on stage, since I have a feeling that that will add a great deal to the read, assuming it's a decent production.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sandrome
Atmosphere is created by the meaning implicit within the words themselves (for no-one actually talks like that). That changes the level of perception - I suppose it becomes intellectual, mainly. And at the crux the physical mixes in with the rest, and results in one of the most vivid pictures that stay in the mind forever.
LibraryThing member thatotter
Elegant, clever, and entertaining. Stoppard hangs plenty of guns on the wall that are later fired in ways that are satisfying, unexpected yet inevitable.

Also, new time travel goal: go back to see Bill Nighy as Nightingale in the original London cast.
LibraryThing member jonfaith
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?

Stellar writing, just a spot under-fed. I would've appreciated more bulk, more fury -- some Sturm und Drang . Alas a two-tiered production featuring landed aristocracy, precocious children and the ribald aura of Lord Byron. Ruminating over these historical effects almost 200 years later in the same room are a rasher of academics, including a physicist. There are some stunning lines here. I simply wanted more.… (more)
LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
The place is Sidley Park, a 19th-century English country house and estate. The time alternates between 1809 and 1989 throughout. In 1989, two academic historians (with a not so friendly relationship) are visiting the estate to investigate two seemingly unrelated subjects: a hermit who once lived on the grounds, and life of Lord Byron. However, while the evidence uncovered points towards one conclusion, it may in fact be interpreted in various ways. The events and happenings of 1809 are slowly revealed as past and present are blurred together. Only, the truth is not exactly what was expected.

Arcadia is a marvelous, humorous, and brilliant play in which everything is not as it seems. Quite enjoyable, I hope to see it on the stage one day.

Experiments in Reading
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LibraryThing member HMGThomas
Excellent! I am not a typical fan of plays/drama but Tom Stoppard tells an amazing story.
LibraryThing member urhockey22
A phenominal play. Breathtaking.
LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Arcadia takes us back and forth between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ranging over the nature of truth and time, the difference between the Classical and the Romantic temperament, and the disruptive influence of sex on our orbits in life. Focusing on the mysteries—romantic, scientific, literary—that engage the minds and hearts of characters whose passions and lives intersect across scientific planes and centuries, it is “Stoppard’s richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and . . . emotion. It’s like a dream of levitation: you’re instantaneously aloft, soaring, banking, doing loop-the-loops and then, when you think you’re about to plummet to earth, swooping to a gentle touchdown of not easily described sweetness and sorrow . . . Exhilarating”… (more)
LibraryThing member jack2410
The Sparknotes (Cliff Notes) were worth reading as well. I would much rather have seen the live play somewhere.
LibraryThing member StoutHearted
Two time periods 180 years apart are spliced together to share one stage and several props. In an aristorcratic household in the early 19th century, teenager Thomasina is on the cusp of a great mathematical discovery well before her time as her witty and amorous tutor Septimus fends off (true) charges of adultury with failed poet Mr. Chater's wife Charity. In the late 20th century, two scholars descend upon the same house in the quest for answers to different questions. Bernard believes that Septimus's friend from university, Lord Byron, has a connection to the house and fought a deadly duel there. Hannah, on the other hand, is concerned with the hermitage built in the graden and the mysterious hermit rumored to have lived there. Their perception of the truth is played against the actual scenes of the past to show how murky the truth can be. But ultimately, history repeats itself, as if it were plotted out from the beginning and following a certain formula. This is Thomasina's discovery, and we see how the forgotten past comes to light again, as if we are not to mourn what we have lost, but look forward to it repeating in the future.… (more)



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