Twice Around The Grounds, Anne Barton
The New York Review of Books, June 8, 1995
Anne Barton’s fantastic essay on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
“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 around 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 state 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 1, 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.”‘ 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, its 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 Sam’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 contrast with most of Stoppard’s previous work. No yellowsuited 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 I 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, and 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 whenThomasina’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.”‘ 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.”‘ 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), his plays are meant to communicate in the theatre, 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 it’s 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.
Meanwhile, Thomasina, the nubile and brilliant Croom daughter, quietly pursues the missing mathematical proof for Fermat’s last theorem, questioning Newtonian physics, and feeling her way both toward what is now called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and those iterated algorithms from which (with the help of computers) fractal mathematics and chaos theory have, in our own time, been born. The only character in the, play to express enthusiasm for Mr. Noakes’s plans, she does so not, like Peacock’s Miss Tenorina, out of a Romantic passion for mossy, Gothic structures and woods “thick, intricate and gloomy,” but because Noakes’s’ jagged shapes and unkempt ‘trees speak to her own developing sense that there is something wrong with the tidy symmetries of Euclidean geometry.
In Stoppard’s interspersed scenes set in the present, two very different guests at Sidley Park try to piece together what happened there between 1809 and 1812. Hannah Jarvis, author of a popular book about Byron’s mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, is hoping to write about the unidentified recluse (the “idiot in the landscape,” or perhaps he represents “the Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness”?) who ended up living and dying in Mr. Noakes’s hermitage. Bernard Nightingale, hot on the trail of academic fame, believes he can prove that Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel at Sidley Park and for that reason was obliged to leave England in haste. (Stoppard may shy away from novels these days; it seems likely nonetheless that Nightingale and Hannah owe something to Roland Michell and the prickly Maud Bailey, A. S. Byatt’s two literary sleuths in Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990.) Neither Hannah nor Nightingale gets everything right, but Hannah comes far closer to the truth than her rival. That is largely because, despite her temperamental preference for the clipped and formal Italian garden which dominated Sidley Park before the arrival of either Capability Brown or Mr. Noakes, she shares with the long-dead Thomasina not only a fiercely logical mind but certain intuitive powers.
These last allow her to grasp truths (including that of Thomasina’s brilliance) independently of reason. Valentine, a research mathematician and future Earl of Croom, who is working with data supplied by his him with a publishable paper. (Thomasina, he insists, could have possessed neither the requisite mathematics nor the computer.) Hannah’s sympathetic insights, however, attract to her Gus, Valentine’s younger brother, the totally mute, autistic boy in whom something of Thomasina’s genius survives. (He improvises brilliantly on the piano, and can identify the site of Capability Brown’s boathouse when all the experts fail.) It is Gus who bestows on Hannah at the end Thomasina’s drawing of “Septimus holding Plautus,” the puzzle’s most important missing piece.
That audiences have tended, both in New York and London, to leave Arcadia with a newly purchased copy of the text in hand is not really surprising. Many of the New York reviewers, even some who did take the precaution of reading the play in advance, apparently failed to register that three separate moments of time are juxtaposed in the comedy: one day in 1812, as well as three in 1809, and one in the present. This matters. Lord Byron, a charismatic but obscure guest at Sidley Park in 1809, has returned from his travels in 1812 to become London’s darling, the lionized author of Childe Harold; Ezra Chater has died of a monkey bite in Martinique; his widow has remarried, and Lady Croom has reluctantly transferred her attentions from Byron to an exiled Polish count. Most important of all, Thomasina, no longer a child is about to turn seventeen and (failing just as her mother did to capture Lord Byron) has fallen in love-with her tutor. It also matters that the young and voluble Augustus Coverly of 1812 should not be confused, as he was by one New York reviewer, with his silent twentieth century namesake. (John Griffin plays both parts.)
In a play that seems obsessed with the number three (a palimpsest of three gardens, three instances of “carnal embrace” in the gazebo/ hermitage, three important mathematical issues), it is by no means easy to keep straight the two groups of three letters upon which so much hangs: the two challenges and the clandestine note from Mrs. Chater from which Bernard Nightingale draws so many erroneous conclusions, all originally secreted by Septimus Hodge between the pages of Chater’s dreadful poem The Couch of Eros, or the two by Septimus and one from Lord Byron that are written and almost immediately destroyed.
The plain fact is that once around the garden is not enough. It is true, as Peacock’s Mr. Milestone pointed out that the element of surprise must be greatly reduced on any repeated circuit. In the case of Arcadia, that can result from a return to the theater, or a second experience with the printed page. Once you know that Thomasina is going to die in a matter of hours after the curtain finally goes down on her first (and last) waltz, or (assuming you have not studied the cast list closely) that Lord Byron and Mrs. Chater will never materialize, it is impossible to forget these things-even as it is impossible not to remember during a return visit to Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King (1611), or Philaster (1609) that Arbaces and Panthea are not really brother and sister and will be able to marry, or that the pageboy Bellario is a girl. Brilliant theater craftsmen that they were, Fletcher and his collaborator were entirely aware that few plays, unless they are notably unsuccessful, can enjoy a perpetual first night. They guarded against potential letdown by ensuring that to visit theirs twice would be distinctively different — and richer — than once. Audiences no longer ambushed by the unexpected can savor nuances and details invisible on the first occasion, because of the things that, now, they know. Like Philaster and A King and No King, Arcadia is in a sense not one play but two.
On balance, Nunn’s cast in New York is stronger than the one he had in London. As Lady Croom, Lisa Banes is far superior to the National’s tiresomely arch and mannered Harriet Walter, a fine actress horribly miscast. Billy Crudup makes a handsome and sensitive Septimus. As Hannah, Blair Brown projects the right mixture of defensiveness and acerbity, while Victor Garber succeeds vividly in reminding at least some members of the audience that almost every academic conference has its Nightingale.
Any production of Arcadia must, however, stand or fall on the performance of Thomasina. A child prodigy who (for once) is also entrancing, Stoppard’s – heroine is high-spirited and funny as well as nice. Aware even at thirteen of her tutor’s passion for Lady Croom, and Lady Croom’s for Byron, she is far too shrewd not to see through Septimus’ bogus explanation of “carnal embrace.” Yet she generously feigns ignorance when the accuracy of his revised description threatens to get him into trouble with her mother. (“It is plain that there are some things a girl is allowed to understand, and these include the whole of algebra, but there are others, such as embracing a side of beef, that must be kept from her until she is old enough to have a carcass of her own.”) Nightingale would like to push every scientist in the world over a cliff (“except the one in the wheel-chair, I think I’d lose the sympathy vote”), but Thomasina cares about literature as well as equations. She weeps over the destruction of the great library at Alexandria and the lost plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
It is a wonderful part — but diabolically difficult for any actress to encompass as a whole. In London, Emma Fielding could manage the older Thomasina, but was unconvincing as the child of thirteen. With the diminutive Jennifer Dundas, it is the other way round: wholly persuasive in 1809, she finds it hard to mature into the adolescent Thomasina of 1812. Most of the part, however, lies in 1809. And Dundas’s very last appearance, barefoot with her candle and white nightdress on a darkening stage, pleading with Septimus to teach her how to waltz, is magical.
Stoppard is said to prepare for writing a play as though for an examination, patiently absorbing the contents of a great number of background books. For Arcadia, he clearly informed himself scrupulously not only about landscape gardening and post-Newtonian mathematics but about the life of Byron, that potently absent presence. Certainly Thomasina seems to derive in part from Byron’s tragic daughter, Ada. Byron’s estranged wife, Annabella, had dabbled in mathematics (Byron called her his “Princess of Parallelograms”), but Ada’s talents were far more considerable. In collaboration with Charles Babbage, she experimented eagerly in the field of early computer science-until the demands of her role as Countess of Lovelace, and contemporary ideas of what was appropriate to her sex, pushed such inquiries aside. She ended up gambling on the races, and being blackmailed when she lost more than she could afford. Her death was early and grim. Thomasina, had she lived longer, might not have escaped such a fate. In 1812, Lady Croom is already worrying that her daughter may be “educated beyond eligibility,” and is eager to marry her off.
Arcadia constantly engages the imaginary in a dialogue with the historically true. Byron really was residing at his Newstead Abbey estate in April 1809, and no letters or other testimony indicate his exact whereabouts between the 10th and the 12th, when Stoppard brings him to “nearby” Sidley Park. He did (as Nightingale is aware) publish a review of Wordsworth in the July 1807 issue of Monthly Literary Recreations (Stoppard’s Picadilly Recreation), and although no letter from Peacock is quoted in any essay on “hermits” in The Cornhill Magazine for 1862, that is precisely the publication in which such an essay might be found. Byron was indeed adding verses to the second edition of his satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in the spring of 1809, even if a stanza ridiculing “Ezra Chater” was not among them. “Darkness,” on the other hand (“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d…”), suggested by the “lost summer” of 1816, when a colossal volcanic explosion in Indonesia blotted out the sun, and New England in August was covered with snow, is an entirely genuine Byronic prefiguration of that law of entropy Thomasina deduces from the work of the French mathematician Fourier: the bleak and irreversible cooling of the world. Hannah is right to quote the first lines of “Darkness” to Valentine in an attempt to persuade him that genius, whether in great poets or a gifted child, can sometimes fling open the- door of a house that has not yet been built.
That Stoppard is playing witty games here with his audience is true. But these games are no more frivolous at bottom than Gus’s apple, casually abandoned on the schoolroom table after he gives it, wordlessly, to Hannah at the end of scene two: an object that gradually comes to symbolize Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity, the late twentieth-century geometry of natural forms, the perils of sexuality, any paradise that is lost, and the introduction of death into the world after the Fall.
Stoppard packs an immense amount of information into Arcadia, but his reticences — the things he deliberately refuses to, let his audience, not just Nightingale and Hannah Jarvis, ever know-loom equally large. Did Thomasina burn to death on the night before her seventeenth birthday because she was waiting for Septimus to come to her in bed, despite his principled refusal during the waltz scene, and consequently fell asleep without putting out her candle? Was it really the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as set forth in Thomasina’s diagram, that transformed the young tutor at Sidley Park into its despairing hermit, wearing out the rest of his days “without discourse or companion save for a pet tortoise, Plautus by name,” while he tried frenziedly by way of “good English algebra” to stave off the end of the world? Or was it, fundamentally, self-reproach and grief for Thomasina herself? Stoppard refuses to say.
The problem of finding a suitable inhabitant for Mr. Noakes’s new hermitage enlivens Arcadia throughout. Lady Croom’s complaint that she can scarcely advertise (“surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence”) stirs memories of the delicious episode in Richard Graves’s novel Columelia, or the Distressed Anchoret (1779), in which an out-of-work recluse arrives for an interview but is found to have been dismissed from his last employment for getting the dairymaid with child and visibly spending more time drunk than in prayer. The eighteenth- and early nineteenth century vogue for hermits tended toward the risible, whether it involved the professionals recorded at Painshill and Stowe, or amateurs such as Gilbert White’s brother Henry, the rector of Fyfield, for whom it was a party trick. (In his diary for July 28, 1763, Gilbert records the success of a tea party “at the Hermitage,” to which his guests came attired as shepherds and shepherdesses, and “the Hermit appear’d to great advantage.”) But Septimus Hodge is not a risible figure.
All his attempts to disprove the Second Law of Thermodynamics are doomed: with heat, you can’t “run the film backwards,” as Valentine tries patiently to make Hannah understand. Time runs wastefully on in only one direction, and one day there will be no time left. Septimus was wrong to console Thomasina for the burning of the library at Alexandria by assuring her that nothing is ever irretrievably lost, that even the missing plays of Sophocles will somehow turn up again. “You can put back the bits of glass,” as Valentine says, “but you can’t collect up the heat of the smash. It’s gone.” In Arcadia itself, on the other hand, time does run backward at the dramatist’s will. In one stage direction, Stoppard does run backward at the dramatist’s will. In one stage direction, Stoppard meticulously explains that whereas Repton always superimposed his “before” sketch on his “after,” with Noakes that order is reversed. A small point, scarcely available in the theater, it locks into place within a larger scheme of scenes that move backward in time as freely as forward. They lead to that final convergence, when the four people the play loves — Septimus and Thomasina, Hannah and Gus dance across the centuries, as couples, to music that belongs at one moment to our own epoch, and to Byron’s in the next.
Indian Ink, the new stage version of Stoppard’s radio play In the Native State (1991), which is currently running in London, alternates 1930 with the “mid-Eighties.” Arcadia’s “the present day,” by contrast, is appropriately open-ended. The play can tacitly absorb new pieces of information. On April 24, 1995, an article in appeared the London Times describing a courteous, white-bearded hermit who receives occasional visitors, beside the Wolverhampton ring road, in a tent supplied by the local authorities, while trying to understand the horror of what he saw in the Second World War. It does not say if he has a pet tortoise. When the proof of Fermat’s last theorem for which Thomasina is searching at the start, “the most tantalizing problem in the history of mathematics,” as it has been called, was finally found last year, by someone who had been grappling with it since the age of nine (Andrew Wiles, assisted by his former student Richard Taylor), the discovery merely enriched — without overtaking — Stoppard’s high comedy of ideas.