Stoppard, Tom. (1993). Arcadia. Faber and Faber; London.
The first time I read through Arcadia, the subtle nuances went right over my head – whoosh! – and I was left contemplating the slim paperback with some discomfort at the end of my reading. I’m sure that seeing the play would have left me similarly disjointed. This is a work that you have to read slowly, several times, with your thinking cap firmly attached to your head, for a full understanding of the concepts described.
Partly, my reaction is due to Tom Stoppard’s sheer and almost incalculable brilliance (technically ‘Sir’ Tom Stoppard – he has been knighted, after all) (Wikipedia article). Sir Tom is also the central author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and has co-written screenplays for Brazil, The Russia House, and Shakespeare in Love (Wikipedia article). Along with his colourful life history (his family, fleeing various forms of political strife and violent unrest, lived over the years in Czechoslovakia, Singapore, Australia, India, and England), Sir Tom has been hailed as “one of the most internationally performed dramatists of his generation” (Wikipedia article). His works highlight issues of human rights, political freedom, linguists, and philosophy (Wikipedia article).
Arcadia sits within the ‘philosophy’ genre of Sir Tom’s writing – specifically, it examines the “relationship between past and present and between order and disorder and the certainty of knowledge” (Wikipedia article). The work is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy, and follows the lives of several characters who are connected across space and time (Wikipedia article). Some people found the multiplicity of topics packed into this play to be overwhelming, and were not shy to say so in their reviews (see: Benedictus, June 2009).
Thankfully, the seriousness of the topics (which often veer into in-depth references to fractals, chaos theory versus determinism, landscape design, English literature, etc.) are lightened by amusing repartee between the characters. For example, when the modern-day Hannah is examining the shift in landscape design from classic to Romantic, this is paralleled by the historic-day Lady Croom demanding that her newly fake wilderness come equipped with a hermit:
“The idea of what Arcadia – paradise – looks like flipped in one generation, from order to disorder, from classical calm to romantic chaos. Hannah believes she has uncovered – in the crags of the garden’s history – a perfect symbol of this degeneration. When they were carefully constructing their fake wilderness, the gardeners built a fake hermitage – and Lady Croom demanded that the gardeners provide a hermit to live in it. “If I am promised a fountain I expect it to come with water,” she says. The bemused gardeners suggest advertising for a hermit in the newspaper, causing her to retort: “But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.” But a hermit was found – and he is the subject of Hannah’s new book” (The Independent, Friday May 22, 2009).
Arcadia is a novel that one could spend months, if not years, examining and reexamining for new meanings and hidden subtexts. I find the allusions to time most fascinating and think that books like Time Reborn by Lee Smolin are one of many adequate follow-ups to this topic. This is a book/play that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime!