Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia has been held over at the Folger until late June; if possible, go see it. But if you see it, read it first.
There are some plays where you don’t want to know what happens until you are surprised in the last act. There are others, which tend to be the better ones, where knowing the play not only fails to detract from your enjoyment, but actually adds to it. Arcadia is this type of play.
It takes place in one room in an English country house. But while the location stays the same, the time varies, from the early 19th century, to the late 20th. In the late 20th century, a duo of duelling academics are trying to understand what happened at the house 150 years earlier. Like all good historians, they do their research, the pose questions to themselves which they answer to their satisfaction, all the pieces fit, and they are 100% wrong. But we are the only ones who know that, as we were there in 1809.
And, we also know that, in 1809, a 13 year old girl was making extraordinary mathematics discoveries, discoveries that may lead to a complete mathematical model for the universe. But they were too sophisticated for her time; they could only be verified and made useful through modern computer technology, obviously unavailable at the time. At the same time, at the house of her parents, poetry was in the air – her tutor, a house guest/poet, and even Lord Byron.
Arcadia is an extraordinary play. Profound thoughts. Complex interconnections. Time. Continuity. The repitition of history. The invention of history. The extraordinary capacity of the human mind. The extraordinary limitations of the human mind. And, at the same time, drama, mystery, sex, and comedy worthy of Oscar Wilde and the best of French farces.
“Et in Arcadia Ego” – paintings by Poussin, the basis of alternative history books, such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail. A phrase on a tomb: “And I too lived in Arcadia”. Don’t discount what I have been, because I am now buried in this tomb.
A great play; a classic of the future. A great production, with a very strong cast.