Friday, May 13, 2011

Week 16, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

05/10. Tu. Tom Stoppard. Arcadia (Act 1, 2752-89).

Notes on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia


First of all the play's title comes to mind. Arcady or Arcadia is the stuff of pastoral poetry. From Theocritus onward, it has been the location where shepherds muse about their lives, complain about their loves, and sing lovely songs to the accompaniment of panpipes. Pastoral was always a sophisticated kind of poetry, as if it sprang into being fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. In that sort of poetry, desire and the ideal and reality are in constant conflict. That's why it is such a good name for the title of this play set in romantic era England, 1809 and then in the present, which at the time of writing would have been 1993. In the pastoral setting of a large country house in Derbyshire in the spring of 1809, we see an interesting dynamic play out – the interplay of neoclassical ideals and romantic Gothic in landscape, mathematical ideals of order juxtaposed with erotic desire and intrigue, a kind of chaos in the midst of paradise, dedication to learning intermingling with imaginative flights of fancy. I suppose you could say it all comes together in the stately dance at the end of the play, but we're not there yet.

Our first presenter is going to talk about the conversation between Thomasina Coverly and her tutor Septimus Hodge, who are discussing "carnal embrace" and Fermat’s last theorem, an enigmatic mathematical formula that was only solved shortly after Stoppard wrote his play. As the characters themselves imply, the theory in question calls to mind speculations about free will and the determination of all things by means of physics.

Thomasina is quite a prodigy; she notices that "if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again after you have initially stirred it. Heat and energy dissipate, and you cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again, so to speak. The implications of that insight are profound.

But even as all the speculating and defining in these two very different areas of life are happening, Jellaby comes in with a letter for Septimus Hodge, a letter from Ezra Chater the poet, who is hopping mad about what he has heard from Noakes the gardener about a dalliance between Septimus and his wife, Mrs. Chater. What follows is a rather dandiacal, ironic exchange between Septimus and Ezra about the dalliance and indeed about the virtue or lack thereof possessed by Mrs. Chater. Capt. Brice is able to add some very useful information to this discussion.

Anyway, while all of that is going on we are also treated to a conversation about the philosophy of landscape, which was an important factor in the transition from the neoclassical 18th-century in England to the romantic era that was in dialogue with it. Lady Croom is not happy with turning charming old neoclassical Sidley Park into a Gothic theme park. It is as if the picturesque is somewhere between an emphasis on rationally apprehended beauty and the irrational sublime; imagination and sensibility are, of course, coming into greater prominence. We should be careful to note that we are talking about emphasis here, not a complete break with the past. But anyway, Lady Croom is not comfortable with what the gardener Mr. Noakes seems to be up to. What is it that makes life most worth living – passion, the wild and the unpredictable, or the beautiful and orderly? Or both?

The scene ends with Septimus reading and note from Mrs. Chater and folding it up and inserting it into the pages of Mr. Chater's book.


The room remains largely the same, but now we are in the present time, so we can surmise that there will be a certain continuity of life and interest between the earlier characters and the ones to which we are going to be introduced. Mr. Noakes's sketchbook has now become a curiosity, but it's there nonetheless, and the same is true of Lady Croom's garden books.

Bernard Nightingale, an academic with a romantic sounding name, wants an introduction to the researcher Hannah Jarvis to get some information from her regarding the presence of Lord Byron on the estate all those years ago. Bernard and Valentine, the latter of whom is a proponent of Chaos theory, get into a silly argument for a moment about the value of statistical analysis of literature. Bernard doesn't have a great deal of patience with that sort of thing, and the argument will crop up again later. Should we study literature in a scientific manner, or should we go in only for the human element? That's actually a current debate that has taken on a more interesting cast in the last 10 or 15 years because scholars have been putting all sorts of material online and doing language studies of periodicals and novels based on the remarkable power of modern computers. When did a particular word first start to be used commonly? What changes in sensibility does that increasing usage indicate, and so forth? Anyway, Bernard doesn't care for it – perhaps he remembers the clunky beginnings of that debate back in the 1970s, when structuralists became interested in doing statistical analysis of literary works.

Bernard introduces the subject of Byron by mentioning Hannah's biography of Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Lord Byron's famous aristocratic lovers – she's the one who called him "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Bernard is trying to find out what on earth Lord Byron was up to here at Sidley Park back in 1809, and he wants to know about Septimus Hodge as well because Hodge was a friend of Lord Byron. They went to school together. Hannah is interested in the so-called Sidley hermit because she's working on some ideas about "the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination." The hermit died in 1834, and as Bernard points out, so did Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Essentially, as you can see on page 2771, Hannah is interested in tracing the origins of the romantic manner in Gothic landscape and sensibility. Where did the Romantics get their ideas, particularly with regard to landscape theory? What she sees is imitations of imitations. Now Hannah knows from Thomas Love Peacock that Byron visited Sidley Park. And you learn on 2772 that Hannah is a pretty stern critic of romanticism – she calls it a sham perpetrated against the values and aesthetics of the enlightenment. The Sidley Park hermit, to her thinking, is the very emblem of the driving out of the Enlightenment ideals of order until they go mad. Anyway, you can see that she and Bernard are going to be at swords drawn throughout the play, even if in comic fashion.

Bernard offers to make a deal with Hannah – together, they can strike a blow against professional scholars of Lord Byron by offering up scandalous new information. That's kind of a silly idea, of course, because Byron's life involved a number of scandals, though I don't mean that to detract from his image. He was an awesome poet and died organizing the fight for Greek independence against the Turks. But he was also a womanizer whose conduct drove him into self-imposed exile on the continent. So to continue, Bernard has noticed that there's some mighty peculiar language in a copy of "The Couch of Eros," a book of poetry by Ezra Chater: "to my friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the Author – Ezra Chater, at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, April 10, 1809." Bernard, as we find out, believes Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel and that that is why he left England in such haste shortly thereafter. Hannah thinks it's all nonsense – why would Lord Byron keep his mouth shut about a romantic duel? But Bernard is unfazed by her criticism. The scene ends with the silent character Gus offering Hannah an apple as if he were Satan from Paradise Lost. They are, after all, entering something like forbidden territory – digging up what Bernard purports to be a secret from the past. From the past of a major literary figure – nothing unsettles academics so much as that. What a Gothic shiver down the spines of those committed to the rational pursuit of knowledge!


The conversation between Thomasina and Septimus is a witty exchange about the power of love, and how to deal with loss, as she laments the disappearance of so many works of ancient literature. The subject of this conversation is a segue to discussion of the duel proposed between Mr. Chater and Septimus. Septimus's attitude is worthy of Beau Brummel for its wit and insouciance.


It seems to me that the process of information-gathering more and more follows the path of Valentine's Chaos theory, which I think relates nicely to the neat formulation Bernard has arrived at to explain alleged events at Sidley Park nearly two centuries ago. On 2784-85, Valentine remarks that migrating populations of animals are actually obeying "a mathematical rule," and the same is true for epidemics, average rainfall, cotton prices and a whole bunch of other things. As he puts it on 2785, "The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is. It's how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm." He is joyful about this insight. In one sense, Chaos theory embraces chaos, it embraces the unpredictable in ordinary life. But in another sense, it seems like a theory that is dedicated to the proposition that everything obeys rules – it's just that we don't have a firm grasp of what those rules for ordinary things are the way we do when we are talking about sub-atomic particles or the universe on the grand scale.

In the background of Valentine's discussion and of course what Septimus and Thomasina have been talking about are fundamental laws of physics. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy can be changed from one form to another but it cannot be either created or destroyed. The second law of thermodynamics says that with the passage of time, "differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential equilibrate in an isolated physical system." In other words, heat dissipates. Entropy, an associated concept, implies that "nature tends from order to disorder in isolated systems." Of course one could say that about the passage from neoclassicism to romanticism – that is sort of Hannah Jarvis's theory.

On 2787, we come across Hannah's tidbit that Lady Croom wrote her husband a letter explaining that her brother, Capt. Brice, married a Mrs. Chater. Bernard chips in, "There is a duel. Chater dead, Byron fled!"


2789-93. Bernard is hot on the trail, commenting that "a few days after he left Sidley Park, Byron wrote to his solicitor John Hanson: If the consequences of my leaving England were ten times as ruinous as you describe, I have no alternative…." And then there is a letter by Thomas Peacock. In addition, there is the fact of those messages in Byron's copy of "The Couch of Eros." Might it be the case, Bernard asks rhetorically, that since Byron got the copy from Septimus, Septimus and not Lord Byron had in fact put the letters there? Valentine's answer is in the affirmative, but he is told to shut up. Bernard cannot believe that Lord Byron isn't the culprit; he can't believe Ezra Chater would be able to get along with Septimus Hodge if the latter had been the man who "screwed his wife and kicked the shit out of his last book." Hannah doesn't see why not. Then Bernard insists that there must be or there must have been a platonic letter, as he calls it, that would confirm his entire theory. A letter by Lord Byron, that is, saying something like "what a tragic business, but thank God it ended well for poetry." Bernard is so captivated by his own theory that he is even planning to appear on some television show as a "Media Don," which seems a bit ridiculous.

2794-98. Valentine is not convinced by any of it, and he and Bernard get into a spat about the relative value of science and humanistic inquiry. Valentine does not care about "personalities," and Bernard couldn't care less about statistical models of literary works or letters by famous people. He says, "If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate." Then he demolishes Hannah's book jacket, claiming that the images of Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb are not genuine, which annoys Hannah. She tells Valentine not to let Bernard get to him, saying that it is nothing more than performance art. He just enjoys unsettling everyone around him. Her own thesis seems pretty rock-solid to her: the hermit of Sidley Park is "The Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness! The genius of Sidley Park living on in a hermit's hut."


2799-2802. Lady Croom recounts to Septimus that Lord Byron and Mrs. Chater were discovered together in Lord Byron's room – discovered by her husband, that is. Byron sent his friend Septimus a letter – something like Bernard's platonic letter – and Septimus promptly burns it. Lady Croom adds that "Capt. Bryce has fixed his passion on Mrs. Chater, and to take her on voyage he has not scrupled to deceive the Admiralty…" Septimus explains his behavior to Lady Croom, saying that "I thought in my madness that the Chater with her skirts over her head would give me the momentary illusion of the happiness to which I dared not put a face." In other words, he is flattering Lady Croom. Septimus burns two more letters, ones he himself had written.


2802-03. It appears that Bernard's theory has by now been turned into fodder for the tabloids. Chloe and Valentine discuss a modulation of deterministic theory, and Chloe makes a very Thomasina-like point: "the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who are supposed to be in that part of the plan." In other words, sexual attraction.

2804-05. Hannah offers her perspective on the pursuit of knowledge: it is the pursuit that counts, not the final results. She doesn't care about the argument between Valentine and Bernard. Nonetheless, Valentine has finished his calculations about the birds in Sidley Park, and the results are impressive, if perhaps gloomy. Thomasina, unfortunately, as we are informed here, died in a fire long before she could make anything of her own theory.

2806-07. Valentine credits the Sidley Park hermit with knowing more leading up to the second law of thermodynamics than anyone during his time. We notice that in this scene, the characters from the past and the present are merging together, appearing side-by-side. What almost amounts to a dalliance between Thomasina and Septimus plays out.

2810-11. Thomasina declares with great certainty that Newton's observations cannot quite be turned into a deterministic universe because what's left out is "The action of bodies in heat." And here since she refers to Mrs. Chater, I think she really is talking about erotic attraction. It's the same point that Chloe will later make. Thomasina is quite certain as well that she's going to marry Lord Byron.

2814-15. Hannah Jarvis demolishes Bernard's theory on 2814. It seems that Ezra Chater did not die at Sidley Park but rather in 1810 or thereafter, in Martinique from a monkey bite. She is also planning to out Bernard's theory in a journal letter in the Times in just a couple of days. Two points for her. So much for Bernard's ideas.

2816-20. At the play’s end, Thomasina and Septimus come together to waltz, and the candlestick flame signifies her impending death. Gus and Hannah dance as well, with her theory about Septimus being the Hermit finally shown to have been true: it’s the picture of Plautus and Septimus that does it. Bernard is caught in a scandal with Chloe and has to leave, like a lesser Lord Byron. The point of the dance is that even though not all of the concerns of these searchers after knowledge have come close to the truth about Sidley Park and its inhabitants, and even though Valentine would seem to have won out with his gloomy talk about the world’s doom, what is left in the end is attraction and some measure of energy, some measure of grace. The human reaction to unknowability and possibly even the end, is to dance.