Thursday, May 31, 2007,10:09 AM
My Mother's Day gift was tickets to a play of my choosing. So yesterday we dropped Emma off at a babysitter and went down to the University of Chicago's Court Theater to see one of my favorite plays - Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. We also got to wander around the campus stopping at Chicago Theological Seminary (my top choice in my wishful thinking return to school). It was a fun day and a great production of the play (read the Chicago Trib's review here).

Arcadia published in 1993 was written by Tom Stoppard (most commonly known for his play Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead and the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love). As explained by Wikipedia - "Arcadia explores the relationship between past and present,order and disorder, and the certainty of knowledge. It looks at the nature of evidence and truth in the context of modern ideas about history, mathematics and physics. It shows how the clues left by the past are interpreted by scholars. The play refers to a wide array of subjects, including mathematics, physics, thermodynamics, computer algorithms, fractals, population dynamics, chaos theory vs. determinism (especially in the context of love and death), classics, landscape design, romanticism vs. classicism, English literature (particularly poetry), Byron, 18th century periodicals, modern academia, and even South Pacific botany. These are the concrete topics of conversation; the more abstract philosophical resonances veer off into epistemology, nihilism, the origins of lust, and madness.

Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an English country house in the years 1809 and 1989 alternately, juxtaposing the activities of two modern scholars and the house's current residents with the lives of those who lived there 180 years earlier. In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is a precocious teenager with ideas about mathematics well ahead of her time. She studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron, who is an unseen guest in the house. In 1989, a writer and an academic converge on the house: Hannah Jarvis, the writer, is investigating a hermit who once lived on the grounds; Bernard Nightingale, a professor of literature, is investigating a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their investigations unfold, helped by Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology, the truth about what happened in 1809 is gradually revealed. The play's set features a large table, which is used by the characters in both 1809 and 1989. Props are not removed when the play switches time period, so that the books, coffee mugs, quill pens, portfolios, and laptop computers of 1809 and 1989 appear alongside each other in a blurring of past and present. "

The title refers to the pastoral ideal of Arcadia and to the memento mori spoken by Death: "Et in Arcadia ego" ("Even in Arcadia, I exist"). This theme presented itself a few times as I reflected on the play. The concept of determinism is a constant theme in Arcadia. Are our lives determined? If we had a big enough computer (or enough time, paper, and pencils) could a formula be written that tells the future and explains the past? We can program fractals - why not everything? But if populations are "determined' to follow a formula even taking into account small fluctuations of nature (the populations of goldfish regulates) where does that leave the concept of justice? If everything (even tragedy and death) can be explained mathematically there can be no room for grief or outrage in the face of an inevitable determined universe. But death intrudes even in Arcadia and we are grieved. The influences of human emotion and love contradict the faith in an all encompassing deity of science. Romanticism and Classicalism collide.

Death also enters the play in a more concrete form. We learn that the mathematical genius Thomasina dies in a fire on the night before her seventeenth birthday (the age her mother insists she should be married by before she is "educated beyond eligibility"). Her tutor then takes up the pursuit to prove her theories, become a lunatic hermit to do so. But the death of a woman "condemned" by genius in a fire has direct parallels to the "madwoman in the attic" theory. Referring to Bertha, Rochester's insane wife in Jane Eyre, who died in a fire, this concept was adopted by feminist literary theorists as a metaphor for the madness imposed upon women when they were denied using their talents because of their sex. Here Thomasina on the verge of great discovery and threatened with the cage of conventionality finds that even in Arcadia, death exists. Paradise has its flaws (especially a paradise of human creation). For all the talk that the universe is determined - demands of society and the accidental tipping of a candle intrude to shatter dreams and introduce chaos to the mix. Understanding the fluctuation of populations of pigeons and goldfish through math and science doesn't see death as a bad thing (unless you are the pigeon), but the death of a friend and family member has a more serious effect.

Not that death is the main theme of the play, it just struck me during this encounter with the work. I was also intrigued and amused by the exploration of interpretation and truth. Our assumptions in the present influence our reading of the past. Texts takes on new meaning and small bits of evidence become the shaky foundation for entire theories. Our postmodern humility in accepting the limits of our understanding was clearly illustrated in the negative examples of characters' hubris. The discovery of knowledge and the fame in brings them prevents them from actually seeing the truth and leads to their downfall. It is a much more relevant theme to me now than it was a decade ago when I first encountered this play.

Anyway, it was a fun day and great play. It's run has just been extended if anyone in the Chicago area in interested in attending.

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