Monday, March 21, 2011

Arcadia: A Reflection

Since I got the previous post (March 6) regarding the current Broadway production of Arcadia, in which the writer mentions how a part of the play made him want to weep and …oh man, when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina’s proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck, I’ve been thinking about the first time I saw the play.

It was the summer of 1993 and I was visiting a friend in London.
One day she said, “Let’s go to the theatre.”
“Yes, please” I said.
We checked the papers.
“Oh! Oh!” I said. “Tom Stoppard has a new play at the National.”
It was sold out but we went anyway in hopes of finding a seat. And the woman directly ahead of us in line returned two orchestra tickets.

I knew nothing about the play.
A few minutes into the first scene, while I was laughing at all the Tomfoolery, I was thinking: Has he written a period piece? Is this a Stoppard romantic comedy Congreve and Wilde hybrid parody? And if so, why?
And why all the mathematics and horticulture?
And then scene two began and I gasped—not metaphorically.
I was completely caught up in the literary detective story as it dramatizes the principles of chaos theory and the wonderful idea that all human equations get messed up by the unpredictability of sex.
And I was surely caught by the deeper experience of what Hannah describes as It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.
But something else was happening to me, something I wasn’t conscious of. Something more important.

One of the criticisms of Stoppard’s earlier plays is that all the characters sound like Tom Stoppard. In a 1994 interview with Mel Gussow, Stoppard says that in Night and Day he took a speech from one character and gave it to another, “…and it made no difference. I just needed somebody to say something at that point.”
Not so Arcadia.
The characters are individual, recognizable, and, yes, we care about them (an idea, by the way, that leads too many actors astray in their creative work—a topic for a future post).
But good characterization is not enough to account for …and you want to weep. …when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina’s proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck.
In the same Gussow interview Stoppard says, “With Arcadia I got lucky….The more I got into it, the more I realized that this was going to work as a piece of storytelling.” But a good story and a great plot are also not enough to account for our deep engagement with the play.
When Valentine said Oh, the girl who died in the fire, I gasped as did many in the audience and my eyes instantly burned with tears. I was shocked: I hadn’t consciously realized how deeply the play had grabbed me.
When Hannah and Septimus turned the pages of Thomasina’s proof simultaneously, I too was a wreck.
And then Thomasina came out with the candle lighting her way on the night before her seventeenth birthday and tears heaved my heart.
What was it I was experiencing that wrecked me and made me weep?  What was I crying for as the couples waltzed at the end, each unaware of the other?  What was this last scene the culmination of?
This was not melodrama. These were not easy sentimental tears.
Something else. Something true.
Something acutely experienced of life missed because we have no idea where it’s heading. (Something in our tears for Thomasina that’s in our tears for Emily at the end of Our Town.)
Something of life shared with all of humanity even as we are senseless to it while we live. (We stand in an old house and someone says, ‘If these walls could talk’ and we all nod and grunt in agreement and move on.)
Something of lives lived in such seemingly meaningful detail becoming little more than random points in the fractal graph that represents those lived lives. (Uncle Vanya’s Astrov: Will people living a hundred, two hundred years from now…will they remember us in their prayers?)
Big Things like: What’s It All About Anyway?

As ideas none of this is new. It’s all pretty simple. Elemental even. So easy to grasp intellectually.
And therefore, so easy to avoid grasping experientially.
Hence, Theatre.
Dramatized for us by the poetry of theatre, the simple truths of these elemental ideas become the complex truths of profound experience. And as much as the intellectual ideas of Arcadia may share with the intellectual ideas of Our Town and Uncle Vanya, they all “mean” something uniquely their own in the actual theatre experience.
The poetry of the theatre is a poetry of the senses:
Early Nineteenth Century clothing and movement and language and Contemporary clothing and movement and language all happening in a single space
The sounds of human voices engaged in verbal duets and trios and more
Daylight and Candle light
An offstage piano and onstage waltzing
A tortoise, An apple, Three Letters and A Composition book.
And on and on.

I’d like to think that the levels of experiential meaning in a play that arise from the whole poetry of the theatre experience surprise the playwright as much as the audience. Even the great ones.
Chekhov knew the ideas he was after when he set out to write Uncle Vanya, but I like thinking he was as taken as everyone else with the complexity and depth of the actual immediate human experience it creates (even if he was not taken with the actual Stanislavski production).
Shakespeare and Lear? I like to think so.
At a Q&A after a college performance of Arcadia (I think), Stoppard said that not until he wrote Hannah saying She was dead before she had time to be famous did he know that that was what was going to have to happen to Thomasina.
I’m betting true genius amazes its human vessel as much as it amazes the rest of us. And there’s something in Arcadia that needed genius I like thinking even Stoppard didn’t realize was his.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


A former student and New York actor told me he was planning to see the current Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. At school, he acted in a production that I directed, rehearsal and performance moments of which remain clear and meaningful to me.
I asked him to write to me his impressions of this production.
His response has some important things to say about the actor and the audience.
(And some generous remarks about his acting teacher.)
He agreed to let me post it all.

I echo your sentiments on remembering so much of our time living & wrestling with this magnificent play. Seeing it again brought them back with such immediacy.

There is very much to admire in this production, mainly that they all understand what they're saying & are playing the play very well (which is becoming insanely rare on Broadway). As far as clarity is concerned, it's guided with a very sure hand and I was quite relieved to feel that if an audience was at least "up for" this play, they'd definitely be rewarded (more on that in a sec).

First of all, Billy Crudup is pretty brilliant as Bernard. All of the actorly delight you could imagine one can squeeze out of being as truly awful (and delightfully funny) as Bernard & then just when you least expect it, he has a truly astonishing moment in Act II. After they've all ripped his lecture to shreds, he's got that great retort about not confusing progress with perfectability. And then he gets into the "triviality of the speed of light" & mourning Aristotle's cosmos & I kid you not, you can feel so VISCERALLY what's been lost in the march. & THEN he starts in on "She walks in beauty..." & you want to weep. He really takes his time, and it is so gentle & brimming with love & respect for poetry & beauty (coming out of Bernard's mouth!!) that the truth of it just shuts everybody up completely. ... & then (of course) he has to dig on his way out "What is it that you're doing with grouse, Valentine?" & oh man, does it STING. Because he's sorta RIGHT. It's a masterful sequence, and so perfectly pitched so that we get Bernard in a way I hadn't been totally convinced was possible. It's really remarkable.

But what I mentioned earlier about being "up for the play", is where I felt the production could use to take a big generous step forward. Right now, it almost feels like the company is expecting an audience who is "up for it", and they're missing that key element you always had us striving for, which I can't quite put into words, but is possibly creating an "active complicity" in the audience. I remember we struggled with this a bunch, and I think what it often came down to was figuring out a way to get the audience to participate and delight in your character's perspective/dilemma/sense of humor in a visceral way. I'll never forget what you taught us (and I've used it so very many times, and i THANK YOU FOREVER for it), when you asked us to imagine the house filled with people who share our character's sense of humor, and then score points with them. It's really kinda magical when an actor does it. Their confidence is boosted, they aren't working as hard, and they delight in appealing to your complicity, which makes you instantly lean forward. You're "up for" the play, because they make you a vital part of it.

It's the difference between Septimus getting himself out of hot water with Ezra Chater, and Septimus getting himself out of hot water with Ezra Chater while simultaneously insulting him to an outrageous degree, AND getting him to think he's his best friend AND, oh yeah, by the way, being eminently, spontaneously quotable all at once! Why else say such things to Ezra Chater if you're not also WISHING someone were there (a third person: THE AUDIENCE) to witness how deftly you manage your predicament? And then if you have two, three, four, five characters all vying for the audience's complicity, then it's absolute fireworks are all over the place. They could use some more of this. It all hums along very nicely, but not all of the moments that should sing (as Bernard's does) do.

The set is pretty stark: beige & so enormously high and wide that it feels museum-y, so that's not helping. But, Billy is there & the rest of them are skating close (Septimus's "we shed as we pick up" speech is gorgeously performed). And oh man, when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina's proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck (how dare anyone accuse Mr. Stoppard of being cold & cerebral!). I wish you could come in there & shake up their complacency a lil bit, and their very good show would be great.