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.


  1. I had the great good fortune to play Hannah in BTE's ARCADIA, and the great good fortune to meet up with Tom Stoppard at a luncheon several years later. I got up the courage to go up to him, and the manager of the event tried to discourage me-- it was late in the lunch. The manager said, "Let him eat." I started to turn back, and Mr. Stoppard caught my eye and waved to me to come sit by him. "I'm sorry," I said, pointing to his lunch. "Don't be," he said, pointing to his lunch (a sorry plate of pallid pasta). I told him that playing Hannah was one of my greatest joys ever, and that the final scene was-- always-- transcendent. "Thank you," he said, "thank you." And then he asked what I was working on now. I told him about my play THE ALEXANDRIA CARRY-ON (inspired partly, I realized in that moment, by Thomasina's sorrow at the loss of the Library.) "Splendid," he said. Splendid.

  2. In something like '95 I auditioned for a production of Arcadia at The Goodman. I wasn't too interested in the part of Chloe, the only one I was the right age for -- she was, I guess, supposed to be the "sex" that messed up the equations and I was never much for playing sex -- but I just wanted to be able to listen to the play eight times a week. I didn't get the part (and caused a minor scandal, I was later told, by writing a rather affronted letter to the casting folks at the Goodman for never, ever, ever letting me know the result of my audition). I love your meditation here, David, and I'll add this quote which Stoppard uses to end a talk he gave on something vague called "Technique and Interpretation in the Performing Arts." Here's the way he sets up the quote, then the quote itself:

    "Look Back in Anger, Waiting for Godot, and The Birthday Party, for different reasons, stopped me from writing a play of my own. But a little later, in 1962 or 1963, I saw Next Time I’ll Sing to You and I thought “Yes—that’s the one. I think I can do that.” I wanted to do that. I didn’t and couldn’t but the illusion was enough.

    So here’s a speech, without comment, from Next Time I’ll Sing to You by James Saunders.

    There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there, just under the surface, just behind the façade, sometimes very nearly exposed, so that you can dimly see the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, the dark, gross, inhuman outline of a carp gliding slowly past; when you realize suddenly that the carp were always there below the surface, even while the water sparkled in the sunshine, and while you patronized the quaint ducks and the supercilious swans, the carp were down there, unseen. It bides its time, this quality. And if you do catch a glimpse of it, you may pretend not to notice or you may turn suddenly away and romp with your children on the grass, laughing for no reason. The name of this quality is grief."

    Here's the whole talk, which is fascinating, funny and wonderful:

    Laurie, I too had a brush with Mr. Stoppard -- he has a house in the same tiny town in Provence where my husband's mother lived. I was walking down to the Cafe de Sade (the town is where the Marquis de Sade's family chateau was) when there was the man himself walking uphill toward me. I was struck dumb and merely did a sort of half-bow as he passed. He half-smiled in return. I couldn't write another word the whole time I was there...

  3. Of course you are not surprised to find that the stage can be a reflector (if not always a reflection) of meaning and reality. After all, theater began as a religious exercise back in ancient Greece, and even today (to flip Shakespeare on his head) all the stage's a world! Even though the playwright may be seeking little more than entertainment (and what's wrong with that?),the exercise of performance can take us beyond the petty here and now.

  4. I saw Arcadia last Friday night, and agree heartily with anon. male actor's comments about this production. I'd seen the production in NY in 1993 as well, and, maybe since the sets were well-nigh identical, I couldn't help but have that weird palimpsest experience of watching the production in my memory (with Billy Crudup as Septimus) and this production simultaneously. The earlier production won out, in that in this production I didn't believe anything Thomasina or Hannah said. I think I like it better if Thomasina comes off as just a little bit odd, the way a teenager does when their intellect outstrips their experience, and this actress was just too poised for me to believe that she was a teenager. And Hannah--grrr. I was so sad that, at least in the performance I saw, she was wan not just in appearance but in affect, so that I had no idea why she was at Sidley Park, or why she cared about the past, or why she wrote or researched at all, for that matter. And yet-and yet. Even inadequate performances can't dull the truths Stoppard tells us in this play: that aspiring to know is as important, or maybe more important, than knowing, and that potential--whether a potential fact, like why Byron left England, or a potential life, like Thomasina's--is seductive, elusive, heartrending, and basically the reason we make up stories. Swoon, and weep, and laugh, and thank God for Mr. Stoppard.