7 August 2009: Stoppard, Arcadia

New Century Theatre, Theatre 14, Smith College. Directed by Sam Rush

I often think this is Tom Stoppard’s best play. I’m especially convinced of this after having just seen another production of it. This is, I think, either the third or the fourth. It triumphed in a brilliant production seen several years ago at the National Theatre in London. The current production, by New Century Theatre, has a very nice set fitted to a relatively small stage, very shabby costumes, some very fine, high-spirited acting, a few cases of poor casting, and a running time probably somewhat longer than British productions would take, since Americans even when speaking with British accents tend to speak more slowly than do Brits. Allowing for such regional variations, and what must have been a minuscule budget for costumes, the brilliance and depth of the play nonetheless shone through.

My companion observed that, with every production of this play, some one or two compelling aspects get emphasis; this ends up conferring a certain novelty and charm on what is already, to our minds, a timeless play. In his curtain speech before the play started, Sam Rush mentioned that there is a revival playing in London at the moment which features in the role of Valentine Stoppard’s own son. This added some more charming if incidental depth to our constant feeling about this play, namely, that it has a circular vision as well as a circular structure and that things in the play, as in life itself, have a way of coming around again.

One of the things that appears to have been intentionally foregrounded in Rush’s production is the phrase read out by Thomasina: “Et in Arcadia ego.” The phrase gives title to Stoppard’s play and is at the same time a kind of dramaturgical memento mori. One of the things the play is about is mortality, and Thomasina, coached by her tutor Septimus, correctly translates it as “Even in Arcadia there am I.” To call the play Arcadia is therefore a kind of moral and at the same time comic conceit: it is Death who, in Vergil’s Aeneid, speaks the phrase in question; and yet to say that the play, so far as its title can convey meaning, is about an Arcadia-like place, rural, peaceful, and idyllic, is to lead its audience somewhat astray, sending it, as it turns out, on something of a fool’s errand. That is, we are led to think that Sedley Park, the stately home that is the scene of the play, is just that sort of place, an escape from cares, from justice perhaps, or at any rate from the sordid world at large. Ironically, it turns out that Sedley Park, standing in for Arcadia itself, is a true epitome of an idyllic place inhabited by inevitable death, and no escape at all.

Emphasis on this point occurs before the first act is over. By this time, if we’ve been paying attention, we have seen the play moving in this direction, even as Thomasina begins to make discoveries about mathematical iteration and heat transfer that mark her as an incipient genius at age thirteen. Apparently, the second law of thermodynamics figures importantly in her theories and her equations. We begin to understand that everything is cooling down and falling apart. As Valentine, himself a brilliant mathematician who also has the advantage of a powerful laptop computer on which to do his calculations, explains to Hannah, “Your tea is getting cold.” “I know that,” Hannah replies, not following Valentine. He explains further: Hannah’s tea and everything else in the universe is cooling down. Things always get cooler. Things never get warmer, unless heat is applied (as in the case of the letter from Byron that Septimus Hodge calmly but conclusively burns, late in the play, by holding it over the tea-warmer flame). Though the term, perhaps surprisingly, is not used by Stoppard in this play, the law in question is the law of entropy. Loss is constant and inevitable. It is a somber reflection to make, and we do make it, frequently, as we watch the action of the play being played out. And yet this is not a sullen, humorless tragedy, but a brilliant, intellectual comedy which never plays down to its audience.

I see I have gotten preoccupied with just one instance of the several things that were emphasized in this production. It is certainly the central idea of the play, and when, late in the second act, we hear Hannah mention that Thomasina never really got the opportunity either to marry Byron, as she so enthusiastically wanted to do, or to become the brilliant mathematician that she shows clear evidence of becoming even as a thirteen-year old, because she was killed in a fire in her bedroom at age seventeen, it truly comes home to us that death is ever-present in Arcadia. We understand further, with Hannah’s help, that the crazed hermit who occupied the hermitage at Sedley Park until his death in 1834, generating mountains of paper containing cryptic scribblings, was the same Septimus Hodge who, as Thomasina’s tutor, helped her to realize the brilliance of her mind and who, after she was dead, evidently felt obliged to continue her formulaic work, the work of iteration so clearly explained in the play. Because the play interweaves scenes in the late twentieth century with scenes set in the early nineteenth century, and because Stoppard gives us the fascinating character of Valentine, a mathematician working on the same kind of problem as Thomasina, we not only see the parallel but grasp the irony that Valentine’s laptop computer is so powerful it can accomplish in a matter of hours or even minutes what the crazed Septimus devoted the rest of his life to calculate. As we realize this, we also find that Valentine has abandoned his project because, as he ruefully explains, “There’s too much noise.” “Noise” in the technical sense of disorderliness. Things are not orderly enough for him to make good, sound mathematical sense out of the semi-chaos of real life.

Fortunately, the play itself, so multifarious in its subject matter and thematic emphases, manages to capture that authentic sense of “noise,” in its technical sense, even while it develops so beautifully as a planned, calculated creation. I too find more in this play every time I see it.

The main performances in this production were really stunningly good. A graduating high school senior named Shelby Leshine played a wonderful Thomasina, natural, lively, by turns petulant and ingratiating, and as much of a winner of hearts as the character on the page. David Mason, a well-known N. C. T. actor (he played the role of the drama critic who discovers his aunts are murderers in last summer’s Arsenic and Old Lace), did ample justice to Septimus, though early on it seemed to me he was over-projecting, as if a little unsure how much energy he needed to put into the vituperative passages in which he hoodwinks the would-be poet Richard Noakes into thinking that he, Septimus, believes him to be one of the three greatest living poets of the age. Cate Damon (who happens to be married to Sam Rush) was spot-on perfect as Hannah Jarvis, the amateur historian of landscaping who has sent a copy of her recent book to Lady Croom, the mistress of Sedley Park, has been invited to Sedley Park as a result, and is finding there a gold mine of new data to support her current studies. There then arrives a great windbag of a literary critic named Bernard Nightingale, played in an outlandish yet somehow entirely appropriate style by Keith Langsdale (who directed the earlier N. C. T. play Other People’s Money), who savaged Hannah’s book in print in recent weeks and now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of needing information that she alone can provide. The to-ing and fro-ing of these two characters has a kind of banal analogy to the similar give and take between Thomasina and Septimus. It is one of the parallels constructed by Stoppard that holds the play together and asserts the iterative dramaturgical processes central to its conduct and theme.

I would want to single out one more actor, Paul Melendy, the Valentine, a young man perhaps less than thirty years old with much experience in Shakespearean character parts, who captured an authentic feeling of personal commitment that underlay and gave real humanity to the geekiness of the character, endowing it with a certain welcome pathos. Most of the rest of the acting was at least satisfactory, an exception being the Lady Croom, played by Lisa Rowe-Beddoe, who was not able to capture the central contradiction implanted in the character by Stoppard: on the one hand, a privileged, commanding woman born into the upper class; on the other, a woman with an irresistible desire for that thing about which Thomasina asks Septimus in the opening lines of the play — “carnal knowledge.” Rowe-Beddoe played her more like a harridan then a titled lady; she got the carnal knowledge part, but made it vulgar rather than human, and her place, by rights, seemed below stairs.

The direction by Sam Rush was generally speaking quite good, quite clear. There were a few instances in which I realized I was seeing straight lines made up of four or five characters across the up-stage area of the set, but most of the time the blocking was appropriately functional, characterological, and situational. One advantage the National Theatre production had was the very large size of the stage (it was either the Olivier or the Lyttelton) and consequently the wide breadth available for a strikingly long table that occupies the center of the stage for the duration of the play. In the last scene, when Stoppard brings both of his sets of characters on stage and allows them to sit at the same table, the longer table allowed the characters to put some goodly distance between them; whereas the much shorter table required by the modest dimensions of the Theatre 14 stage had the effect of straining credulity and, somehow, interfering with the audience’s ability to accept what is manifestly a coup de théâtre. This was simply what Sam Rush had to work with, and he made the best of it.

There were a few mispronunciations that I thought Sam should have known better than to allow: primer, Fuseli, Linnaeus, (they said “PRIME-er,” not “primmer”, “FewSELLi,” not “FEWs’li”, “LINNaeus,” not “LinnEEus”) and one or two others. Sam probably felt bound to substitute “radio” for the British “wireless,” which these days would create immediate confusion, but for those who know the Brits call it a wireless it was nonetheless a bit jarring. And I have a perennial complaint about the program. The cast listing and production credits are helpfully printed at the center, where the staples clasp, but there was no indication of setting or of playing time (three hours and twenty minutes, including intermission). This company is scrupulous to a fault about listing the credits of actors in alphabetical order; but the texts of these credits are clearly written by the actors themselves and lack any editorial oversight at all. And, since it is their habit to use a core of Actors’ Equity performers but to include actors who do not have that professional credential, the less professional performers are often overly enthusiastic and articulate about what performing for N. C. T. means to them. One actress offered thanks to Sam Rush for allowing her to appear on this stage. The aspirations of N. C. T. toward professional status as it approaches its twentieth year of operation in 2010 really call for a more professional tone in these credits. One gets the impression that the program is something Sam Rush, producing director, gratefully leaves to the person who solicits ads and puts it all together, and he can’t be bothered to spend much time with it in the context of mounting four plays in eight weeks. When I was on the board of directors I volunteered to drop everything and read proof for them; the offer was not taken up. Someone needs to do it, but more important, someone needs to persuade Sam that it’s worth doing and doing well, and that it adds to the professional aura that he himself is trying so hard to achieve. It took several years for the board to convince Sam that he should print a list of the board members in the program; finally, he is doing it. It’s a good beginning.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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