I am going to start with the wikipedia information about the play I saw last week- because it was so mind blowing/bending that I doubt I could do it justice without the context of scholars...
Written by Tom Stoppard
Date premiered 13 April 1993
Place premiered Lyttelton Theatre Royal National Theatre London
Original language English
Subject History, science, philosophy, mathematics, love, death
Setting A Derbyshire country estate in both the past (1809, 1812) and "the present"
Arcadia is a 1993 play by Tom Stoppard concerning the relationship between past and present, order and disorder, certainty and uncertainty. It has been praised by many critics as the finest play from one of the most significant contemporary playwrights in the English language. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it one of the best science-related works ever written.
Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an English country house in Derbyshire, and takes place in both 1809/1812 and the present day (1993 in the original production). The activities of two modern scholars and the house's current residents are juxtaposed with those of the people who lived there in the earlier period.
In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is a precocious teenager with ideas about mathematics, nature and physics well ahead of her time. She studies with her tutor Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron (an unseen guest in the house). In the present, writer Hannah Jarvis and literature professor Bernard Nightingale converge on the house: she is investigating a hermit who once lived on the grounds; he is researching a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their studies unfold – with the help of Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology – the truth about what happened in Thomasina's time is gradually revealed.
The play's set features a large table, used by the characters in both past and present. Props are not removed when the play switches time period; books, coffee mugs, quill pens, portfolios, and laptop computers appear together, blurring past and present. An ancient but still living tortoise also appears in every scene, symbolising long-suffering endurance and the continuity of existence.
Scene 1 (Act 1)
The play opens on 10 April 1809, in a garden-front room of the house. Septimus Hodge is trying to distract 13-year-old Thomasina from her curiosity about "carnal embrace" by challenging her to prove Fermat's Last Theorem; he also wants to focus on reading the poem "The Couch of Eros" by Ezra Chater, a guest at the house. Thomasina starts asking why jam mixed in rice pudding can never be unstirred, which leads her on to the topic of determinism and to a beginning theory about chaotic shapes in nature. This is interrupted by Chater himself, who is angry that his wife was caught in the aforementioned "carnal embrace" with Septimus; he has come to demand a duel. Septimus tries to defuse the situation by heaping praise on "The Couch of Eros". The tactic works, because Chater does not know it was Septimus who savaged an earlier work of his, "The Maid of Turkey". Then landscape architect Richard Noakes enters, shortly accompanied by Captain Brice and Lady Croom; the three discuss proposed modifications to the gardens, while Thomasina sketches an imaginary hermit on Noakes's technical drawing of the garden.
The setting shifts to the present day. Hannah Jarvis is researching the house, the garden, and specifically the hermit, for a study of hermits and the Romantic imagination. Bernard Nightingale enters with Chloe Coverly; she conceals his identity from Hannah, as he had given Hannah's last book a poor review. Chloe's brother, Valentine, is gathering data on the population biology of the grouse in the surrounding grounds, using the house's "game books". When Chloe accidentally reveals Bernard's identity, Hannah reacts angrily; but she agrees to share her research material, which enables him to propose the theory that one of the 1809 inhabitants, Ezra Chater, was killed in a duel by Lord Byron. Bernard notes that records of Chater the poet disappeared after 1809, and the only other Chater of record is a botanist.
The third scene returns to the earlier time frame; Septimus is again tutoring Thomasina, this time in translating Latin. Again their focus diverts, this time to the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, which upsets Thomasina. She mourns the loss of the knowledge stored there, and Septimus responds that all that was lost will eventually turn up again. They are again interrupted by Chater, who succeeds in challenging Septimus to the duel, having learned (from Lord Byron off-stage) that Septimus wrote the damning review.
Hannah rediscovers Thomasina's primer containing her ideas on iteration and chaos theory; this recalls Septimus' assertion that what was lost is eventually rediscovered. Valentine reacts with interest to the notes, as his own research centres on similar concepts.
Scene 5 (Act 2)
Still in the present, Bernard gives Hannah, Valentine, and Chloe a preview of his lecture theorising that Lord Byron shot and killed Chater in a duel. When Hannah and Valentine challenge his logic, Bernard launches into a diatribe about the irrelevance of science, then departs for his lecture (and a promotional media appearance) in London. Hannah begins to suspect that the hermit of Sidley Park – who was reportedly obsessed with algebraic computations about the heat death of the universe, the theory suggested in Thomasina's diagram – could have been Septimus.
Returning to 1809, we learn that the duel never occurred. Instead, the Chaters left for the West Indies with Captain Brice, Mr. Chater serving as the expedition's botanist and Mrs. Chater as the captain's secret paramour. Lord Byron has also left the country. Septimus has gone rabbit hunting for Thomasina, who favours rabbit pie; he returns to find Lady Croom searching for him. She has found two letters Septimus wrote in case he should die in the duel: one to Thomasina, is about rice pudding, and the other is a love letter addressed to herself. Lady Croom invites Septimus to an amorous rendezvous.
The final scene takes place in both 1812 and the present, the actions running concurrently. Some present-day characters are in fancy dress for a party, so that both casts appear similarly attired. Chloe reads a newspaper report on the Byron murder theory and then talks about determinism with Valentine, echoing the discussion between Septimus and Thomasina. Chloe, however, believes that sex is the force disrupting the universe's ordered plan. Valentine, using his computer to extrapolate Thomasina's ideas, relates them to the concept of entropy; he wonders whether Thomasina or Septimus was the genius behind the theories. Hannah and Valentine mention that Thomasina died in a fire on the eve of her seventeenth birthday.
Meanwhile, Thomasina asks Septimus to teach her to dance, for her forthcoming birthday party. Lady Croom enters, complaining to Noakes about the noise of his steam engine; Thomasina notes that the machine obeys the laws of entropy (which have not yet been formalized), which describe the universe as winding down. In the present, Bernard arrives and is met by Hannah, who has found a letter detailing the facts of Chater's death – this discovery totally discredits his theory and vindicates Lord Byron's reputation. While Septimus awaits appropriate music for Thomasina's dance lesson, he examines the sketch she made to illustrate the irreversibility of heat; his action mirrors that of Hannah and Valentine, who also pondered the same diagram. Bernard is caught in a compromising position with Chloe, and is asked to depart.
Eventually a waltz starts, and Septimus dances with Thomasina, their relationship increasingly complicated by hints of romance. Gus (Valentine and Chloe's younger brother, who has been silent for the entire play) hands another of Thomasina's drawings to a surprised Hannah. It depicts Septimus and the tortoise, confirming her suspicion that the hermit, who had a tortoise called Plautus, was actually Septimus. After Thomasina's tragic death, he apparently became a hermit; accepting her challenge to the laws of the universe as propounded by Newton, he worked for the rest of his life to apply "honest English algebra" to the question of the universe's future.
Arcadia explores the nature of evidence and truth in the context of modern ideas about history, mathematics and physics. It shows how clues left by the past are interpreted in the present, by both laypeople and scholars. Stoppard has said that his initial inspiration came from reading James Gleick's 1987 bestseller, Chaos: Making a New Science, "which is about this new kind of mathematics. That sounds fairly daunting if one's talking about a play. I thought, here is a marvellous metaphor." Besides chaos, the play attends to a wide array of subjects, including thermodynamics, computer algorithms, fractals, population dynamics, 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 all concrete topics of conversation; their more abstract resonances rise into epistemology, nihilism, and the origins of lust and madness.
Arcadia's themes are presented in a series of dichotomies. Most prominent is chaos versus order. The play's characters and action embody this, moving from a settled social order, in which relationships arise, toward the final scene, where the social order – and even the separation of the two eras – dissolve in the party's chaos, relationships collapse, and the characters die or disperse. Yet within that chaos, order can still be found. As Valentine declares: "In an ocean of ashes, islands of order. Patterns making themselves out of nothing." Although the play's world grows increasingly chaotic – with overlapping time periods, increasingly complex ideas, and ever greater variations in social norms and assumptions — connections and order can still be discerned. The characters attempt to find and articulate the order they perceive in their world, even as it is continually overturned.
The center-stage table that collects props from both time periods throughout the play is a vivid metaphor of the chaos/order dichotomy. As Paul Edwards, professor of English and History of Art at Bath Spa University, explains: "At the end of the play, the table has accumulated a variety of objects that, if one saw them without having seen the play, would seem completely random and disordered. Entropy is high. But if one has seen the play, one has full information about the objects and the hidden 'order' of their arrangement, brought about by the performance itself. Entropy is low; this can be proved by reflecting that tomorrow night's performance of the play will finish with the table in a virtually identical 'disorder' — which therefore cannot really be disorder at all."
A closely related theme in Arcadia is the opposition of Classicism and Romanticism. This appears most clearly in the running argument between Noakes and Lady Croom about proposed changes to the garden. They all involve moving from the tidy order of Classic style to the rugged naturalism and Gothic mystery of the Romantic. A parallel dichotomy is expressed by Septimus and Thomasina: He instructs her in the Newtonian vision of the universe, while she keeps posing questions and proposing theories that undercut it. Hannah's search for the hermit of Sidley Park also touches on this theme. "The whole Romantic sham!" she passionately exclaims to Bernard. "It's what happened to the Enlightenment, isn't it? A century of intellectual rigour turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius ... The decline from thinking to feeling."
Another major theme is entropy and the irreversibility of time. Thomasina examines this scientifically, remarking that while Newtonian equations work both backwards and forwards, things in reality – like her rice pudding – cannot be "unstirred." Heat, too, she notes, flows in only one direction (the second law of thermodynamics). This is embodied by the characters, who burn bridges in relationships, burn candles, and burn letters – and in the end, Thomasina herself (like a short-lived candle) burns to death.
Thomasina's insights into thermodynamics and heat transfer, and the idea that the universe is cooling, echo the poem Darkness by her "real life" contemporary, Lord Byron. Written in 1816 — the "Year Without a Summer", caused by atmospheric ash from the volcano Mount Tambora erupting in the Dutch East Indies — "Darkness" depicts a world grown dark and cold because the sun has been extinguished.
The play's end brings all these dichotomous themes together, showing that while things may appear to contradict — Romanticism and Classicism, intuition and logic, thought and feeling — they can exist, paradoxically, in the same time and space. Order is found amid the chaos.
Now from our production-
I was completely floored by the fact that I did not know this play- I love Stoppard's work and yet never knew of this amazing exploration of - well "Life, the Universe and Everything" to use a Douglass Adams turn of phrase... truly a fabulous way to spend an evening!