Review: Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

There is a particular sort of novel of which I always profess to be passionately fond: the sort with one plotline in the olden days with people doing their olden-day thing, and one in the present with eager scholars researching the very olden-day events in the other plotline.  (Is there a word for this sort of book?  Can there be one?)  If you have ever reviewed a book like this on your blog, I have probably commented to say something like, “Love this sort of book!  Adore!  Worship!  Cannot imagine my life without!” and added it to my reading list straight away.

When pressed, though*, I can only think of one such novel that I would recommend to a friend, and then only if I knew the friend in question didn’t mind extreme wordiness.  (A.S. Byatt’s Possession.  I should read that again.  It’s been years.)  More often I am disappointed on an epic scale by the author’s failure to live up to some arbitrary and impossibly high standard for this kind of novel.

*By me.  Much as I would like to live the sort of life where book lovers from all over the nation are constantly bashing at my door trying to get my opinion on Important Literary Matters, I am not yet at that place in my life.  Give it time.

For reasons far too complicated** to go into here, I am binging on Tom Stoppard right now.  I started with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, moved on to The Invention of Love, the result of which you saw, and just finished the play I normally claim as my favorite, ArcadiaArcadia goes back and forth between Byron-times, when a thirteen-year-old girl called Thomasina contemplates Latin translations and carnal embrace under the instruction of her tutor Septimus Hodge (that sounds much dirtier than it is), and present times, when scholars research Thomasina’s family and try to work out whether Byron ever shot a poet at their house.

**And awesome.  I would tell you what they are, except that I’m afraid that if I did, my sister’s boyfriend would no longer be able to write that treatise on Tom Stoppard and the nature of art that I expect he is currently planning, and also that Tom Stoppard’s people (I’m assuming he has people.  He’s Tom Stoppard.) would find this post, take umbrage at my flippant tone, and decline to allow Tom Stoppard to be interviewed by anyone ever again.  Better safe than sorry, right?

No wonder other books of this type have failed to satisfy me!  I have been comparing them all this time against Tom Stoppard!  It is hardly fair.  Especially when you consider that Billy Crudup, on whom I have a massive crush from Charlotte Gray and Almost Famous, played Septimus at one point in his career; and Bill Nighy, on whom I have a massive man-crush*** from, well, everything, was the original Bernard; and both of them are playing those roles in my head when I read Arcadia.  It’s like saying, Oh hey, I traveled back in time and saw the original production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe with William Shakespeare playing Oberon, so WHY CAN’T YOU MEASURE UP, NEIL GAIMAN?****

***My little sister and I got fed up with having no word to describe our feelings for male actors we adore but don’t have crushes on.  We can say “crush” to describe how we feel about Ben Barnes, and “girl-crush” to describe how we feel about Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren, but there is no word for how we feel about Nathan Fillion and Johnny Depp.  So we decided to say “man-crush”.  It is officially the most useful word I coined in the 2009 holiday season (with “snuddle” a close if nauseating second).

****Confession: Before I ever saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I read Susan Cooper’s heart-wrenching King of Shadows, in which a lonely orphan boy travels back to Shakespeare times to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare takes care of him.  While playing Oberon.  I think that may actually be why I have never seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that satisfied me.  That, or the Royal Shakespeare Company is massively overrated.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

Thomasina: Is that all?

Septimus: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well-hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis, feminine: flesh.

Thomasina: Is it a sin?

Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh.  QED.  We had caro in our Gaulic Wars: ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’.  I am sorry the seed fell on stony ground.

Thomasina: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

Septimus: Yes.  He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before.

Phew.  Dizzy from all the wordplay.

Tom Stoppard, y’all.  Arcadia.  I almost got to see it in London but then did not, and I really wished I had organized my schedule better.  It’s a magnificent example of the above-mentioned double-plotline sort of story, the standard to which all others of this type should aspire.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

29 thoughts on “Review: Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

  1. Possession is like my number one favorite book EVER. And I’ve never even read anything else by Byatt – I’m too afraid I won’t like whatever I read. Because Possession was indescribably perfect, both on a writing level and on an emotional level. It struck me so personally (long complicated story that I will not pour out in your comment section. :D ). I’ve read it once more since my first read in 2002-ish, but don’t want to read it too often because it feels so magical.

    • I completely understand. I haven’t read anything else by Byatt either, though I tried one, and couldn’t get on with it. I want to read The Children’s Book, but I’m waiting until it comes out in paperback and is of a size to fit in my purse and carry about with me.

    • You’ve seen it? Or read the book? Because I thought the book was well-written but I love the movie because Billy Crudup is sooooooo handsome in it. With his glasses? And he’s all handsome? *crush*

  2. Not quite what you’re talking about with double-plotline, but there was a minor thing like that in the White Jenna books, no? the scholar? With the folksongs and his interpretations and all making fun of another scholar who was actually more right?

    • Well, sort of…but I don’t really count that because it’s a fake universe. I mean, I thought that stuff was neat! But it’s not exactly the kind of book I had in mind. If there had been more of it, maybe I would count it.

  3. I am sure I know of hundreds of books with that academic-researching-olden-days plotline, and yet only The Rosetti Letter by Christi Philips comes to mind. It is early here in the UK, my brain may wake up later. Shockingly enough, I have never actually seen a Stoppard play. I really should fix that.

    • I should fix it too but the stars never align for me to see one!

      If, um, you do think of other books with academics doing suspenseful research, do come back here and tell me what they are. I love love love those books. Now that I am aware of my standards being absurdly high, maybe I will enjoy lesser books more than I have in the past.

  4. Your quote is the reason that I think I would always prefer to read a Stoppard play than to see it. Because my brain overloads quickly with all the wordplay, and I am afraid it might actually explode right there in the theater.

    • Nah, it wouldn’t explode, you’d just miss a few lines. I know I would. But that would be okay, because I’d also catch a lot of the lines, and I’d be seeing a Tom Stoppard play performed for real! Which, despite my great love for him, I never have before.

  5. I love love love Arcadia. I usually list my favorite Stoppard plays as Arcadia closely followed by The Invention of Love. So many of his plays are brilliant, with all the wordplay and whatnot, but only a handful of them also have a lot of heart. And Arcadia succeeds not just because of the clever dialogue and plotting, but also because it makes you love Septimus and Thomasina, and it makes you care terribly what happens to them. Which was why I was so disappointed when I went to that production in DC where Thomasina was played as a shrill, coy little brat. One of the great ambitions of my life is to see a good production of Arcadia.

    Also, it occurred to me once that Arcadia is a perfect example of the tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.

    • Every time I read this play, I think it would be so easy to play Thomasina shrill, for laughs. She’s a funny character, but she’s only funny as long as the actress playing her commits to playing it straight. (I say having never ever seen even a bad production of Arcadia. :P)

  6. Oh, and I just thought of this: Elizabeth, Elizabeth by Eileen Dunlop is a fantastic book that’s got the kind of double plotline that you like. A girl named Elizabeth Martin is spending the summer on the Scottish border with her Aunt Kate, a scholar who’s researching an eighteenth century family called Melville, and Elizabeth finds herself constantly traveling back in time (sort of) and living the life of Elizabeth Melville. But it’s all about scholarship and the power of the mind and all sorts of fun things like that. It’s out of print, I’m sure, but your library might have it. I’m pretty sure it’s Eileen Dunlop’s only really good book, though, so I wouldn’t recommend getting just anything by her.

  7. Katy’s comment reminded me of that YA novel, The Juniper Game. Sort of the same thing – not so much with the scholarship, though. But I don’t know if you would count time-travelly books in your particular double-plotline genre? It seems like you have pretty tight specs.

    • Well, I suppose I could loosen them a little and allow (this still wouldn’t include The Juniper Game though) any books about people doing scholarly research. I think stories about research can be really suspenseful and interesting! But they often aren’t. I guess I am just in love with the idea of people doing literary detective work.

  8. I saw this performed at my college, and it was SO AMAZING. It was the first major production of the theater department that I saw there, and none of the following ones lived up to it.

    • JEALOUS. My friend tim saw it at Princeton, I think, when she was there, though I can’t remember what she thought about the production she saw. Every year I check the production schedule for my university, hoping they’ll be doing a Stoppard play, but so far they never have. Not even Rosencrantz & Guildenstern!

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  10. I’ve seen and loved several Stoppards on the stage (I saw the original production of Arcadia with Nighy, and the young and very beautiful Rufus Sewell (so two man-crushes there – brilliant word!), as well as Felicity Kendal.

    I’ve never considered reading his plays though, as they are so tricksy with the wordplay.

      • The original Thomasina was Emma Fielding, whom you may not have seen in anything else (unless you watched Diana Rigg in ‘Speedy Death’ – EF played Eleanor). I imagine she would have been quite good.

        Also Sam West played Val and Harriet Walter Lady Croome (my copy of the play has the original cast listed).

    • Oh, it’s actually a verb. I invented it when we were talking baby talk to my parents’ puppy, because I wanted a more baby-talk-y word. It is a mixture of “cuddle” and “snuggle” and my younger sister and I now use it incessantly. Disgusting, I know.

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