Arcadia: Essay, Research Paper
Arcadia: “the perfect marriage of idea and high comedy?”
Throughout Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, intellectual ideas and themes are explored. Set in two contrasting timeframes, it shows history in the making and history in the discovering – both by groups of mostly highly enlightened individuals. However, mixed in with humour and irony, the play is made lighter, more enjoyable and more accessible to the average audience.
Scene seven is the central point of the play. Seemingly the climax, it is chaotic but more significant that way, as it concludes central themes and ties up ‘loose ends’, such as the “Sidley Hermit”. Stoppard shows his competence and understanding of using theatrical methods particularly in this scene.
The device of combining the two time frames is designed to add confusion but also bring the two times [and people] together; showing that even though these individuals were born more than a hundred years apart, they are still very similar: Although fashion and society has changed, human nature has remained the same.
Gus is a key character here. Playing the parts of Augustus, Thomasina’s younger brother in the 1800’s, and Gus in the 1900’s; Chloe and Valentine’s brother of the same age [and family]. Although these characters contrast greatly, there is once again a reminder that human nature is basically the same.
Maybe the most obvious theme in the book is the acquisition of knowledge. Most characters in the book are in pursuit if this, so the scene is set.
There are many examples of comedy and ideas in this play that are strongly linked.
Sexual attraction plays a large part in the comedy sector: Bernard and Chloe, Septimus, Mrs Chater, Lady Croom and even Thomasina and Gus fall prey to it.
These feelings often cause awkwardness between characters. This is intended as Stoppard wants to emphasise the point that Chloe makes: “the universe is deterministic alright the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.”
The idea that attraction is the only factor that ruins a pre-determined universe is clearly one that Stoppard wants to emphasise, that is clear throughout the text, perhaps to make the audience thing and decide for themselves.
In 1809 this idea plays a part in causing confusion, betrayal and maybe even death. Mrs Chater plays a large part, influencing Captain Brice and Septimus [plus Ezra Chater].
Tension between Septimus and Lady Croom also gives another outlet for chaos as tempers are frayed.
Even tensions between Thomasina and Septimus indirectly cause the death of Thomasina.
In the present day tension between Bernard and Chloe develop causing bedlam when Lady Croom [Chloe's Mother] discovers them in the hermitage.
Valentine are suspected to have their sights set on Hannah, and as always Gus ads to the complexity as he also seems to have fallen in love with her.
However, the most ironic is the case of Byron. Initially thought by Bernard to have had a duel with Chater over his wife, the full picture is never discovered by the researchers. Again, a tangled web is woven; Lady Croom liking Byron, but also being fond of Septimus; Byron having sexual liaisons with Mrs Chater, Septimus liking Lady Croom, but also having sexual liaisons with Mrs Chater. Inevitable humour follows.
The next idea is art versus science. Most of the characters take sides on this.
Bernard sides with art, whereas Valentine takes Science and Maths. Clearly these ideas are a stark contrast. Bernard tells Valentine: “I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light.” He argues: “why does scientific progress matter more than personalities”. This is clearly extreme, as he seems to oppose any sort of scientific discovery or exploration within reason. Bernard believes that the pursuit of “self knowledge” is substantially more important than knowing the speed of light – something that the average person will never have a use for.
Valentine’s argument is equally as biased due to the argument with Bernard, and brought about some of the more extremist [or simplistic] views. He tells Bernard “it doesn’t matter. Personalities. What matters is the calculus. Scientific progress. Knowledge.” This is similar in a way to Septimus’ view that you “die on the march”. It is not who made the discovery but the discovery itself.
Clearly these views are both over the top and probably exaggerated due to most of them being expressed in an argument. However, it shows that when two opposing ideas are brought together they can have interesting, volatile and humorous outcomes.
This idea leads onto one that is very closely linked to the previous. The clash between Romanticism and Reason. These were two periods in time, but carried contrasting ethics and views.
The time that Septimus and Thomasina lived in was the Romantic era. This was relatively new and had many opposers who still believed in the Age of Reason.
The people believing in Romanticism [such as Byron] could be linked to characters such as Bernard in present day scenes. Characters such as Thomasina believing in reason could be closely linked with characters such as Valentine.
Through this the audience is able two observe groups of people more than a hundred years apart who seem to share the same views. This is where the humor is injected into the idea. There is a stark contrast between characters, but Bernard has a great similarity Byron with his suave lady-killer mannerisms and romantic ideals.
The one of the most important [or significant] of all ideas in the book is determinism. Determinism versus free will is an argument that constantly appears both on stage and in the audience’s minds. This philosophical argument is very similar to the two previously.
The characters who believe in one of these arguments appear to believe in the other two. If a character believes in science they tend to believe in the Age of Reason [which was dominated by the pursuit of knowledge] and determinism.
The characters who believe more in art would also believe in Romanticism and Free will.
Of course this is a generalization and not all characters fit into a category [such as Septimus who enjoys both art and science].
The ‘attraction factor’ also comes into play with determinism and free will. Whether the universe is deterministic before sexual attraction gets in the way.
Ironic humor is used by Stoppard to alert us to this idea. The sexual tension between Septimus and Thomasina is explored as Septimus teaches her to Waltz. This may not have been “part of the plan” and so completely changed Thomasina’s life, as she goes to bed and perishes in the fire that presumably her candle made.
This leads onto another idea that has been explored through Valentine’s scientific views. Ironically Septimus mentions this several times when teaching and talking to Thomasina.
The fact that Thomasina died before completing her explanation to Septimus when she could have brought science along a lot faster, but by “dying on the march”, her path was trodden by others [including Valentine] where, due to technology he was able to turn her equations into never-ending patterns of fractals.
There is another factor also. Because Thomasina was unable to explain her theory [something along the lines of entropy] this drove Septimus [along with guilt and grief also] to the hermitage, and worse, eventually insane. More irony here though, was this pre-determined or not? Maybe because of the attraction between him and Thomasina that outcome was not meant to happen either. Another subtle joke added by Stoppard to test an audience’s understanding or alertness.
I agree with the claim that Stoppard has produced “the perfect marriage between ideas and high comedy”. However, I do not believe that the word “perfect” would be the correct one to use. Nothing can be completely perfect, this scene being no exception. Depending on the alertness of the audience, the play, the “perfect marriage” might be nearly visualised or maybe not.
Also, it depends greatly on your view of “high comedy”. Many parts of the play contain highly ironic humour that is quite harsh. However there are constant underlying jokes as well as the blatantly obvious ones, such as the comments Thomasina makes when her and Septimus waltz: “we must hurry if we are going to dance”. An audience may take this to mean the time, but it might be that she is going to die soon or more subtly a referral to entropy and the end of the universe that Thomasina has been predicting with her equations.
Stoppard is making a statement in this play: that history may not always be right, but that is not important if it teaches people something. Maybe a Romantic view of life with a hint of Reason?