Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Thomasina Coverly, age 13 in 1809, is studying at a large table in a room at Sidley Park, an English manor house. Thomasina, a brilliant and seemingly innocent girl, is working on Fermat's Last Theorem but asks her tutor, Septimus Hodge, the meaning of "carnal embrace." Septimus avoids talking about sex by making a play on the expression's Latin roots to convince her it means "throwing one's arms around a side of beef." Thomasina pretends to accept his answer. The evasive wordplay continues until Thomasina reveals the reason for her question; she overheard the house staff talking about Mr. Noakes, the gardener, having seen Mrs. Chater, a houseguest, in a "carnal embrace" in the gazebo. This news gets Septimus's attention. He questions Thomasina for more details, triggering her suspicions the phrase relates not to throwing one's arms around meat but around a person. When she chastises her tutor for not teaching her the true meaning, Septimus responds by giving her a graphic, but clinical, explanation of intercourse before trying to redirect her attention to Fermat's Last Theorem. Thomasina foreshadows their future attraction, "Now when I am grown to practice it myself I shall never do so without thinking of you."

The butler, Jellaby, enters with a letter to Septimus from Ezra Chater, a poet staying at the house. Chater has asked Septimus to meet him later in the gunroom. Returning to their conversation, an irritated Septimus compares Richard Noakes to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Thomasina then points out, "When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round ... But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again." This observation leads to a discussion of free will versus determinism and whether God is a Newtonian. Thomasina suggests it would be theoretically possible to write an algebraic formula to predict the future if every atom could be frozen at a particular moment.

Their conversation is interrupted again, this time by Ezra Chater, who confronts Septimus about his liaison with Mrs. Chater in the gazebo and challenges him to a duel. Septimus flatters Chater and persuades him he is preparing to write a glowing review of his latest poem, "The Couch of Eros." Chater, satisfied by the explanation, concludes his wife's motive for her tryst in the gazebo was to help secure a favorable review.

Richard Noakes and then Lady Croom and Captain Brice enter, discussing plans to transform the garden; Septimus misinterprets their conversation as gossip about his affair with Mrs. Chater. The misunderstandings continue when Thomasina attempts to join the discussion about the garden but does not pick up on the sexual subtexts. Seeing that her comments are causing problems for her tutor, she says, "It is plain that there are some things a girl is allowed to understand, and these include the whole of algebra, but there are others, such as embracing a side of beef, that must be kept from her until she is old enough to have a carcass of her own."

Lady Croom opposes changes to the garden. Content with the orderly status quo, she sees the proposed version as chaotic decay. When Mr. Noakes asserts wild disorder is critical to the picturesque style, Lady Croom responds, "But Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture. The slopes are green and gentle ... in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, 'Et in Arcadia ego!' 'Here in Arcadia am I.'" She leaves to persuade her husband, who is hunting on the grounds, to change his mind about transforming the garden. Thomasina comments on the perpetual parade of hunting seasons on the estate. Septimus calls it a "calendar of slaughter" and echoes Lady Croom's words, "Even in Arcadia, there am I," referring to the inevitability of death.

Analysis

The opening conversation between Thomasina Coverly and Septimus Hodge is an example of character compression. Stoppard quickly reveals a great deal about the personalities, habits, and morals of the characters so the audience can understand their actions in the play. Thomasina is young but extremely observant and precocious far beyond her years, persistently seeking truth in the world around her. Septimus, on the other hand, has a looser relationship with truth, yet he is still the classical scholar and behaves as such in his relationship with Thomasina. He is shrewd and self-serving in his dealings with others, using his charm and wit to manipulate people to his advantage and avoid unpleasant consequences. His deflection of Thomasina's questions shows his aversion to dealing with uncomfortable situations and his clever use of double entendre and wordplay. His assignment of Fermat's Last Theorem, a seemingly unsolvable problem at the time, also demonstrates his skill at manipulating a situation to his advantage: keeping Thomasina busy and quiet so he can read Ezra Chater's poem.

Unlike Septimus, Ezra Chater is ineffectual and lacks sound judgment. If Septimus is the ''court academician,'' Chater is more the court fool, but not a clever one. From Septimus's comments, the audience knows that Chater's poetry is mediocre at best, but the audience sees his personal ineptness when he confronts Septimus about sleeping with his wife. Chater is easily deflected by obviously insincere flattery. His seeming tolerance or obliviousness to his wife's behavior casts doubts about his judgment as does his challenging Septimus Hodge to a duel; however, the challenge is the initial conflict of the play and drives the modern story as well, as the researchers attempt to uncover historical truth.

Lady Croom is a colorful, powerful personality who dominates any situation. She is something of a rival to Mrs. Chater in her sexual activities, as she is involved with Septimus and later Lord Byron and others. Her dialogue is usually written "on the line," meaning she expresses herself directly without subtext. Her character also provides vivid descriptions of the estate gardens and addresses the theme of Classical versus Romantic ideas as she expresses opposition to her husband's and Richard Noakes's plans to transform the classically planned gardens. Her opposition represents the tension resulting from a paradigm shift, such as the shift from classical forms in art and literature to the romantic during the early 19th century or the scientific shift from Newtonian physics to the quantum physics of chaos theory in the 20th.

The theme of knowledge—mathematical, carnal, and experiential—appears in this scene. Thomasina Coverly's understanding of mathematics and physics is beyond her years, but her experiential knowledge is limited. She knows little, if anything, about sex and what she knows does not appeal to her. However, she wants to know more, as her desire to learn is foremost in her mind. The adults around her, however, have mastered the knowledge that Thomasina has not as of yet.

Stoppard also addresses the theme of time marching steadily toward death, weaving it throughout the play through symbols such as the tortoise, known for its longevity, and through dialogue, such as Thomasina's description of stirring jam in rice pudding to explain the one-way direction of time. Stoppard ties time to death when Septimus refers to the hunting seasons on the estate as a "calendar of slaughter." "Even in Arcadia, there am I." This statement foreshadows a death on the estate.

Stoppard introduces the symbol of the garden, alluding to the Garden of Eden in Septimus's comment about Richard Noakes's effect on the estate, "He puts himself forward as a gentleman, a philosopher of the picturesque, a visionary who can move mountains and cause lakes, but in the scheme of the garden he is as the serpent." The garden is a recurring symbol of the transformation from classical to romantic ideals and an allusion to the play's title. The subtext of Septimus's comment is Richard Noakes is affecting more than the outward landscape of the house with his gossip about Mrs. Chater.

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