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Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, first performed in 1993, is considered one of the best modern plays by many critics. Set in an English country house in two time periods, the modern day and the early 1800s, it addresses questions of science, literature, mathematics, and philosophy to explore how people in both the past and present interpret and misinterpret history. Its witty, ironic dialogue is juxtaposed with the dark concept of the inevitability of failure and extinction.

Since its first performance in London, the play has evoked in viewers delight, confusion, sorrow, and awe. As critic Johann Hari of the Independent noted in 2009, over the years Arcadia "has only grown in power and relevance."

1. Arcadia refers to death.

Arcadia is a real area in Greece, once populated by shepherds and farmers. The word Arcadia came to mean a utopian existence, and the Roman poet Virgil used it in one of his writings, stating, "Et in Arcadia Ego," which means, "I too am in Arcadia," or, in some interpretations, "Death too is in Arcadia." Nicolas Poussin, a French artist (1594–1665), painted a landscape with the same title showing shepherds around a tomb. Stoppard's play too deals with death, from that of humans to that of the universe. The full title of the play, in fact, was intended to be Et in Arcadia Ego, but it was considered too long.

2. Arcadia was inspired by books on math, landscape gardening, and Lord Byron.

Before Stoppard wrote Arcadia, he read a biography of the poet Lord Byron and works about mathematics, landscape gardening, and physics. This unlikely grouping of information and concepts is evident throughout the play, which weaves ideas about chaos theory, romanticism, quantum physics, classical aesthetics, and the life of Lord Byron together seamlessly.

3. Arcadia was in the the running for the title of "best science book ever written."

In 2006 the Royal Institution, a charity created to connect people with science, held an event in London to choose the best science book ever written. Among the works on the shortlist were Tom Stoppard's Arcadia; Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring, which one judge described as "the most charming [book] ever written by a Nazi"; and Primo Levi's memoir of Auschwitz as seen through chemistry, The Periodic Table, which won the prize.

4. Stoppard based the character of Thomasina Coverly on the real computing genius Ada Lovelace.

Young genius Thomasina Coverly's voice is the first heard as Arcadia opens, and as part of her algebra lesson, she and her tutor are discussing Fermat's Last Theorem, which states that a certain equation has no solution. Thomasina is based on the 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Born in 1815, she is known as the first computer programmer. Lovelace wrote an explanation of how an invention created to do mathematical calculations could use codes and repeat a series of instructions, both of which are integral aspects of computing today. She died in 1852.

5. In 2009 Tom Stoppard's son acted in Arcadia.

Tom Stoppard's son Ed became an actor and took on the role of Valentine Coverly, a student of mathematical biology, in a 2009 production of Arcadia in London's West End theater district. While preparing for the play, Ed Stoppard admitted, "It's no secret that I'm my dad's biggest fan." Ed Stoppard received good reviews for his performance, with one reviewer stating, "Ed Stoppard (Tom's son) brings the maths and science to gripping life."

6. The word Stoppardian has become commonplace in theater circles.

The adjective Stoppardian is used to indicate philosophical concepts conveyed with wit and irony, often using visual humor and a mix of different time periods. Stoppard's play Arcadia embodies the term, incorporating present-day and past settings and characters who grapple with theories in physics, mathematics, literature, and philosophy.

7. Animal rights advocates accused Arcadia's producers animal cruelty—before learning the tortoise on stage was radio-controlled.

Stoppard uses tortoises in several of his plays, and one has an ongoing role, as a symbol of longevity, in Arcadia. Characters in both time settings have a pet tortoise and refer to it frequently, even feeding the animal onstage. According to critics the tortoise helps link the two time periods and also represents characters that move more slowly but find truth in the end.

During the original production, the producers received letters from theatergoers about their fears the tortoise might fall off the table where it is placed. An animal rights organization accused the producers of cruelty to animals until they learned that the tortoise was actually radio-controlled.

8. Reviews of Arcadia ranged from "brilliant" to "tedious."

The Guardian called Arcadia "as beautiful as it is brilliant," and the Independent said it was "entertaining and intriguing." The New York Post, however, complained, "Boy, is the show tedious," and the Washington Post claimed watching it was "like eavesdropping on a dinner party full of smart, glib, shallow, charming people."

9. Mathematicians agree the algorithms proposed in Arcadia are workable.

Two characters in Arcadia, Thomasina and Valentine Coverly, are mathematicians who discuss concepts ranging from chaos theory to fractals and touching on laws of thermodynamics and geometry. Professor Robert Devaney at Boston University tested the algorithms the characters use for such practices as drawing a picture of a leaf and explaining the rise and fall of the grouse population at their country house. Devaney found Thomasina's algorithms all workable and, in fact, used the play in math classes to give his students an interdisciplinary experience.

10. Stoppard has been called "the modern Shakespeare."

Reviewers for both the Daily Beast and the Independent have referred to Stoppard as "the modern Shakespeare," claiming the brilliance of his writing and the density of his ideas merge to make him comparable to the most famous playwright of the Western world. Other links to Shakespeare include Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet (in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters), and his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love.

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