Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (modern theatre guides) - John Fleming

I saw this while browsing a second-hand bookshop in Rochester, and snapped it up. This slim volume provides background and context for the play, some analysis, a production history, and ideas for workshopping. It really interested me because Arcadia is so rich and dense in themes and ideas. Having the opportunity to let someone else do some analysis and see how it compares to my own thoughts seemed attractive.

The background and production history sections, despite not being what I bought the book for, were very interesting, addressing angles I'd not really thought about before. Apparently Stoppard was a liberal (small c) convservative, at odds with the mainstream of socially-aware and active playwrights. A nice alignment with my Centrist Dad tendencies. Reviewers felt the play might be a bit inaccessible, with its references and scientific ideas. Partly, I think this underestimates the average audience (Review: Well, I get it, but the common theatre-goer might not!), but partly as a Cambridge STEM grad the science is light and simple.

The analysis itself doesn't so much open up whole new vistas to me as help explore themes I knew were there. Learning that the play itself was structured something like a chaotic bifurcation map was fascinating, and identifying the echoing lines throughout the play pulled out another strand. Stoppard's word-play is very evident, and you can see some form of wider structure, but the book helps identify the patterns at all levels.

There's a bit of discussion of the trend of "science plays", particularly in the '90s. Treating the idea of a play about science as unusual is extremely telling (but alas true). Science is... pretty much all the higher learning not labelled "arts and humanities". It's the other half of C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures. That there's no natural integration, but a playwright needs to dig deep and research in order to incorporate science into their repertoire, and it's unusual. We no longer have an expectation for polymaths - there's only one in the play, they're two centuries ago, and they have a bad end.

I found it interesting how Fleming's "arts view of science" identified the three big ideas of the 20th as relativity, quantum and chaos theory. Fashionable mistaken for truly important. While chaos relates the knowable to the unknowable in dynamic systems, I would place the more fundamental results on what is formally knowable on a much higher pedestal: Russell's Paradox, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and Turing's Halting Problem. Nonetheless, deterministic chaos is perfect for mild artistic misuse in a play like this.

This short book has no hope of pulling out every reference in the text. It's a dense play, and a full analysis would end up much longer (and less interesting) than the play itself. Indeed, in the workshopping section, many of the exercises focus on researching the various aspects of the play. There's also a short bibliography at the back, alongside the references (never has "The Genius of the Place, The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820" sounded so interesting!). Mostly, though, this volume has served to remind me how much I love Arcadia.

Posted 2022-09-19.