Monday, November 7, 2011

Arcadia (1993)

     I came to read Arcadia on the recommendation of Steve Carroll, a much more successful – and one would hope fulfilled – member of the 1993 class of CSHS.  I didn't know very much about Stoppard.  I was aware of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (but only because of the film) and the he was one of the authors of the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, but that doesn't really inform much of the style and outlook of an author.
     What does Arcadia have going for it?  It is delightfully irreverent – and in two different centuries, no less.  It has sparkling dialogue that does not come off as stilted or manufactured.  Like almost all of the recent tales I've read regarding England or the English, it is hopelessly tied to the aristocracy.  As a complete and total aside, I now firmly believe that we could solve all of America's unemployment if the 1% had as many servants and attendants as 19th Century English landowners did; Arcadia seemed light in this regard, but there were still multiple attendants mentioned.  Back to making points in favor of the play.  It has a proper respect for the amount of disrespect and discourtesy in academia, and how the legitimacy of 'discoveries' is dependent – largely – on the stature of the personality tied to it.
     However, Stoppard (like a lot of other authors) has an unhealthy attraction to Chaos Theory.  Actually, I think he gets everything in regards to physics wrong.  Sure, I'm no physicist – and it has been 18 years since
Time magazine man of the year (1960), Elliot Cresson Medal winner (1961), National Medal of Science winner (1987), Crafoord Prize winner (1989), etc., Dr. James Van Allen offered to get me started in the field – but I would like to think I have a working knowledge of the subject.  Yes, I have some problems wrapping my head around hydrodynamics (largely because I have trouble properly applying Bernoulli's principle), but Stoppard presents an academic understanding of thermodynamics that I had surpassed by high school.  What's worse, his presentation impressed some reviewers for its insight.  The disorder that Stoppard supposedly introduces felt like so much nothing to me.  It didn't distract from the wonderfully layered relationships that Stoppard put into each era, but it didn't do anything to add to it.
     Likewise, Stoppard's linkage of Chaos Theory and thermodynamics (yes, there is a lot of literature on the subject and not one the those scientists should give a damn that I think they are doing a lot of work just to muddy their own understanding of the perceptible world) to a sort of nihilism does not hold any emotional truth.  Given that there is a fair examination of conflicted emotions – tied to social class or position – that is rather disappointing.  He also has his most rewarding character, Thomasina, as the vehicle for introducing all this nonsense.  While this works (slightly) as a plot device, I would have preferred to have more time with Thomisina and her non-scientific musings because they have a much better payoff (and didn't frustrate the hell out of me).
     I can say without qualification that Arcadia is the best play I've read as part of this year's reading project (of course, it is the first play I've read for the current reading project), and probably one of the ten best I have read in my adult life.  I would imagine that it is a supremely difficult one to stage properly, especially the last scene.  There is nothing difficult in the text, though I could certainly understand not wanting to expose pre-teens to the subject matter of language (I would, but I view children differently than most people).  As Arcadia takes less than two hours to read, I would encourage everyone to at least give it a chance – I doubt you will be disappointed (or be as offended by the science as I was).

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