Happy 20th Birthday, Arcadia

Last week I wrote on science and math education; this week I’ll link science and math to Romantic poetry, gardens, Latin verse, love, sex and Time! Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ll reflect on how Tom Stoppard does just that in Arcadia, our all-school summer reading selection being discussed this week.

I want to encourage you to read Brad Leithauser’s recent article in The New Yorker: “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ at Twenty” (August 9, 2013; http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/tom-stoppards-arcadia-at-twenty.html).  For those of you who don’t know the play, his article gives a lovely overview, allowing you to discuss the play with your student at dinner. Leithauser also states that “I feel irrationally, impossibly confident that ‘Arcadia’ is the finest play written in my lifetime.” (while he acknowledges that plays such as “Waiting for Godot,” “Pygmalion,” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” are also great plays, just written before he was born). I whole-heartedly agree, taking it one step further:  I believe Arcadia is the seminal play of the 20th century!

Why do I say that? Not only does Stoppard weave science (the second law of thermodynamics), math (the main character is a math prodigy), Romantic poetry (Lord Byron figures in the plot), gardens (from an Enlightenment to a Romantic sensibility), and Latin verse (and the tutor is named Septimus) into a swirl of witty phrases, double entendres, and complex overlaps that elucidate the meaning of Time…as if all this weaving isn’t enough to justify my claim, Stoppard also has achieved a dramatic tension using “stage business” that is unprecedented.

There are two time casts (one contemporary to our day and the other one living in 1809-1812), with each cast occupying the same gracious room at a country estate, Sidley Park, in alternating scenes. First we see the early 19th century reality of what happened, and then we hear the 21st century assumptions and interpretations of what they think happened…with only the audience alert to the remarkable mix of prescient insights with abysmal presumptions.  Props never leave the set, so a book or apple handled by Thomasina in 1809 might in the next scene be handled by a character in our day. Most astonishing, however, is the moment when the two casts suddenly merge on stage, both groups appearing simultaneously together in the final scene, blind to each other’s existence but sometimes turning the pages of the same book in sync, separated by 200 years. The stage trick that actually merges the two casts is one of the highlights of modern drama, I believe, and takes my breath away each time I see it.

While most of our students had to read this play without the benefit of seeing it performed first (an especially tough task given the importance of the stage business I just described), we are blessed to have eight student volunteers doing a dramatic reading of two scenes the day before we all have group discussions of the play. Talk about type casting! A BUA student can really identify with this play.

So happy 20th birthday, Arcadia. May your complex mix of comedy and tragedy elevate the Academy’s appreciation for a humanistic education!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School