Thursday, March 31, 2011


The Stoppard universe is like one of those cartoons of an enchanted forest where the trees (in this case ideas) come to life. The current Broadway production of Arcadia begins with a young girl, Thomasina (Bel Powley), asking her tutor Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) the meaning of “carnal embrace.” He parries humorously with the Latin “Latte et carne vivent,” but then relents, describing the mixture of pleasure and procreation that constitutes the sexual act. “Is it love?” Thomasina asks. “It’s much nicer than that,” he replies. Before we know it, Thomasina, whose project is to stop the atoms of the universe and trace their mathematical trajectory, is on to the question of the proof of Fermat’s last theorem written in the margin of Diophantus’s Arithmetica. The play takes place on an estate in Derbyshire called Sidley Park, first in 1809 and then 150 years later, when a literary sleuth is on the wrong track in trying put the pieces of the past together—in particular Byron’s relationship to Septimus and a poet named Ezra Chater (David Turner). But soon we are dealing with Romanticism’s deleterious effect on The Age of Reason, an overgrown gothic garden replacing classic topiaries, the questions of who created calculus first (Leibnitz or Newton), free will vs. determinism and the laws of thermodynamics. Stoppard employs ideas musically, letting them live for their own sake without the benefit of any conclusion. “That’s the order things can’t happen in,” one character opines during the play. As far as knowledge is concerned, you may only be able to know what’s not true. The statement “in Poland he is a count, in Derbyshire a piano tuner” is one of the numerous absurdities that turn the pursuit of truth to banter. The style of Arcadia is drawing room comedy. The content is the history of thought.

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