Category Archives: Arcadia

Great moments in theatre: Arcadia

  • From Times Online, May 14, 2010
  • Benedict Nightingale
  • On April 13, 1993, at the Lyttelton Tom Stoppard’s complex comedy proved that the playwright had mind, wit and heart

And it all comes with a melancholy that’s understandable, given Thomasina’s death, Septimus’s madness and a universe that’s inexorably running down, like an old grandfather clock. Whoever said Stoppard lacked feeling? Arcadia, perhaps his best play, proved he had — and has — mind, wit and heart.


When the prepublicity for Tom Stoppard’s new play first went out, some of us thought that even his fizzing brainbox might have set itself too daunting a task. How could he pack subjects as different as landscape gardening and adultery, Romantic poetry and iterated algorithms, academic research and the end of the world, into a comedy that the man on the Clapham omnibus might understand and even enjoy? Well, Arcadia did at times leave you feeling that it had been jointly created by Oscar Wilde and the founding fathers of chaos theory — but I found myself urging that bus passenger to hijack the vehicle and drive it to the National box office. Stoppard didn’t just integrate all those topics into a lively, funny and, finally, moving plot; he whisked us to and fro between 1809 and 1993, using the same room in the same great house to show two generations of the Coverley family. Now a Regency tutor is evading the questions of the brilliant but innocent Thomasina Coverley — “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”, “It is the practice of throwing one’s arms round a side of beef” — and now a don from the University of Sussex is idiotically concluding that Byron killed a minor poet in a duel while visiting the Coverleys. The stories grip, the connections become apparent. Thomasina doodles, and somehow doodles the death-dealing second law of thermodynamics. And elsewhere, too, classical order and Newton’s certainties are breaking down. A new passion rules in verse, illogic in scholarship, unpredictability in maths, madness in human relationships, which is pointedly defined as “the action of bodies in heat”. And outside Capability Brown’s exquisite vistas are being reduced to fashionable Gothic wildness.