Posts Tagged “Arcadia”

Stoppard’s The Invention of Love is the last of the three plays (the other two being The Real Thing and Arcadia) which are usually mentioned when discussing love and romance in Stoppard’s writing. Much like his subject, scholar poet A. E. Housman, Stoppard was frequently considered early in his career to be ‘heartless’ in that his early plays seemed to lack genuine human emotion. In the first two ‘love’ plays, romance, love, and sex were openly treated and acknowledged as driving significant parts of the plot. In Invention, however, love is treated with a degree of removal, as something either confined to paper and the written word rather than an active emotion, or in the case of the protagonist’s romantic aspirations, something to be suppressed, denied, and silenced.

For the scholarly characters, love is a constant topic of discussion, but they confine their discussion to the classical works they study; though they laud and praise the beauty and evocativeness of the classical poets’ treatments of love, they do not carry this discussion into their own lives. They are preoccupied with the attempt to capture genuine emotion through the written word – the exact struggle Stoppard, too, is dealing with – but they ignore the genuine emotion in their own lives.

The elderly AEH tells his younger self that the pursuit of truth is in a sense the ultimate happiness, the ultimate good – yet AEH spends the majority of his life suppressing and hiding the truth of his love for Mo Jackson and denying to the world at large the nature of his feelings. While it is understandable that he should hide his love given the views of the time period, it is gut-wrenching to imagine how it must have felt for AEH, so devoted to removing all doubts and discovering every tiny truth in his scholarly work, to have to deny a major component of his identity.

The dialogue between the deceased AEH and his younger self, Housman, is fascinating for a number of reasons. This is a new twist on Stoppard’s characteristic doubling device; he presents the same character at different ages in several other plays, such as Travesties and Arcadia, but here the two selves actually interact and influence each other. AEH’s cynical jabs and pointed remarks actually shape Housman into the person who will eventually become AEH – in a sense, he is creating himself, introducing a kind of time paradox into their dialogues. That assumes, of course, that their dialogues actually take place and that their interactions are not merely a figment of AEH’s imagination or some kind of supernatural under-worldly spectre – which could be the case, given that AEH encounters his younger self while the dead man is traversing the river Styx. The boatman Charon’s remark that the trio of Oxford undergrads have brought their own boat with them seems to suggest that all the characters traveling the same river, the Styx, and therefore are inhabiting some kind of Limbo – whether truly in the afterlife, or all inside the feverish mind of the dying AEH.

Several of the characters preach a kind of ‘carpe diem’ philosophy about seizing what time is given and making the most of it, but it is questionable how many of these characters truly live that philosophy out. Oscar Wilde is one – “better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light,” as he tells AEH, and Wilde is one of the few characters who (claims, at least) to repent nothing and has the fewest regrets.

 As in many other Stoppard plays, there is an underlying discussion of the function of art – in this case, writing. Characters in many of the previous plays have struggled with the question of how to justify art to the starving impoverished mainstream population, how to give value to something essentially useless. AEH claims that the very value of scholarship is in its uselessness:

“Useless knowledge for its own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too, but it’s for the fainthearted, an elaboration of the real thing, which is only to shine some light, it doesn’t matter where on what, it’s the light itself, against the darkness”

AEH and the other Oxford scholars, however, separate their creations, works of scholarly writing, from art, and even set the two up in conflict with each other. They claim there can be no overlap between the two, and the endeavor to keep these two realms separate is what divides AEH into the two different people – “A poet and a scholar…it sounded like two different people” – for whom Charon is waiting at the opening of the play.

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The Coast of Utopia is unique for Stoppard in that, while other plays of his are often grouped together as companion plays, he has written no other trilogies, or even duologies; his other works are primarily stand-alone plays. Even something like Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, which is nearly always considered a pair of plays, consists of two short pieces with thematic overlap, but not a continuous sequence of full-length plays in the way that Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage flow together.

Perhaps because there is so much material here – I’m tackling three plays at a time when usually I deal with only one – I was left with more than the usual amount of questions after The Coast of Utopia. I have read the trilogy once before, so during this second reading I had a fairly good grasp of the plot and character relationships, but Stoppard deals with such an abundance of  themes that it’s hard to know where to start. Devices and themes reappear sneakily in each of the three plays, knotting the three parts together subtly.

For the sake of organizing my own whirlwind of thoughts, I’ve decided for this post to try something different and start with a list of questions which arose while reading the plays. In no particular order, here goes!:

  • What is the function of language in these plays? What significance lies in which characters are multilingual and which are not? In the choice of language at any given moment? Is there anything important in the disparities in the translations given for text in a foreign language (eg. on pg. 163, “Ich hasse solche Fragen” – literally ‘I hate such questions’ vs. the given translation “I hate you asking me that!”)?
  • Part I is more of a stand-alone play and deals with very different themes than Parts II & III – Part I focuses significantly more on the Bakunin family whereas Herzen, the central figure of II and III, barely appears in I, and where I focuses on freedom of expression and literature, II and III are far more political. Why the differences?
  • Structure of the play – why does Stoppard choose to present dozens of short vignettes separated by great gaps of time? How is it to be clear to the audience that time is passing and that there is no unity of time to the scenes? Stoppard gives fairly specific dates for each scene – does it matter if the audience grasps precisely what the date is, or only that time is indeed passing? If it doesn’t matter, why be that precise?
  • On pg. 38 Tatiana remarks that a sequence of events is “like a fairytale” – how does this fit into the underlying theme of the fictionalized, unreal Utopia?
  • What does this play say about art and writing? How does this fit with Stoppard’s treatment of creative arts in previous plays?
  • Like most of his plays, this trilogy features flashbacks or un-chronological scene order – some scenes are repeated and used as a sort of encore or epilogue – Why? Why those scenes? See Natalie’s words in the opening scene of Shipwreck: “Don’t you ever feel that while real time goes galloping down the road in all directions, there are certain moments which keep having their turn again?” (128).
  • Why does he end Part II on a ‘flashback’? We already have seen the fates of all the characters, and he does nothing similar with Part I or Part III.
  • Who or what is the Ginger Cat (110-116)? Who is the beggar (174-178)? What are their purposes and why are they able to transcend scene divisions and remain onstage through changes of time and place?
  • The end of Voyage is very reminiscent of R&G are Dead– the concept of the sun going down – darkness is coming. But why is it watched by a blind man? What is the significance of sensory deprivation? The blind man of Part I gives way to a deaf child in Part II. What purpose does Kolya serve? Why is he chosen as a focal figure for several scenes?
  • What is Stoppard saying about national identity and personal identity? See the exiles’ quest to make Russian nationality something to be proud of,  the desire to establish a national literature, or Herzen’s insistence that his children speak Russian and Olga’s loss of that language.
  • What is he saying about social class?
  • Revolution?
  • Love? Relationships? Sex? Adultery? Betrayal? Fidelity?
  • Pg. 162 – this scene is written with expendable throw-away dialogue which is meant to be somewhat unintelligible, and ultimately cuts to silence so we are given Kolya’s perspective – then later this scene is repeated with the focus on just one conversation. Why?
  • Scene transitions – when acted, many of these transitions deliberately blur the lines between the scenes and would make it almost impossible to tell where the breaks in the scenes were and therefore also difficult to tell when time is passing or location has changed. The method of transitioning is reminiscent of the acting game in which people move and act out a story and then on the word ‘stop,’ must freeze where they are and begin a new story from that pose. How does Stoppard use this on stage, and how can it be acted effectively without confusing the audience?
  • Stage pictures – recreating tableaux; recreating a famous painting, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (similar to After Magritte) – also the staging of two scenes in different locales sharing stage space (as in the end of Arcadia) and having overlapping dialogues – how does Stoppard use this staging?
  • Thunder as a transition element – what is the symbolism of thunder? Storms coming?
  • What significance is there in the different designations assigned to characters between the three plays and the different explanations of character given to them in the dramatis personae? Is this merely editorial choice? Or is there some meaning to the changes in name, address, or explanations?
  • Most of the characters are based on historic personages – which, if any, are not? What details have been invented or distorted and which are based on historic fact?
  • Why feature dream sequences in Part III?
  • Why is Herzen visited by visions of Bakunin? What is he really seeing? Is he imagining things? Is Herzen breaking down? Is this some form of haunting?
  • What resonance does Stoppard’s treatment of exiles in England have with Stoppard’s own identity as a Polish refugee?
  • What is the significance of the title? Is there a Utopian shore? How do the different characters see themselves and their ‘quests’?  What does Utopia mean to each character? Is there any hope for them of ever finding the metaphorical coast of Utopia, and if not, what implications does that realization have for their lives? Stoppard insists that there is no Utopia (self-evident from the name, meaning “no place”) —  how do the characters cope with that?

I’m going to leave this post with this list of questions for now, and tomorrow I’ll come back and start trying to sort out my answers.

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In 10th grade I decided on the spur of the moment to attend a student production of a play I knew nothing about, written by an author I’d never heard of; I went, and I fell in love with Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I remember being thrown at first by the rapid-fire dialogue, the confusingly interlaced conversations, the convoluted plot regarding the duel and the even more convoluted 20th century misinterpretations of the event, and the mathematical and scientific musings with which the characters are preoccupied – but it wasn’t a feeling of distaste or dislike, it was the exciting, breathless sort of confusion you would get if you were racing through a maze. By the time the second act began to introduce real urgency and emotion between the lines of humorous banter, I was completely sold. My occasional confusion in following the twists of the plot did nothing to detract from the impact of the play.

(Ironically, after being awed by Arcadia, I decided to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and I was completely unable to understand it. It was not until I auditioned for a production of it the next year and began to see the words acted out that I was able to follow the action and appreciate the genius of it. I think this is indicative of Stoppard’s plays as a whole – reading them and watching them are two distinct experiences, and the expected method of approaching them doesn’t always turn out to be the most successful.)

 Since then, I have read Arcadia upwards of half a dozen times, which has helped greatly in detangling the confusing knot of plot. When I think about Arcadia, frequently some of the most glaring themes which jump out at me are the scientific and mathematical concepts with which Septimus, Thomasina, and later Valentine are so preoccupied. They study both creation – Thomasina’s desire to graph the equation of the universe – and destruction – the unstoppable decay into cold and chaos. Stoppard’s writing always contains chaotic elements, but here they are especially noticeable. Everything ultimately comes to nothing – Bernard’s thesis, Valentine’s grouse, the Hermit’s mathematical struggles – even Thomasina’s life.  As she cheerfully discusses the inevitable darkening and destruction of the entire world, the audience knows she herself has only hours left to live. However, Thomasina embraces this knowledge and is unperturbed by it; even at 13 she is aware of death – as when she corrects her mother’s interpretation of the Latin phrase ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – and on the cusp of 17, she is content and unbothered by the knowledge that everything is doomed. We know from the 20th century researchers that Thomasina is actually a mathematical genius, but her unpretentious innocent happiness and enjoyment of life makes her, for me at least, the most endearing character in the play. Reading her final scene with Septimus with the knowledge that she will be dead by morning is heartbreaking, but at the same time, in some ways her death is fortuitous – she dies content, before cynical adulthood can take hold of her and destroy her the same way the cold and chaos will destroy the universe at large.

Thomasina’s and Septimus’s brief romance is to me one of the most painfully poignant and beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen acted. Septimus’s fate is just that – Romantic in the capital-R sense of the word, the lover living out his lonely existence driven mad by the memories of his lost chances and dedicating himself to preserving her by trying to solve the last puzzle she left behind. However, while Septimus and Thomasina’s love leaves the most lasting impressions and is the easiest to extract from all the scientific and mathematical background noise, romance, sex and love utterly pervade the play. Septimus’s sexual liaisons with Mrs. Chater and Lady Croom, Mrs. Chater’s and Lady Croom’s infatuations with Byron, Mrs. Chater and Captain Brice, Valentine and Hannah’s (supposedly) joking flirtation, Gus’s crush on Hannah, Chloe and Bernard’s brief hook-up – as Chloe says, everything is driven by sex and love, ‘the attraction that Newton left out.’  Thomasina unwittingly says the same thing when she talks of ‘the action of bodies in heat,’ a very neat double meaning with which Stoppard happily toys. With the exception of Hannah, whose cold emotional reserve parallels the cold fate of the world, the characters certainly do their part to reverse the descent into cold.

Plot aside, in terms of stagecraft and wordcraft, Stoppard yet again uses familiar tools such as identity and playing with time. A single actor plays both Augustus Coverly in 1812 and Gus Coverly in 1993. While plays are often cast with one actor playing multiple parts, or ‘doubling,’ in those situations the goal is to make clear distinctions between each different identity which the actor assumes; Stoppard reverses this, choosing to make it almost impossible to distinguish Augustus and Gus. Only by watching which other characters they interact with, and by waiting to hear if they speak, can the observer tell which character is on stage. Even in the very last moments of the play, as we watch Hannah and Gus waltz, someone seeing only the final stage picture might believe Hannah was actually dancing with a figure from the past, Augustus, especially since they share the acting space with Augustus’s contemporaries.

This leads into Stoppard’s other major mind-game in this play, manipulating time to present two scenes separated by almost 200 years transposed onto each other. The effect is brilliant – the action of the two scenes corresponds so well that it seems that the characters at points are addressing the characters of the other century. Hannah and her contemporaries wind up narrating events which the audience watches take place as she speaks. The effect is far more moving than if we were to watch the final 19th century scene and then be told that the girl died that night and the tutor became a hermit. Stoppard’s method avoids the feel of an epilogue. The audience already knows what will happen to the 19th century characters, which makes it all the more emotionally evocative to watch Thomasina light her candle and exit to her death. As Stoppard says in R&G are Dead, death is merely an exit and the failure to reappear.  Watching her light the candle and then being told after that she died in a fire is melodramatic; it is knowing she’ll die and watching her leave for the final time that makes the scene truly moving.


Nicholas Pouisson, “Et in Arcadia Ego”

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I have updated the “Quotations” page so that it now includes quotations from Arcadia, Artist Descending a Staircase, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, The Real Inspector Hound, The Real Thing, and Travesties. A post on Arcadia will be forthcoming.

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I intended to post everything I had previously written by the time I moved on to the next play, but I’m still a little behind on getting all of that back material up-to-date – it’s been a rather chaotic few weeks.  So far, however, I’m pleased with how it’s shaping up!

 Due to a variety of conflicts, fall break, and traveling, I haven’t met with Colleen for a few weeks. Originally I had set aside this interim period to do more background reading – biographies, interviews, etc. – thought I ultimately wound up putting most of my effort over the past few weeks into getting this blog organized, rather than background readings. I have found a number of interviews with Stoppard that I think will be very helpful when it comes time to start piecing all the individual plays into a larger whole, but I haven’t gotten through the biography I’d selected, as I hoped I would. I’m hanging on to it anyways, though, in hopes that I’ll be able to come back to it a little later in the semester.

In the meantime, though, I’m pressing forward with the second half of the semester and returning to the plays. This past week I read Rough Crossing, Stoppard’s adaptation of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s Play at the Castle; next week I’ll be re-reading Arcadia, which I’m especially excited about – it was my first Stoppard play, and I still find it to be one of the most beautiful and most tragic plays I’ve ever encountered.

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As I mentioned in the first post, for my initial posts here, I’m going to post the writing I’ve already done in the first half of the semester, just as a sort of intro/refresher. Thus, I give you my project proposal; this excerpt should give an idea of what I’m hoping to explore in this study.


      As a Shakespeare devotee, modern-day playwright Tom Stoppard first drew my attention with his dizzying dark comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a twisted inversion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Despite  performing in two student productions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, watching a professional production, and reading the play countless times, each time I encounter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – or any of Stoppard’s plays – I find some nuance of language or a new angle of approach I have never perceived before. An infinite variability characterizes all Stoppard’s plays, making each worthy of extensive study.

     This study will explore Stoppard’s plays from a variety of perspectives. I want to examine the subject matter of his plays; the plays as masterpieces of language; as examples of exceptional stage-craftsmanship; individual plays as part of the larger canon; and one of the most intriguing aspects of Stoppard’s work, the treatment of theatre within the plays and how a meta-theatrical self-awareness imbues them and affects their meaning.

     Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s endless word-games and sly humor characterize all of Stoppard’s work. Although initially his treatment of Shakespeare drew my notice, he also addresses topics as varied as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Dadaism, Russian history, philosophy, the existence of God, free will and determinism, chaos theory, probability, fate, love, sex, identity, death, and theater itself.  Topics and discussions become embedded inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. Stoppard delights in doubling and replication of all kinds: punning, double entendres, repeating entire scenes, showing the same action from two different perspectives, even occasionally making one character represent two. Rarely do Stoppard’s plays proceed linearly; instead they craft intricate knots of language which double back on themselves or leap ahead. Constants become changeable: identities change or become confused; time and space condense and overlap. Although his plays are often criticized for lacking a plot – they generally consist of far more talking than doing – their rapid-fire exchanges of words are as captivating as any visual spectacle. Rather than being a turn-off, the labyrinthine language and twisted structure of Stoppard’s plays makes them all the more intriguing, and unraveling tangled meanings becomes even more fulfilling. He plays games with his audience, and in order to make sense of his convoluted, enigmatic writing, the audience has to learn to understand the game. This independent study is meant to decipher the puzzles and riddles of Stoppard’s writing and reveal the underlying meaning hidden within the Gordian-knot of language.

     I plan to study works spanning the breadth of Tom Stoppard’s career, from his first major success of 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, through recent works such as the Coast of Utopia trilogy of 2002. To provide a solid foundation when tackling some of these plays, I also intend to read a number of older works of literature and theatre from which Stoppard draws heavily. Secondary readings include biographies of Stoppard, interviews with the author, and critical writings and commentaries on Stoppard’s writing, all intended to help me place Stoppard’s plays in the larger context of his life experiences and the environment shaping his writing. 

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