Sunday, March 14, 2010

Arcadia, Part I

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard


The set, a 19th century school room in an English manor overlooking a grand park, is shared by 2 sets of characters, living in 1809-1812 and "present day" (presumably 1993, when this play was first published. In 1809, Thomasina Coverly is a precocious genius of 13 being tutored by Cambridge-educated, gentlemanly, Byronic Septimus Hodge, who happens to be friends with Byron. The idealized landscape in which "right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged" is about to be converted into a Gothic, Romantic park with the right amount of failed obelisks and ruins tastefully arranged, against the wishes of Lady Croom, Thomasina's archly witty mother.

In present day, Hannah Jarvis is researching the transformation of the garden and reading through Lady Croom's garden books. Obnoxious researcher Bernard Nightingale is convinced that he has discovered which Byron left English abruptly in 1809-1810. They discuss their passion for researching the "trivial" remembrances of time lost and the "trivial" details of the universe in heated discussions and span topic including the second law of thermodynamics and wikipedia versions of chaos theory and fractals.

After watching this play being performed, I enjoyed it so much that I read the play and was amazed at how engaging and interesting it is. In fact, I thought so much about it that my reflections will have to be divided into (at least) 3 blog posts. Today we will discuss Lady Croom.

Lady Croom:

If there is anything to complain about in this play, it would be that the play is overloaded with overly clever characters. Lady Croom should be, in her own right, a very clever characters, and yet a great deal of the jokes at her expense. Perhaps this is done to emphasize how precocious and brilliant her daughter is. The main laughs comes from the dialogue wherein the title of the play is expressed.

Arcadia is a place is Greece - in Peloponnese - which poetry over the years has turned into an idyllic, pastoral paradise. There is a famous painting by Nicholas Poussin, which I had included here thanks to wikipedia. Several shepherd in a pastoral wonderland have come across a tomb with the inscription "et in Arcadia ego". In Latin, as in Chinese, one of the accepted poetical devices is elision - leaving out a important parts of phrases or sentences, yet with the implicit suggestion that it is there. In this case, the word "sum" has been dropped of the end and the phrase translates literally as "and in Arcadia I am" or, in a more accepted version, "Even in Arcadia, there I am", where the speaker is personified Death. Momento mori (a sort of remember-that-you-will-die type deal).

In protesting the changes to the park that her husband is determined to make, Lady Croom describes her park as being a perfect pastoral scene and correct in sheep distribution. Her translation of the phrase is "here I am in Arcadia" where she means that she is in her garden and her garden is pastoral perfection - Arcadia. Some doubt over Lady Croom's taste, translation and, mainly, her geography are expressed and a page or so later, the accepted translation is given.

But really, Lady Croom is not like any Regency mother I've ever read of - certainly not like one of Jane Austen's mothers. Of course, this play is historical fiction, written from a modern perspective, but it is still surprising to find Lady Croom to be so witty. She is an over-privileged, bored, noblewoman who has enough education to be witty but not enough to be intellectual (and whether she regrets it or not, I'll leave the reader to judge for themselves) and she is given some of the best lines of the play. Whereas Bernard the academic can only say of a botanist who described a dwarf dahlia that he "died in the forests of the West Indies, lost to history like the monkey that bit him", Lady Croom says he "exchanged beds with my dahlia, and an English summer for ever lasting night in the Indies."

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