Time in Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’

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Arcadia is a play written by the English playwright Tom Stoppard which was published in 1993. It is among the most popular works written by Stoppard along with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, and Hapgood. Most of his works deals with several post-modern themes like science, time, and exploration of reality in pursuit of intellectual and philosophical knowledge. In its truest post-modern sense, the play is a celebration of the intermingling of science and literature using the eternal thread of time.

Stoppard is known for his ingenious ways in which he plays with time to create magic on stage and Arcadia is no exception. Along with several other binaries like order and chaos, or the thirst of intellectual knowledge and the sexual knowledge, Arcadia juxtaposes two binaries of time, namely: the past and the present. The play is set in two different time periods with each scene alternating between both. On one hand, it features the Sidley Park and its occupants in the early 1800s and on the other, it follows the lives of their modern-day counterparts. The narrative of the play intertwines the past and the present, ultimately leading to a concluding scene which features them both simultaneously. As Paul Edwards puts it, “The brilliantly conceived structure of Arcadia enables the audience to witness the effects of time in Sidley Park, since the play is set in two different periods, but in the same garden room of the stately home.”

Regarded as one of the best Science-related works ever written, Arcadia gives equal attention to the scientific advancements of the time as it does to the various nuances of a narrative play. Of the many scientific theories, nonlinear dynamics, theory of deterministic chaos, principles of entropy, bifurcation and fractals are a some of the concepts explored through the play. Deterministic Chaos is a set of principles grounded in nonlinear mathematics that suggest that even carefully calculated equations can lead to uncertain future. This crucial feature of time is highlighted when Hannah discovers that it is the rakish intellectual tutor Septimus Hodge who ended up being the revered hermit of Sidley Park. Nonlinear dynamic systems are processes that may appear chaotic or unpredictable. Although they may seem random, these behaviours are in fact, not random. Arcadia is structured in a similar way to embody this phenomenon. The time periods, although juxtaposed and disorderly, carries a solid order for the sequence of the scenes. This narrative technique is also reflective of entropy, which is the gradual decline of a system from a state of order to disorder. The order of the alternating scenes is disrupted in the final scene of disorder where the time periods and characters overlap with one another. Stoppard himself comments that “The play bifurcates two or three times and then goes into the last section which is all mixed up. So, it’s very chaos structured” (Demastes and Kelly 5).

Fractals are defined as infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales and are created out of feedback loops. This can be viewed as another feature of time wherein it is predicted that despite the infinite complexities, situations and actions repeat themselves over time. This self-similarity of actions is reflected in several props, dialogues, and characters in Arcadia. For instance, most of the characters in the future seem to have a direct or at least an indirect counterpart in the past. The most obvious one is that of Gus and Agustus, who are both played by the same actor. They alternate between the different scenes until the last scene where Gus appears on stage with regency era clothing, eerily connecting both the time periods. Similarly, Chloe asks Valentine “Do you think I’m the first person to think of this?” (Stoppard 76) not knowing that nearly a century ago, one of her ancestors, Thomasina, had asked the very same question. Where Chloe is obsessed with sexual knowledge, Thomasina’s is merely an innocent curiosity. Thomasina’s thirst for intellectual knowledge is mirrored in the present-day character Hannah. Similarly, one can draw parallels between the intellectuals Septimus and Valentine who have both at one point questioned Thomasina’s intellect.

Stoppard makes great use of props and stage setting to similar extent. Enock Brater observes that the play “relied on its design elements of set, costume and music to track and trace the fluidity of time built into the script.” (164) Few of the props like a tortoise, apple, notebooks, and an old-fashioned theodolite appear in both the time periods becomes a bridge between the two eras. Each of these props carry a symbolic significance throughout the play. For instance, it is the drawing of Septimus along with his tortoise Plautus that helps Hannah confirm that he is the Hermit of the Sidley Park. The Regency era costume also serve as a symbol of time. In the final scene, as the two couples waltz in these costumes, there’s an attempt to blur the lines between the past and the present and it explicitly shows the two eras as parallels. Certain other significant objects in Arcadia are more than just coincidental props. For instance, the signed copy of Chater’s ‘Couch of Eros’, Thomasina’s sketch of Septimus, the game book, and even Sidley Park itself might all just be ‘evidence’ to the modern generation, but they are more than that. These objects are all testaments of time. Characters like Bernard have attempted to manipulate them in order to try and twist the past, but these objects have withstood the troubles of time and they alone carry the truth of the past within them.  

One of the major conflicts that is unravelled through time is the conflict between the changing outlooks of the different time periods, namely between Romanticism and Classism. These opposites arise from the inherent tendency of each generation to break away from the past. In the olden age, the characters who followed the Classic ideals long to have a more Romantic outlook while the modern age attempts to go back to Classism. This constant changing of the beliefs and systems can been seen as another feature of time. While the present glorify some aspects of the past, there are some aspects which are seen as outdated. For example, Valentine initially looks down on the theories of Thomasina because he finds it hard to believe that she could have thought of something as innovative during those ages. Valentine later realises that Thomasina had in fact thought of iteration way before the modern technologies which is the very concept that he uses for his research paper.

Almost all the characters in Arcadia are obsessed with knowledge of some kind. In their attempts to uncover these knowledges, they make use of time as a tool. Through her intellect, Thomasina is eager to know more about the future, although she doesn’t have the technology to assist her. Their modern counterparts on the other hand, look back to the past for knowledge. This thirst for historical knowledge can be seen as an obsession with time, especially for Hannah and Bernard. Where Bernard uses time for manipulation, Hannah uses it to disapprove him. Even though the characters desperately seek to travel back and forth in time, they are unable to do so. But due to Stoppard’s ingenious narrative, the audience gets a glimpse of what it is like to travel across time.

Despite all the obsession and conflict that the characters share with time, the fact remains that they are all ultimately subjected to its tyranny. Anything that is created will perish in the course of time. Due to the fire, Thomasina passes away before she has enough time to tap the potential of her intellect. She simply didn’t have enough time to manually do the equation, and Septimus lives out the rest of his life trying to do so. Valentine on the other hand has the luxury of advanced technologies which does the same equation in mere seconds. Knowledge also gets lost in the course of time, a feat that troubles both the time periods alike. Here, time takes on the part of a villainous character that destroys everything in its ruthless flow. 

At the same time, the play also resonates the belief that perhaps knowledge and art will piece itself back together in the course of time, an idea that Bernard desperately tries to prove. John Fleming observes “In part, Bernard suggests that great art is timeless, a view that coincides with his desire for a mechanistic universe, i.e., the laws of the Newtonian universe are insensitive to time.” Stoppard manages to bring together two of these conflicting ideologies of science and art into a single masterpiece. The play exhibits one of the cleverest uses of time as a tool to bring together these diverse ideas on stage. If Bernard’s stance on great art is indeed true, Arcadia is bound to stand the test of time.

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