Book Reviewed: Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard
I'm not sure how it is that I've gotten to the age of 25 as a lit nerd without once reading Tom Stoppard. An insanely popular and well-loved playwright, Stoppard is known for his clever use of literature and language. Finally, though, I have experienced this guy for myself, as we were assigned his play Arcadia for my lit class. My class is on British Romanticism, but the professor thought it would be interesting to wrap up the semester with a play that's about the study of Romanticism. She was right, of course. This play was the perfect end to a semester that was as much about the study of Romantic works as it was about the works themselves.
The play divides its time between two periods: first, 1809-1813, where a tutor named Septimus Hodge works with a precocious genius, Thomasina Coverly. Septimus is a good friend of Lord Byron, who is mentioned often but never seen. Septimus is also in the middle of an affair with the wife of a minor and annoying poet, Ezra Chater. The second time period takes place in the modern time, where a couple of academics, Bernard and Hannah, attempt to discover why Chater eventually went missing. Bernard believes Lord Byron killed Chater during a duel, but the professor is far too willing to destory his career in the pursuit of fame.
The play's a little confusing at times, with the way it pops back and forth between past and present. Also, there's a lot of talk of chaos theory and advanced mathematics. But that didn't stop me from really enjoying the couple hours I spent in Stoppard's world. As is to be expected, the play is hilarious, particularly when the uber-pretentious Bernard is on the scene. In the original production of Arcadia, the awesome British actor Bill Nighy played the role of Bernard. This could not be a more perfect casting choice. It's impossible to read Bernard's lines without seeing Bill Nighy in your mind performing them.
Yet, despite all the humor and the math and the stunning structure, the heart of Arcadia is surprisingly heavy. The poignancy of the final revelation felt like a punch to the gut, and the more I've thought about the final scenes, the sadder it makes me. Like Alan Bennett's The History Boys, this is a play that's entertaining enough when you read it but which sticks with you for days afterward.