Sunday, July 28, 2013


Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, first published in 1993, went through a successful round of productions, starting at London's National Theatre and including a five-month run on Broadway in 1995. Below, Felicity Kendal as Hannah Jarvis during one of the original performances. She created lead roles in a number of new Stoppard plays throughout the eighties and nineties. The run of Arcadia coincided with the beginning of their lives together (at the cost of breaking up both their marriages to other people).  

Stoppard sold his archive to the famous Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where an original, hand-corrected typescript of Arcadia (above) went to rest, among mountains of other documentation. I reproduce it partly because the play concerns itself ardently with the impossibility of adequately reconstructing the past through surviving documents, demonstrating repeatedly that the most crucial documents are in many cases the likeliest to be destroyed. And those that do survive physically must also survive the gradual erosion of context.  

Tom Stoppard became famous in 1966 with an absurdist comedy called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (the title characters extracted from Hamlet). As a teenager, I read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and thought it was dry and boring. This was because I did not at that time appreciate or even understand the tradition from which the play sprang, the dark modernist European tradition of Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco and their cronies. Stoppard was, in fact, all those years ago, pointing me toward the postmodern future, where signifiers would increasingly wander and shift inside the spaces of plays and novels and poems, but I could not know about that.

Strike two (and a more serious one) against the author was the 1998 movie called Shakespeare in Love (Stoppard shared an Oscar with another writer for the screenplay). That film struck me as fuller of soppy anachronisms than a Swiss cheese is full of holes. Tom Stoppard cemented his place on the long list of writers I had (at some point or another) decided were (for one reason or another) not for me.

But then I looked into Arcadia (another of those books picked up by chance at the library) and was immediately hooked, even against my will. It is a great play. Many people have been saying this since 1993. My freshly-formed opinion had no novelty. But what it did have was an enormous impact on my relationship with Tom Stoppard. All misunderstandings of the past were instantly cancelled out, forgotten, regretted.

Arcadia received its second London production in 2009 (as seen in the three publicity stills below). In the same large schoolroom of an English country house scenes shift back and forth in time between "the past" (a specific period, 1809-12) and "the present"  with the two eras intermingling increasingly as the complex comedy unfolds.

In the London revival of 2009, the author's son, established professional actor Ed Stoppard (at left, immediately above) took the part of Valentine which sounds to me very much like a character from Congreve. Well-informed critics say Goethe supplied the frame for the play with his novel Elective Affinities, published in 1809 (Stoppard setting the beginning of Arcadia in the same year). That being true, the influence I mostly hear echoing (more in rhythm than vocabulary) is the prodigious banter of Congreve, especially The Way of the World.

A revived Broadway production of Arcadia came two years later. In the four stills (below) from that staging, there is something especially interesting about the costumes. The designer grabbed the opportunity to set "the present" scenes of Arcadia in 1993, "the present" at the time the play came out. That way, the 2011 production could participate in the selective revival of nineties colors and shapes, then in progress in the fashion world at large.

Most recently, Arcadia's revival wave came to San Francisco. The production below appeared at ACT in May and June 2013.

Judging by photos, set designers in San Francisco indulged in their usual over-elaborate prettification. How provincial they make themselves look, compared to New York and London. Curved walls, heavy cornice, preposterous skylight, hand-painted trompe-l'oeil wallpaper, even an elevated patterned floor in the shape of a wide half-circle under the windows. And it's not as if Stoppard didn't explicitly describe the look and function of his imagined Room

"A room on the garden front of a very large country house in Derbyshire in April 1809. Nowadays, the house would be called a stately home. The upstage wall is mainly tall, shapely, uncurtained windows, one or more of which work as doors. Nothing much need be said or seen of the exterior beyond. ... The room looks bare despite the large table which occupies the centre of it. The table, the straight-backed chairs and, the only other item of furniture, the architect's stand or reading stand, would all be collectable pieces now but here, on an uncarpeted wood floor, they have no more pretension than a schoolroom, which is indeed the main use of the room at this time. What elegance there is, is architectural, and nothing is impressive but the scale."