Et in Arcadia ego

First edition

“Arcadia” is prefecture on the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. “Arcadia” has connoted the picture of a pastoral paradise since at least Roman times. “Arcadia” was the name given to Atlantic North America by Giovanni da Verrazanno, which by the 17th century had lost an ‘r’ and become “Acadia” and was applied to French colonies of maritime Canada. Arcadia is a play by Tom Stoppard, written in 1993 and revived last year.

In Stoppard’s play the landscape of Sidley Park, a country estate in Derbyshire, is a topic of conversation and its re-design in the early 19th century is an important element in the plot and also a symbolic dimension for the play’s discussion of reason and emotion, and the relationship between time and history. The action of the play is split in alternating scenes between 1809 and 1989. In 1809 landscape architect Richard Noakes attempts to convince Lady Croom to abandon the order of Classicism for the pastoral disorder of Romanticism. Lord Byron, who would eventually be regarded as a major Romantic poet, is a guest at the estate, there to visit his school chum Septimus Hodge, who is the tutor to Lady Croom’s brilliant daughter, Thomasina Coverly.

Production without landscape

In 1989 landscape historian Hannah Jarvis attempts to uncover the identity of the “hermit of Sidley Park,” who dwelt in a picturesque feature that was part of Noakes’ new design. Bernard Nightingale is a scholar looking to uncover the truth about a veiled period of Byron’s life. Much has changed in the intervening 180 years and yet many things are the same. Noakes landscape design is still there and so are the Coverlys. The mathematical genius of Thomasina Coverly—she is in the process of explaining chaos dynamics to her tutor when she dies at age 17—is inherited and passed down to Valentine Coverly, a mathematical biologist. Gus and Augustus Coverly are played by the same actor in the play, which dramatizes the continuity created by one family living in the same place for over two centuries.

It is telling that Thomasina is the one member of the Coverly family who approves of Noakes ideas for the landscape. She is the embodiment of progress, understanding concepts of physics decades before they were explicated and making lateral connections effortlessly between academic fields. Her understanding the inevitability of change through time, for all thing to decay and pass away, leads her to reject the geometric Classicism of Sidley Park’s Georgian landscape and Newtonian physics, neither of which acknowledges the arrow of time and its consequences. Stoppard is asking us to pay attention to what changes and what stays the same through time. Individual characters in the play die, but their essence lives on either genealogically in the case of the Coverly clan, or dynamically as the characters of 1989 act out human struggles that parallel those of the characters in 1809. Hodge is in hot water with poet Ezra Chater for writing a scathing review of his latest poem. Nightingale is on Jarvis’s bad side for penning a similarly negative review of her last book. But while Chater challenges Hodge to a duel, Jarvis actually agrees to cooperate with Nightingale (to a degree) in their overlapping scholarly pursuits.

Bawburgh Hall and slipper chapel [4566] 1960-08-01
Norfolk folly at Bawburgh Hall
The hermitage of Sidley Park, which comes under the general description of “a folly” in the picturesque landscape designs of the early 19th century, was meant to be a fake, like all the false Roman ruins that littered these Romantic works. One of the most affecting notes of the play is that Hodge, the resolute Classicist by training and Romantic by inclination and association, ends his life as a real hermit in the hermitage, vainly trying to apply the rules of Classical mathematics to the completion of the unfinished chaos equations left behind by Thomasina Coverly.


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