The Pequod Review:
Written in 1993, Arcadia was a huge leap forward for Tom Stoppard. While his earlier plays (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers and The Real Thing) were intellectually charming, they often lacked passion and emotion. Arcadia brings together the personal and the intellectual in exhilarating fashion, as it explores scientific ideas through complex characters and a rich storyline.
The play takes place in a single room of a large Derbyshire country house, and alternates back and forth between two time periods: 1809-1812, and the present day. In the distant past, the daughter of the house (Thomasina Coverly, an intelligent teenage girl) studies mathematics and physics with her tutor Septimus Hodge, while starting to discover her sexuality. In the now, two literary scholars (Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale) come to the house to research its garden and the life of Lord Byron, who had a connection to the estate. When Hannah and Bernard discover Thomasina’s notebooks, they begin to learn more about all of the individuals who populated Sidley Park — their interests, passions, and troubles.
As the play unfolds, it becomes about much more than just what happened at an English house almost two hundred years ago. It captures the thrill of intellectual discovery, the nature of scientific progress, the unknowability of the past, and even the romantic power of intellectualism. It is also about the tragedy of a brilliant life cut short, as Thomasina had been developing early insights into chaos theory and thermodynamics when a fire claimed her life. Arcadia combines an astonishing range of disparate elements — romance, humor, tragedy, sorrow, scientific history, and even gardening — into an entirely unique work of art.
And the play has lines of timeless beauty:
The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about — clouds — daffodils — waterfalls — what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in — these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.
We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?
It is a defect of God's humor that he directs our hearts everywhere but to those who have a right to them.
The words on the page — as extraordinary as they are — do not do this great work justice. You must see it performed, in the flesh, by real human beings. I have been lucky enough to see it three times, all of them in medium-sized North American cities. In every instance, the material is so good that even less polished productions are a thrill, and superior to most Broadway shows. This is one of our best modern plays.