Which force has more influence over social change: science or emotion? What is more central to a person's ability to connect with others: love or knowledge? Tom Stoppard (1937-) explores these questions and more in his two-act play Arcadia (1993). Alternating between two distinct time periods, Arcadia follows the intellectual discoveries of two young scholars who attempt to uncover the truth of the world around them. Both central female characters are academic geniuses; however, they prioritize science over love and reason over emotion, leaving them oblivious to love and sexuality. Stoppard's Arcadia explores themes such as emotion vs. reason and the mystery of the human heart.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard: Summary
Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an aristocratic estate in Derbyshire, England, during two distinct time periods. Half of the play is set in the early 1800s (1809-1812) and follows a clever teenage girl as she interacts with her tutor. The other half of the play is set in 1993 as a group of scholars study the house's history and its previous occupants.
The first scene opens on Sidley Park, 1809, as precocious Thomasina Coverly studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Thirteen-year-old Thomasina is brilliant, and her understanding of science is ahead of her time. Thomasina asks Septimus what a "carnal embrace" is, stating she heard from the butler that Mrs. Chater, a guest at the house, was caught in a carnal embrace with another man. Septimus reluctantly indulges Thomasina's question. The two also discuss determinism and Newton's law of motion.
Fig. 1: The play begins with Thomasina asking Septimus the definition of "carnal embrace."
Thomasina and Septimus are interrupted by Mr. Chater, who barges into the study and demands a duel with Septimus. After Thomasina leaves the room, Chater says Septimus must pay for having sex with Mrs. Chater and insulting her honor. Chater demands a duel, but Septimus talks him down by appealing to his vanity as a writer. Septimus praises Chater's poetry, especially "The Couch of Eros," Chater's new book-length poem.
After Chater has been appeased, Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom; Lady Croom's brother, Captain Brice; and the Coverlys' gardener, Richard Noakes, enter the room. Lady Croom complains about Noakes's plans to redo the garden at Sidley Park and make it more modern. She believes Sidley Park is already a perfect Arcadia and cannot be improved. After everyone but Thomasina and Septimus leaves, Thomasina draws a hermit in the plans for the park.
An arcadia is a utopian society centered around agricultural prosperity and harmony with nature. The image of a hermit, a person living inside a wealthy landowner's garden as a permanent resident for the entertainment of the wealthy, disrupts Mrs. Croom's picturesque garden.
The next scene is set in the same location in the 20th century. Romantic scholar Hannah Jarvis is researching Sidley Park and its mysterious hermit. She is joined by Bernard Nightingale, an older scholar and critic, who pretends to be a fan of Chater's poetry in the hopes that Hannah will share her research.
Hannah quickly realizes Bernard is a fan of Lord Byron and once wrote a mean review of her work. Bernard reveals he is at Sidley Park to find evidence supporting his hypothesis that Byron killed Chater in a duel after Chater discovered Byron was having an affair with his wife. Hannah disagrees with Bernard's theory, but he refuses to leave the house. Descendants of the Coverlys still live at the house, including 18-year-old Chloe and her older brother Valentine.
Fig. 2: Bernard is convinced Byron killed Chater in a duel over Chater's wife.
Back in the 1800s, Thomasina and Septimus are studying once again. Thomasina learns Latin and mourns all the knowledge lost when the Alexandrian Library burned down in an ancient fire. Chater storms into the room, having just discovered from Byron, an unseen guest in the house, that Septimus wrote a bad review of his earlier work. This time when Chater challenges Septimus to a duel, Septimus accepts.
In the 20th century, Hannah discovers a paper Thomasina wrote about chaos theory. Thomasina's mathematical ideas remind Valentine of the techniques he currently uses as a 20th-century graduate student. Thomasina was further ahead of her time than even the scholars believed. When Valentine confirms Byron stayed at Sidley Park as a guest, Bernard becomes even more confident that he killed Chater in a duel. Despite Hannah and Valentine disputing Bernard's claims, Bernard leaves to deliver a lecture on his hypothesis. Hannah begins to suspect the hermit was Septimus since the hermit's notes appear to reference Thomasina's ideas.
Chaos theory essentially states that the universe, though random, is full of patterns and feedback loops. A dynamic system that seems sporadic can be investigated by examining patterns in continuous data to make overall predictions about that system's future outputs.
In the second to last scene, Septimus realizes he doesn't have to duel Chater after all. The Chaters have left Sidley Park on an expedition with Captain Brice. While Chater documents plants, Mrs. Chater has an affair with the captain. Lady Croom invites Septimus to have sex with her after finding a love letter he wrote to her when he believed he might die.
The final scene of the play switches between 1812 and the 1990s. Bernard's theory is now all over the newspapers, and Chloe and Valentine discuss determinism, the theory that all events are predetermined by the past. Concurrently, Septimus teaches Thomasina how to waltz the night before her 17th birthday. They discuss entropy, thermodynamics, and heat. There is evident romantic tension between them.
Fig. 3: Thomasina and Septimus experience a romantic connection as they waltz.
In the 20th century, Hannah explains that Thomasina would have been famous for her theories if she hadn't died in a fire on the eve of her 17th birthday. Bernard's theory is irrefutably disproven, and he leaves the house after he is caught in a carnal embrace with Chloe. Hannah learns Septimus was, in fact, the hermit, dedicating himself to proving Thomasina's theories after her death. She dances with Gus, Chloe, and Valentine's brother, as Thomasina and Septimus concurrently waltz on stage.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard: Characters
Arcadia features characters from two different time periods: the early 1800s and 1993.
19th Century Characters
Below are the 19th-century characters staying at Coverly estate.
Lady and Lord Croom's genius teenage daughter, Thomasina Coverly's understanding of mathematics is far ahead of her time. At 13 years old, she hypothesizes ideas about chaos theory and thermodynamics long before they are formally recognized in science. The modern characters, especially Valentine Coverly, are eager to prove her theories and genius. Unfortunately, Thomasina dies on the eve of her 17th birthday and never gets the recognition she deserves.
Thomasina's tutor, Septimus Hodge stays at Sidley Park with the Coverly family and has affairs with married women (such as Mrs. Chater and Lady Croom). Hodge later falls in love with Thomasina, but she dies before their relationship can go anywhere. Septimus becomes the hermit at Sidley Park and spends the rest of his days after his protege's death trying to advance her theories.
The wife of Ezra Chater, Charity Chater causes conflict in the play by having sex with Septimus and pushing her husband into a duel. She later leaves on a trip with her husband and Captain Brice, with whom she also has an affair.
An unsuccessful poet and amateur biologist, Ezra Chater and his wife are guests at Sidley Park. Chater challenges Septimus to a duel when he learns Septimus had sex with his wife, but Chater leaves on an expedition before the duel comes to fruition. He dies from a spider bite.
20th Century Characters
Below are the 20th-century characters, who spend much of the plot researching at the Coverly estate.
A modern-day scholar and author, Hannah Jarvis is researching the hermit of Sidley Park, whose identity has become a mystery. She collaborates rather unwillingly with Bernard and Valentine. Hannah rejects romance in favor of knowledge and turns down Bernard and Valentine's advances.
A scholar at a major university, Bernard Nightingale is more interested in proving his theory than actually discovering the truth. Bernard travels to Sidley Park, hoping to find evidence that Lord Byron killed the poet Chater in a duel. Before finding any solid evidence, Bernard goes on television to present his theory. He is ashamed when Hannah disproves his ideas.
A descendent of the 19th-century Coverlys, Chloe Coverly is intelligent and passionate but not quite as brilliant as Thomasina.
Chloe's older brother, Valentine is a graduate student studying mathematics. He reluctantly helps Hannah understand Thomasina's genius.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard: Analysis
The gardens of Sidley Park are the most important symbolic image in the play and give Arcadia its title. Lady Croom takes great pride in her beautiful, pastoral countryside scene and is aghast when Noakes wants to change it. Noakes claims updates will make it more picturesque, but Lady Croom rebuffs him, saying,
But Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged—in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, 'Et in Arcadia ego!' 'Here I am in Arcadia...'" (Act I, Scene i)
As the other characters point out in the play, Mrs. Croom uses the wrong translation and source. This quote was first written by Virgil and was later adopted by various artists throughout history. And instead of reflecting happily on a beautiful place, the quote means the threat of death is present, even in paradise. The "I" in the quote refers to death, not a living person enjoying a view.
The gardens symbolize the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, as society transformed from one based on order and progress to emotion, mystery, and naturalism. In Lady Croom's garden, created with the classical aesthetic, everything has its place and order. Each part fits together in predetermined unity, creating an organized whole.
Fig. 4: Lady Croom's meticulously kept garden symbolizes the order and beauty of classicism.
On the other hand, Noakes's vision of the garden is Gothic and mysterious, characteristic of Romanticism. He dreams of replacing the old gazebo with a hermitage, draining the lake, and putting in an obelisk. Noakes's ideas aren't practical, but like Romanticism, they are compelled by a rugged natural aesthetic and emotion.
Like those who resist social change, Lady Croom refuses to accept Noakes's new ideas. She refutes each of his ideas on an emotional basis instead of a rational one:
Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman's garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house... My hyacinth dell is become a haunt for hobgoblins, my Chinese bridge...usurped by a fallen obelisk overgrown with briars" (Act One, Scene One)
Other characters, like Thomasina, aren't as staunchly opposed to the garden as Lady Croom is. Unlike her mother, Thomasina doesn't try to fight progress or hold onto past ideals. She is constantly evolving intellectually and emotionally, along with the times. While Septimus teaches Thomasina about traditional formulas and ideas, she is willing to ask questions and challenge previous understandings of science and math. The garden and Thomasina both represent the ability to change and grow, while other characters hold them back.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard: Themes
Two main themes in Arcadia are emotion vs. reason and the mystery of the human heart.
Emotion vs. Reason
Emotion and reason are constantly put in conflict with one another throughout Arcadia—from Lady Croom's and Noakes's fight over the garden to Septimus's disdain for talking about carnal knowledge to Hannah's rejection of the men at Sidley Park.
The play seems to position the two in stark opposition to one another. If people give in to their emotions and passions, they neglect their intellectual ability and rationality. For academics like Thomasina and Hannah, this means putting aside romance to focus entirely on education. Both women earn recognition for being incredibly intelligent, but this comes at the cost of emotional connection and potential happiness. It isn't until the end of the play that Hannah dances with Gus and realizes emotion and reason don't have to be separate but could work in tandem to bring balance and happiness to life.
Fig 5: Hannah learns that knowledge and emotion go hand in hand.
The Mystery of the Human Heart
Love and sex are everywhere in the play, yet they remain a mystery to several main characters. From the beginning, Thomasina asks about "carnal embrace" after Septimus is caught having sex with Mrs. Cather. Although Septimus does define the action for Thomasina, the closest she gets to experiencing it is a stolen waltz and a kiss before her birthday. She tells Septimus to come to her bedroom, but he politely tells her he cannot. Septimus realizes he loves Thomasina and knows an affair would ruin her reputation. She dies a virgin, and he is forced to live the rest of his life without fully experiencing love.
Even the characters who do understand sex seem to have a rudimentary understanding of love, as Mrs. Chater, Lady Croom, Captain Brice, Septimus, and Lord Byron enter into affairs in Sidley Park. They give in to their desires regardless of the moral and emotional consequences. The only character who has a chance of truly understanding love and sex is Hannah. After spending the entire play running from her own emotions, Hannah finally allows herself to open up to Gus. Having solved the intellectual mystery of the hermit, Hannah is ready to explore the mystery of her heart.
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: Quotes
Below are some of the most important quotes in Arcadia.
When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?" (Act One, Scene One).
This is the first time readers glimpse Thomasina's mathematical brilliance. At just 13, Thomasina is already trying to make sense of the world around her using math and science. She grasps the basics of chaos theory very early on, and her ideas develop alongside her throughout the play. At the time of her death, her scientific ideas are sophisticated, coherent, and well ahead of their time.
The whole Romantic sham, Bernard! It's what happened to the Enlightenment, isn't it? A century of intellectual rigor turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius. In a setting of cheap thrills and false emotion…The decline from thinking to feeling, you see." (Act One, Scene Two)
A dedicated scholar, Hannah believes romance detracts from science and progress. Even as she studies the Romantic period and the Sidley Park hermit, Hannah bemoans how romantic ideas (with a small r) have hindered progress. The way Hannah sees it, romance is nothing but a distraction that gets in the way of thinking and understanding. Throughout the play, she refuses to engage in romantic notions, believing scientific knowledge too important to jeopardize.
Arcadia (1993) - Key takeaways
- Arcadia was written by Tom Stoppard and published in 1993.
- The play is set in two separate time periods: the early 19th century and 1993.
- Half of the plot follows the intellectual growth of Thomasina Coverly, a teenage genius who lived at Sidley Park in the early 1800s. In the other plot line, a group of modern-day scholars tries to make sense of Thomasina's ideas.
- The garden at Sidley Park is the most important symbol of the play, representing a shift from classicism and order to Romanticism, mystery, and the Gothic.
- Two main themes in Arcadia are emotion vs. reason and the mystery of the human heart.