By Tom Stoppard
University of Oregon Production
Director: Scott Kaiser
Scenic Designer: Jerry Hooker
Costume Designer: Alexandra Bonds
Lighting Designer: Janet Rose
Sound Designer: Bradley Branam
“Even in Arcadia, there am I!”
Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia stubbornly defies categorization. Though much of the story takes place in Sidley Park, a grand estate in Derbyshire, England, in 1809, it is not primarily a period drama. Though half of the action takes place in the present day, it is not strictly a contemporary drama. Though the script offers an abundant supply of amusing lines and humorous moments, it is not, essentially, a comedy. While Stoppard pokes fun at aristocrats and academics, it is not a satire. While the overlapping comings and goings of the characters take place in a single room with multiple doors, it is not a farce. While many historical figures influence events in the story—Lord Byron, Isaac Newton, Pierre De Fermat, Salvator Rosa, and Napoleon, to name a few—it is not a historical drama. While the play is populated with many wealthy, highly educated people, it is not a comedy of manners. While death hangs over the story, it is not a tragedy. How, then, are we to watch this play?
Perhaps the best way to view Arcadia is as a mystery. For every character in the play searches obsessively for the answer to a gnawing question that stubbornly eludes them. Thomasina Coverly, the brilliant 13-year-old daughter of the Earl of Croom, for example, seeks to find the fatal flaw in Sir Isaac Newton’s deterministic view of the universe. Valentine Coverly, the Oxford postgraduate student of biology, searches for meaning in the rise and fall of grouse populations on the estate. Academic scholar Bernard Nightingale strives to uncover the truth of Lord Byron’s affairs in the house during a brief visit from neighboring Newstead. And independent author Hannah Jarvis hopes to discover the identity of the famed Sidley Park hermit, and the root cause of his insanity.
These passionate pursuits draw our characters into a journey of discovery that leads each of them to greater understanding. And yet, in the play, as in life, a mystery solved—a closed door that suddenly cracks open—leads only to additional mysteries hiding behind more closed doors.
And this, perhaps, is Stoppard’s point: for as Hannah says, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.”