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An Analysis of the play 'Arcadia'

Updated on May 2, 2015

“Drama is about ideas and society”.

Through the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, one is able to discover new ideas and gain a better understanding of society through drama. Set in the same State room in Derbyshire, but alternating between two time periods, the parallel structure of the play indirectly compares and contrasts the differences between the characters in the 19th Century and those in the 20th, relating to the idea that everything is cooling down.

While Thomasina questions her tutor Septimus about Newton’s theory of Determinism and the Second law of Thermodynamics, three other academics in the 20th Century are also exploring new ideas and theories – about those in the 19th. The theories and ideas that they are in the process of investigating are in fact, reflected in society, which can be seen through drama, in the interaction of characters on stage. The play explores the loss of heat and fluidity of love and expression of thought as society progresses, complementing the idea of Newton’s theory that the whole world is cooling down until the apocalypse.

This idea is presented through drama in the beginning, as Thomasina muses that if you stir jam one way, it gets stirred into the pudding, “but if you stir backward, the jam will not together again”. This is paralleled in the 20th Century by Valentine who realises that though you “You can put back the bits of glass but you can’t collect up the heat of the smash”.

The recurrence of fires in the play is a symbol of this loss of heat. The first fire mentioned is the fire of Alexandria, destroying the Great Library, to which Thomasina passionately mourns the loss of “All the lost plays of the Athenians!” showing the irreversibility of heat. The loss of energy from the fire cannot be retrieved; neither can the knowledge of the famous Athenian plays burnt with it. As with the other fires in the play, you cannot put back the heat in the reaction, or get back the knowledge that has been lost, such as Lord Byron’s letter to Septimus, the “cabbalistic proofs” found in the hermits hut, or the potential and vitality of Thomasina and the discoveries that she and Septimus would have made together, lost, when she died in the fire.

The loss of heat from these reactions, loss of knowledge and spirit, reinforce the idea that everything is cooling down, in society as well as physics, and nature and science must be at one “time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go”. But in stirring onwards, society proceeds to lose its fluency and elegance. The contrast in dialogue between the two time periods reflects the loss of fluency and beauty from the 19th century to the 20th Century. Changing from the charismatic wit of Septimus, a character we naturally warm to, with his youth and energy, his comical puns are lost, and the audience is faced with a pompous, arrogant Bernard, and the short staccato sentences exchanged by the “modern-day” characters and “so the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold”.

Where duels between lovers were a matter of pride and dignity, and the harlot Mrs. Chater was accorded the dubious honour of a simile from Septimus, “her chief renown is for a readiness that keeps her in a state of tropical humidity as would grow orchids in her drawers in January” to describe her promiscuity. Septimus valiantly tells a lie and leads Chater to believe that his wife has slept with the enemy in order to secure a better review for his recently published poem. However, in contrast, in the 20th Century, the affair between Chloe and Bernard is captured with a lot less class or chivalry on Bernard’s part, he apologising to everyone rudely and making a hurried exit through the door. There are no accusations to be made, no duels fought, no arduous suitors fighting over who will defend her virtue – society has mellowed, lost its lustre, cooled down.

In the final scene, the dramatic interposing of characters from both time periods on the stage at the same time, exposes the idea that everything is cooling down. The awkward dancing between Hannah and Gus is compared with the fluid waltzing of Thomasina and Septimus, a symbol of the loss of heat, the loss of energy, and the ability to verbalise or put ones feelings into actions.

The elegance of morality, etiquette and the expressive nature of love are all lost, in a time, gone with the wind. But as time must, go on, forward, not “tock tick” as Bernard suggests, so must the gradual loss of heat in our lives, fluency, fluidity, flamboyance; fly out with the heat of the reaction. And nature and science are agreed in the descent of our society, as we cease and grow cold.


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