The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.--Valentine
Arcadia opened at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, on April 13, 1993. The production was directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by Mark Thompson, with music by Paul Pyant and lighting by Jeremy Sams.
THOMASINA COVERLY -- Emma Fielding
SEPTIMUS HODGE -- Rufus Sewell
JELLABY -- Allan Mitchell
EZRA CHATER -- Derek Hutchinson
RICHARD NOAKES -- Sidney Livingston
LADY CROOM -- Harriet Walter
CAPTAIN BRICE, RN -- Graham Sinclair
HANNAH JARVIS --Felicity Kendal
CHLOE COVERLY -- Harriet Harrison
BERNARD NIGHTINGALE -- Bill Nighy
VALENTINE COVERLY -- Samuel West
GUS COVERLY/AUGUSTUS COVERLY -- Timothy Matthews
George Gordon, Lord Byron
Arcadia is a play that stands up to numerous readings and viewings. The synopsis below barely scratches the surface of its complexity and depth. It also gives away a couple of major plot points best experienced first-hand. Read on at your peril.
The action of Arcadia takes place in single space, a room on the garden front of a very large country house in Derbyshire, but in two times, the present and the early years of the nineteenth century. It opens as Thomasina Coverly, a precocious thirteen-year-old math student, receives a lesson from her tutor, twenty-two-year-old Septimus Hodge. The two are discussing Fermat's theorem, Newton and other matters of mathematics and physics when they are interrupted by Ezra Chater, a third-rate poet. Chater accuses Hodge of having been spied in a "carnal embrace" with Mrs. Chater, a charge Hodge makes little effort to deny. Meanwhile, Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom, is wrangling with her landscape architect, Richard Noakes, who wants to clutter the immaculately kept grounds with a gloomy hermitage and other gothic paraphernalia.
The second scene moves to the twentieth century.Coverly descendants still reside at the estate: young Chloe, mathematician Valentine and mute, mysterious Gus. They are also hosts to best-selling author Hannah Jarvis, there to research a history of the estate's gardens, and to literary scholar Bernard Nightingale, who intends to prove that Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, visited Sidley Park and killed Ezra Chater in a duel.
The next scene, however, demonstrates that, even though Byron did visit Sidley Park in 1809, it was Hodge whom the cuckolded Chater challenged to a duel.
The scene opens with Thomasina translating a Latin passage about Cleopatra and then expressing her grief at all the knowledge lost during the burning of the Library at Alexandria. Hodge consoles her, saying, in part, "We shed as we pick up, like travellers 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."
After this, Chater and his second, Captain Brice arrive, demanding satisfaction for the stain upon Mrs. Chater's honor. Hodge agrees to meet them that afternoon for a duel with pistols.
The fourth scene opens with Hannah reading one of Thomasina's notebooks, in which the girl describes an iterated algorithm. Valentine explains that the math isn't very difficult: "You have some x-and-y equations. Any value for x gives you a value for y. So you put a dot where it's right for both x aand y. Then you take the next value for x which gives you another value for y, and when you've done that a few times you join up the dots and that's your graph of whatever the equation is." What's interesting is that the algorithm is iterated: "...every time she works out a value for y, she's using that as her next value of x. And so on."
Thomasina's work correlates to Valentine's study of grouse populations. He has the raw data, in the form of hunting logs, but he can't find the algorithm that defines the ebb and flow in the numbers of grouses. The logs, however, do prove that Byron did, in fact, visit the estate in 1809, a discovery that excites Bernard no end. Hannah, however, wants to know why no one did "this feedback thing" before. Valentine replies that "There wasn't enough time before. There weren't enough pencils!" You need a computer to do the job. To do it by hand, as Thomasina started to do, you'd have to have reason for doing it and, as Valentine says, "you'd have to be insane."
Act Two opens with Nightingale reading his Byron lecture to Valentine, Chloe and Gus. Hannah arrives and is openly derisive, pointing out where Bernard has played fast and loose with his interpretation of history. Chloe goes out of her way to defend Bernard. Valentine also voices his objections to Bernard's unscientific methods, and Bernard rounds on him with a blistering denunciation of scientific progress. "If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing 'When Father Painted the Parlour'? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. 'She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.'" He ridicules Valentine's grouse research, causing him, Chloe and Gus to flee the room in anger, frustration and humiliation.
Nor does Hannah escape Bernard's tirade. He hands her a copy of the Byron Society Journal, which contains an article contending that the sketch Hannah used on her last book's dust jacket cannot possibly be Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb, as she assumed it was. After delivering this bombshell, Bernard makes a pass at Hannah, which she declines. He then reveals that he has been sleeping with Chloe, saying "Every time I turned round she was up a library ladder. In the end I gave in. That reminds me -- I spotted something between her legs that made me think of you."
For this, he receives a sharp slap in the face. Unperturbed, he gives Hannah a small book, The Peaks Traveller and Gazetteer, which contains a reference to Sidley Park and the mysterious hermit who lived on the property. He takes his leave. Valentine returns, and he and Hannah read that the hermit was driven insane by "Frenchified mathematick" and "the melancholy certitude of a world without light or life...as a wooden stove must consume itself until ash and stove are as one, and heat is gone from the earth.'" Hannah suspects this hermit is none other than Septimus Hodge.
The next scene returns to the past, to the morning of Hodge and Chater's duel. As it turns out, no one has been shot. Mrs. Chater, however, was discovered during the night in Lord Byron's room. The poet was sent away, and the Chaters have left for the West Indies with Captain Brice, who is, in fact, Mrs. Chater's lover. Lady Croom is indignant to have found two letters from Septimus Hodge. In one, Hodge professes his love for the lady of the manor. The scene ends with the suggestion that he and Lady Croom will soon consummate his passion.
In the play's final scene, Valentine and Chloe read the media's sensational reaction to Bernard's lecture about Byron. ('Bonking Byron Shot Poet') Chloe expresses the opinion that "The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it's trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be in that part of the plan." Valentine says, "Ah, yes. The attraction that Newton left out."
Hannah arrives, and on his laptop computer, Valentine shows her "the Coverly set," based on Thomasina's equations. Valentine says the set is interesting, that Thomasina would be famous. Hannah says, no, the girl didn't have time to be famous. She died in a fire on her seventeenth birthday.
Suddenly, it's simultaneously 1812, and Lord Augustus, Thomasina's brother, enters, followed by Thomasina and Septimus. Thomasina asks why she received no mark on her "rabbit" equation that "eats its own progeny." Septimus says he did not see that, and Thomasina replies that she did not have room to extend it in her lesson book.
Valentine asks Hannah if she thinks it odd that her cup of tea gets cold by itself. When she says no, he says, "Well, it is odd. Heat goes to cold. It's a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What's happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It'll take a while but we're all going to end up at room temperature."
Now the revelations come fast and furious. The audience and various characters learn the following: that Ezra Chater died of a monkey bite in the West Indies years after he was supposed to have been shot by Byron, that Bernard will be a laughingstock now that Hannah has sent a letter to that effect to The Times. That Thomasina foresaw the implications of the second law of thermodynamics, that on the eve of her seventeeth birthday she made Septimus teach her how to waltz while letting him finally know her true feelings about him. Finally, Gus proves Hannah's hypothesis about the identity of Sidley Park's hermit by silently bringing her Thomasina's sketch of Septimus.
At the denouement, past and present merge as Septimus and Thomasina, Hannah and Gus whirl around the stage to the strains of a waltz, separated by centuries yet united by the mysteries of chaos and attraction.
THE CRITICS SPEAKReviews from:
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
Metro (San Jose)
The Milwaukee Journal
FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
ONLINETwice Around the Grounds -- An essay by Anne Barton, from the New York Review of Books.
When Theater and Math Converge -- From The Berkeleyan.
Arcadia Study Guide -- Skidmore College's 1998 Orientation Study guide.
Eden Prairie High School "Arcadia" Project -- Nicely put-together site developed by advanced placement students. Be sure to read all about monkey bites!
Sex and Complexity -- Article from Scientific American.
Math in "Arcadia" -- Article by Ivars Peterson.
Fractal Pictures and Animations -- Explore the Mandelbrot and other famous fractal sets.
They Know It About Engines -- An essay by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll.
Fermat's Last Theorem -- A brief history of the problem and its solution.
George Gordon, Lord Byron -- Representative poetry presented by the University of Toronto
OFFLINEChaos by James Gleick
Turbulent Mirror by John Briggs and F. David Peat
The Collapse of Chaos by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart
Mind Tools by Rudy Rucker
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2
58070 accesses since August 24, 1996.