They Know It About Engines



By Jon Carroll

ON JULY 3, 1937, in the town of Zlin, in the southeast corner of what is now called the Czech Republic, a boy named Thomas was born into the family of Eugene Straussler, a Jewish physician employed by a shoe company.

The early life of Thomas Straussler was not easy. When he was 2, just ahead of the Nazi invasion of his country, he fled with his family to Singapore. In 1942, he moved with his mother and brother to India, while Eugene stayed behind to face the Japanese occupation.

Eugene died in a Japanese prison camp; Thomas' mother married a British major who soon took his family to England. The boy Thomas took his stepfather's surname, which was Stoppard. He grew up to be the most brilliant playwright never to have fulfilled his promise, only because his promise has always been so extraordinary.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that he has now written his masterpiece, and that it is called Arcadia, and that we are lucky enough to have it available for viewing in our local area.

Arcadia occupies that locus that Stoppard has always been trying to reach, the place where intellect and passion finally meet, the place where the power of ideas and the power of love finally come together.

It is heartbreaking only because it is an imaginary land, although of course it is not imaginary because it's there on stage. I think that's why Stoppard is important; he does not merely affirm possibilities, the way the uplifting sort of science fiction is forever doing; he becomes the possibilities himself. He is his own rocket ship, and he flies himself to the moon. He has done more than create a genius; he has created the sort of artifact a genius would concoct.

Of course he's showing off; if you were a genius, wouldn't you show off?

The created genius is named Thomasina, and she is 13 when the play begins and almost 17 when the play ends. She loves showing off. Everyone in the play is chasing her ideas, and they don't know it and neither does she. That's part of the exhilaration.

I will slow down now and do some housekeeping. Arcadia is a work that rewards time (hidden pun there; found it in rewrite); the more time, the greater the rewards. It is entirely possible to see the current ACT production and have a ripping good time; it is even better to read the play first (from Faber and Faber, a mere $8.95, at better bookstores), so some of the structural playfulness does not come as a total surprise.

I say this partly because there were some empty seats after intermission the night I went, seats vacated by foolish or jaded people, unwilling to believe that a playwright could leave that many loose ends littered about the stage and have any hope of tying them up.

But of course he does. Loose ends you didn't even know were there, all tied up. It is a play about (among perhaps 28 other things) order and chaos (particularly chaos as a mathematical concept), and although Stoppard believes in chaos he is far more fond of order.

Four parentheses in the last sentence alone; eight overall. Stoppard once said: "My technique when lecturing is to free associate within an infinite regression of parentheses.''

Kenneth Tynan (to whose book Show People I am indebted for much of the information here) (that's 10) (12) compares Stoppard to Vaclav Havel and Franz Kafka (Triple-Czeched!) and also to Beckett, for whose work I am not yet sufficiently mature.

For me, he is a cross between Stephen Sondheim (for the music of his words, and for his sadness) and Stewart Brand (for his rigorous optimism and his loving aphorisms). That tiny hint of American cheerfulness that comes blazing through Stoppard's wit is probably just survivor's gilt, the fool's gold common to all displaced persons who have, against all reason, found a home in the universe.

Wait for the moment in the play when the headline occurs. Read 'em and weep.

(c) 1995. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author.


Another damn fine column by Jon Carroll appears every weekday on The Gate. Or you can visit his home page. Most of all, you should buy his book.







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