A Very Good Start: Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”

Tom Stoppard

Playwright Tom Stoppard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the prompts for NaBloPoMo involves writing about the opening of your favorite book.

Now, this is a bit tricky. One of my favorite books, by one of my favorite authors, is Cloud Atlas (recently turned into a film by the folks who made “The Matrix” series and “Run Lola Run,” but that’s another story), written by David Mitchell. Great book, beautiful ending. But the beginning hardly hints at the greatness to come. And that’s true for a lot of my top choices.

The book of Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” is way up there on my list of favorites, and its opening absolutely fits the bill.

The curtain rises on a room in a large country home in Derbyshire in 1809. The daughter of the house, 13-year-old Thomasina, is there with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, age 22.

THOMASINA: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

SEPTIMUS: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

THOMASINA: Is that all?

SEPTIMUS: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.

THOMASINA: Is it a sin?

SEPTIMUS: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED. We had caro in our Gallic Wars – ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’. I am sorry that the seed fell on stony ground.

THOMASINA: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

SEPTIMUS: Yes. He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before. I thought you were finding a proof for Fermat’s last theorem.

THOMASINA: It is very difficult, Septimus. You will have to show me how.

SEPTIMUS: If I knew how, there would be no need to ask you.

With a few opening lines, Stoppard establishes everything about the drama that unfolds: The precociousness of Thomasina, the respect Septimus has for her intellect, the confusion that occurs when sex enters the picture, the rhythm of the language.

Their exchange continues, and continues to set up the events to come, as Septimus tries to determine what on Earth could have instigated this inquiry from his young pupil.

When Septimus learns that Thomasina heard Jellaby the butler, “telling cook that Mrs. Chater was discovered in carnal embrace in the gazebo,” he grows nervous.

SEPTIMUS: (Pause) Really? With whom, did Jellaby happen to say?

(THOMASINA considers this with a puzzled frown.)

THOMASINA: What do you mean, with whom?

SEPTIMUS: With what? Exactly so. The idea is absurd. Where did this story come from?

THOMASINA: Mr. Noakes.

SEPTIMUS: Mr. Noakes!

THOMASINA: Papa’s landskip gardener. He was taking bearings in the garden when he saw – through his spyglass – Mrs. Chater in the gazebo in carnal embrace.

SEPTIMUS: And do you mean to tell me that Mr. Noakes told the butler?

THOMASINA: No. Mr. Noakes told Mr. Chater. Jellaby was told by the groom, who overheard Mr. Noakes telling Mr. Chater, in the stable yard.

SEPTIMUS: Mr. Chater being engaged in closing the stable door.

And so, in little more than a page, we have almost the entire cast of characters that populates the 1809 section of the play, which also travels forward in time to present day where a couple of academics have imposed themselves on the descendants of the same home, trying to solve riddles from the past. Such as whether Lord Byron, friend to Septimus, ever stayed at the house, penned a newly discovered poem there, fought a duel, killed a man, and escaped across the Channel without anyone discovering his crime.

Many critics consider “Arcadia” to be Stoppard’s best play – which is saying something, considering he also has to his credit “The Real Thing,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “The Coast of Utopia,” along with the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.”

“Arcadia” is the stuff of the greatest British playwrights, Orton and Wilde and Shakespeare. It’s a discourse on physics and the natural world, discovery and knowledge lost. It’s tragedy embedded in comedy – and we care so much because Stoppard’s writing defines these characters so clearly from the start. Thomasina, with her wondrous intelligence, is fully realized the moment she utters the play’s first line.

“Arcadia” leaves me breathless with laughter, shattered and in tears, every time I read it. The danger is opening the book at all because, once started, you’re swept away by the beauty of language and the brilliance of the mind that wrote it.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”
~ Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia”