“Arcadia”: Tom Stoppard’s complex Byronic drama to the manor born

PASADENA, Calif. – A Noise Within’s (ANW) thought-provoking production of Tony- and Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia kicks off the 25th anniversary season of what The Huffington Post called “one of the nation’s premier classical repertory companies.” Well, ANW better be, in order to credibly mount this extremely complicated 1993 drama, lauded in the UK’s Independent as “perhaps the greatest play of its time” and in The New Yorker as “a masterpiece…the finest play written in my lifetime.”

This two-acter is so complex that the playbill actually includes a “character map” which, like a genealogical diagram, traces who is who in a series of linked boxes. More than any other play I can think of, Arcadia uses flashbacks for a form so richly textured that instead of referring to dramatic “structure” one could more properly use the term “architecture.” (Indeed, one of Stoppard’s leitmotifs is Gothic landscape architecture.)

Arcadia’s multifaceted plot is divided between the early 19th century and a mostly different cast in contemporary times. The characters of both eras inhabit Sidley Park, a country house in Derbyshire, England.  The drama flashes back and forth from the 1809-ish dramatis personae to their modern counterparts until they are imaginatively fused together onstage. In that scene, Stoppard – the dean of today’s British dramatists, who has also co-written films such as Shakespeare in Love – employs a stagecraft actually more cinematic in the theatre than most filmmakers are on the screen.

To further complicate matters, Stoppard deals with Gothic landscapes, scientific and mathematical concepts, and the actors all speak in British accents, which makes some dialogue hard to follow. I also had difficulty in some cases grasping the characters’ identities. In the first scene, the dorky Ezra Chater (Jeremy Rabb) accuses the randy Septimus Hodge (Rafael Goldstein), who is the tutor of 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Erika Soto), of cuckolding him by having sex with Mrs. Chater in a gazebo. Was Abbey Craden’s character supposed to be Ezra’s errant wife? It turns out Craden is playing the part of Lady Croom – who is Thomasina Coverly’s mother, although her title befuddles this fact. It turns out that Mrs. Chater the cheater is only verbally referred to and never actually appears onstage. Confusing, isn’t it?

But Arcadia’s most important offstage presence who is never seen per se is none other than Lord Byron. England’s real-life romantic poet is Arcadia‘s “MacGuffin” – an often arbitrary plot device mainly used to move a story along so the protagonist can pursue his goal. (Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock popularized and often used this concept.) In Arcadia‘s second scene we encounter the present-day characters at Sidley, including a descendant of the 19th-century Coverlys, Valentine Coverly (Tavis Doucette), a post-grad in mathematical biology, and Hannah Jarvis (Susan Angelo), an author researching a book at the landed estate.

Enter the flamboyant Bernard Nightingale (Freddy Douglas), an academic on the make (in more ways than one) of the “publish or peril” school of scholars – even if the publication is a tattletale-type tabloid rag. During the course of the play documentation confirms that the renowned Lord Byron not only visited Sidley but was a schoolmate of Hodge at (methinks) Trinity College, Cambridge.

Nightingale forms an alliance with Jarvis, as they try to prove whether or not Byron was involved in an alleged scandal at Sidley, which in turn led to the poet’s decision to go to Greece to fight for that nation’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1823. Solving this supposed literary mystery – which would propel Nightingale, the wannabe Byronic hero, and Jarvis to stardom in the world of English academia and letters – is an important part of the MacGuffin that cuts back and forth between the centuries, as the 20th/21st-century characters try to crack the case. The dispute between Nightingale and Jarvis – their relationship is fraught with sexual frisson – embodies the conflict between the Classical (i.e., rational rigors of logical thought passed down from ancient Greece and the Enlightenment) and the Romantic (i.e., emotional and intuitive thought/feeling process) traditions, yet another mind-boggling layer of Stoppardian complexity.

Stoppard seems to have derived Nightingale’s name from Byron’s poem “It is the Hour”: “It is the hour when from the boughs/The nightingale’s high note is heard;/It is the hour – when lover’s vows/Seem sweet in every whisper’d word.”

In any case, he is so self-involved that it never seems to occur to Nightingale that Byron’s motives for going to fight for Greek independence were pure and noble. It’s beyond the egotist’s ken to consider that one may desire to fight for the liberation of oppressed people out of a sense of solidarity with suffering humanity, just as George Orwell and others joined the International Brigades to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. For example, in his lengthy 1816 narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon, Byron paid homage to a freedom fighter cruelly imprisoned centuries ago in a castle located in what is now the French-speaking region of Switzerland. In this respect, Nightingale is like those deniers of Edward Snowden who impugn the whistleblower’s integrity and intentions because they – establishment flunkies who never gave anything up for humanity – can’t comprehend selfless sacrifice for a principle.

(By the way, Nightingale’s timeline is all wrong: Lord Byron intervened in Greece in 1823, which led to his death the following year. So the not-so-scholarly Nightingale’s supposition that events at Sidley circa 1809 led to Byron’s departure for Greece is way off the mark – which, one suspects, Stoppard is well aware of. Byron’s struggle on behalf of the Christian Greeks against the Muslim Ottomans may give Arcadia something of a “clash of civilizations” spin.)

Sexuality is a subtext throughout much of Arcadia, which opens with the precocious adolescent Thomasina asking her rakish tutor what “carnal embrace” means – Hodge evasively responds with a, well, hodegepodge pseudo explanation. Heat and light recur as sexual allusions, as the brilliant Thomasina proves herself to be a child prodigy, who – well ahead of her time – deduces the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Her scientific insights parallel Thomasina’s growing awareness of sex as the child comes of age. The play deals much with theoretical mathematics, physics, entropy, chaos theory and other scientific aspects way above this reviewer’s pay grade. But suffice it to say that Thomasina is consumed by the heat. She is well-drawn by Soto as a vivacious proto-feminist striving to assert herself in a patriarchal world where she is dismissed because of her gender and age, with Lady Croom anxious a few years after the first scene that she hasn’t married her daughter off by the time she’s around seventeen.

What to make of Stoppard’s seven-layer cake of a play? As Arcadia spans the centuries it is certainly excellently acted and helmed by the brilliantly able Geoff Elliott. But it is not to every ticket buyer’s taste – if putting your brain into neutral with mindless spectacle is your cup of tea, you may get lost in Arcadia‘s hinterlands. Stoppard’s ambitious drama is for more adventurous, serious theatergoers who enjoy thinking, as well as emoting, while watching some finely etched acting. I do highly recommend that those intellectuals see this Arcadia.

The theme of A Noise Within’s 25th anniversary season is “Beyond Our Wildest Dreams,” and it takes a high caliber – and voltage – company to present Stoppard’s almost three-hour play. That ANW succeeds in admirably doing so may be the proof of Huffington Post’s contention regarding the outfit’s primo status.

A Noise Within’s production of Arcadia plays through Nov. 20 in repertory with Jean Genet’s The Maids and Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636) 356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org.

Photo: Richy Storrs (Augustus Coverly/Gus Coverly), Susan Angelo (Hannah Jarvis), Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly), and Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) / Craig Schwartz.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.