Friday, March 04, 2011

Et in arcadia ego

When I heard that Tom Stoppard's Arcadia was getting a Broadway revival, I was puzzled. I'd seen it in New York the first time! Wasn't it too soon to be in revival? Some quick math revealed that it had been sixteen years since the original Broadway production--and after I got over how ancient that made me feel, I set about finding a pair of half-price tickets and booking a trip to the city.

In anticipation of that trip, last weekend I re-read the play. It's probably been a decade since I last read it, but I still have the same dog-eared copy that I bought in 1995, on the walk back uptown from Lincoln Center after the Saturday matinée. It was summer, and I was twenty, and the play had hit me with the force that things do when you're twenty.

A lot of things had been happening that summer and would continue to happen over the next year, things that I'd categorize, generally, as an attempt to figure out who I might be as an adult and how I wanted to live in the world. It was the first summer that I hadn't spent living in my parents' house and doing temp work; instead, I'd stayed in Alma Mater City to intern at the university press and was subletting a tiny, sweltering apartment. Since none of my friends were around, I spent my evenings and weekends writing lots of letters and reading lots of books: Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis and Oscar Wilde, as well as Madame Bovary in French (my French wasn't really up to it, but my sublessor was a French grad student, and her bookshelves were irresistible). I also resumed going to church, which I hadn't done for some years.

HK spent that summer interning in the silver department at Christie's, and she had lucked into a house-sitting gig on 103rd and West End. As I recall, she was making $75 a week and paying a few hundred dollars a month for the run of somebody's mother's rambling two-bedroom, so she ate a lot of rice and watched a lot of free t.v. But the place had A/C and was lined with books and ugly original artwork--the mother in question being a professor at Hunter or City College--and as west coasters and financial aid kids, we were fascinated by the place and the life that it hinted at.

I visited HK there several times. Mostly, we ate at diners and walked around the city to save money on subway fare. But we figured we had to see something on Broadway, something literary, maybe Hamlet? Ralph Fiennes was playing the lead! Alas, Hamlet was sold out. But I knew Stoppard from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and whatever blurb I'd read about Arcadia sounded promising. Also, Robert Sean Leonard was in it.

We didn't really know what to expect, and while I can't speak to the specifics of HK's reaction, I remember us as both being a little stunned: by how good it was, and by what it was. Arcadia seemed to resonate with everything that was going on in my world and in my head. A semester of Milton followed by a summer reading a bunch of Anglo-Catholic writers meant that I'd been boring all my correspondents with letters in which I meditated on fate and free will, and I was captivated by the play's treatment of time and the irrecoverabilty of the past; my copy of the play bears tidy marginal brackets and double scores next to otherwise unremarkable passages about the unidirectionality of time ("everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly, until there's no time left. That's what time means").

Perhaps the best explanation for the play's effect on me was that it managed simultaneously to validate my prior obsessions and stimulate what felt like new ones. It seemed to confirm my entire recent life: this was why I was an English major! This was why we studied the Western Canon: to get the jokes and to understand the references. The fact that I understood the play's ongoing debate between rationalism and romanticism as a historical and aesthetic one, not just a matter of temperament--that felt tremendous to me.

I also believed that the play showed me what academics actually did, and why one might want to do it. It wasn't just reading books; it was trying to understand and recover the past, knowing in advance that even success could only be partial. As the writer Hannah Jarvis says late in the play, trying to reconcile Valentine the scientist with Bernard the humanist:
Comparing what we're looking for misses the point. It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in. That's why you can't believe in the afterlife....Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.
For my money, that's still one of the two best passages in the play, and it captures (possibly it originated) my own emotional response to the scholarly enterprise.

Finally, there's the fact that Arcadia was the first professional production of a contemporary play that I'd seen. It's not an especially experimental play, but I was dazzled by the final scene, where the characters from 1812 and the characters from the present are all onstage together, each set of actors ignoring the other set as they enact two different but overlapping scenes. Whatever plays I had seen up until that point, this one was my first real intimation that theatre operates differently from film, and I wanted to know and see more.

In short, the play interpellated me as at least a quasi-intellectual and a quasi-academic (it wasn't the only thing that did it, but in retrospect it seems the neatest symbol of a larger process). I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a Hannah or Bernard or Valentine, but I definitely wanted to be the kind of person who lived in a city and read books and went to the theatre--the kind of person who bantered wittily and aggressively, who knew stuff about stuff.

I also, apparently, wanted to be the kind of person who owned a pet turtle: I bought one later that summer and endeavored to keep him in my dorm room for the next year and a half. It didn't end well. Et in arcadia ego, indeed.


Veralinda said...

When I see you tonight, please tell me where you got the half price tickets!! I MUST go.

Flavia said...

V: happy to share! If you're a student, teacher, actor, work for an arts org, a non-profit, or are a member of the military, the clergy, or a union (in other words, just about everyone who reads this blog), you're eligible for TDF membership. For people living in NYC it's $30 a year. For those 100 miles or more away, it's $12.

Tickets are subject to availability and tend to be most available for new shows/shows in previews or shows at the end of their run--but they average $25-35 apiece, with almost nothing in handling fees. Very worth it.

All that said, I wanted so badly to see Arcadia and had such a relatively limited time window (C's spring break) that I staked out the website for 10 days in order to get these. Thrift takes persistence.

Renaissance Girl said...

I love that play. I remember having much the same reaction you describe when I first saw it: I was utterly, intellectually ravished by it. I'd love to see it again, especially to see how I respond to it from the perspective of someone who professes literature rather than of a younger person enamored of books. And while I'm over 100 miles from NYC, I might be so far over that it's no longer a good deal. I'll hope to catch it again someday soon.

Flavia said...


Yes, I worry about that a little. Upon re-reading I was surprised by the temperance of my marginalia, but equally surprised by how. . . flat some of the moments or passages I had remembered having such a strong reaction to now felt. Might just be a stage/page thing, or perhaps I took more seriously things that were actually meant tongue in cheek, or with some ironic distance I didn't pick up on.

I still found the play extraordinarily good. But some of the magic was gone, and I'm sure I won't recapture anything close to the experience I had at twenty, no matter how good the production is.

Megan said...

I, too, remember this reaction to Arcadia and, by proxy, academia. For me, it felt both stunningly familiar (this is what I've been looking for!) and exotic (there's been nothing like this in my past). I've since taught it, which was fun, if a little bit dangerous - nothing like teaching something Very Momentous from One's Own Past to strip it of its magic. But Arcadia held up pretty well. I'm curious to hear how the production fares.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks for this post. I teach Arcadia every semester, in the gen-ed-credit-bearing survey of Brit Lit, and sometimes I find myself wondering why. (And then, sometimes, I get a cluster of students who get it, and then I know why.)

If even one of them has a reaction like yours, it will be worth it.