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Arcadia (play)

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Arcadia is a 1993 play by Tom Stoppard concerning the relationship between past and present and between order and disorder and the certainty of knowledge.


Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an English country house, in the years 18091812 and 1989, juxtaposing the activities of two modern scholars and the house's current residents with the lives of those who lived there 180 years earlier.

In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is a precocious teenager with ideas about mathematics well ahead of her time. She studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron, who is an unseen guest in the house. In 1989, a writer and an academic converge on the house: Hannah Jarvis, the writer, is investigating a hermit who once lived on the grounds; Bernard Nightingale, a professor of literature, is investigating a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their investigations unfold, helped by Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology, the truth about what happened in 1809 is gradually revealed.

The play's set features a large table, which is used by the characters in both 1809 and 1989. Props are not removed when the play switches time period, so that the books, coffee mugs, quill pens, portfolios, and laptop computers of 1809 and 1989 appear alongside each other in a blurring of past and present.


Arcadia explores the nature of evidence and truth in the context of modern ideas about history, mathematics and physics. It shows how the clues left by the past are interpreted by scholars. The play refers to a wide array of subjects, including mathematics, physics, thermodynamics, computer algorithms, fractals, population dynamics, chaos theory vs. determinism (especially in the context of love and death), classics, landscape design, romanticism vs. classicism, English literature (particularly poetry), Byron, 18th century periodicals, modern academia, and even South Pacific botany. These are the concrete topics of conversation; the more abstract philosophical resonances veer off into epistemology, nihilism, the origins of lust, and madness.

The title refers to the pastoral ideal of Arcadia and to the memento mori spoken by Death: " Et in Arcadia ego", roughly translatable as "I too am in Arcadia", but the true meaning is enigmatic and the subject of much academic discourse. The character of Septimus offers the translation "Even in Arcadia, there am I".

Some ideas in the play recall Goethe's 1809 novella Elective Affinities.

Productions and responses

Arcadia first opened at the Royal National Theatre in London on April 13, 1993, and has played at many theatres since. It impressed the critics: The Daily Telegraph's critic wrote "I have never left a new play more convinced that I'd just witnessed a masterpiece." It won the 1993 Olivier Award for Best Play and the 1995 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

The original 1993 production was directed by Trevor Nunn and featured Rufus Sewell as Septimus Hodge, Felicity Kendal (Stoppard's then lover) as Hannah Jarvis, Bill Nighy as Bernard Nightingale, Emma Fielding as Thomasina Coverly, Alan Mitchell as Jellaby, Derek Hutchinson as Ezra Chater, Sidney Livingston as Richard Noakes, Harriet Walter as Lady Croom, Graham Sinclair as Captain Brice, Harriet Harrison as Chloe Coverly, Timothy Matthews as Augustus Coverly and Gus Coverly, and Samuel West as Valentine Coverly.

The first New York production opened in March 1995 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. It was again directed by Trevor Nunn, but the entire cast changed. It starred Billy Crudup as Septimus, Blair Brown as Hannah, Victor Garber as Bernard, Robert Sean Leonard as Valentine, and Jennifer Dundas as Thomasina. This production was the Broadway debut of Paul Giamatti, who played Ezra Chater. The other actors were Lisa Banes (Lady Croom), Richard Clarke (Jellaby), John Griffin (Gus/Augustus), Peter Maloney (Noakes), David Manis (Captain Brice, RN), and Haviland Morris (Chloe). This production was nominated for the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play, but lost to Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!. Jennifer Dundas and Lisa Banes had already played daughter and mother once before, in The Hotel New Hampshire.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times described the play as "Tom Stoppard's richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and, new for him, emotion."

Arcadia was voted onto the shortlist for the Royal Institution award for "the best science book ever written". The winner, awarded on 19 October2006, was The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.

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