Tom Stoppard is notorious for exploring a multitude of themes and areas of expertise in his plays, and Arcadia is no exception, perhaps the most complicated of all. As usual it requires a complex staging, its verbosity, while entertaining, forces the audience to pay very close attention for fear of being completely left behind, and its high concepts often stir a great confusion in the reader or viewer.
In Arcadia, these stylistic choices serve the play in more ways than one. The play is about many things, but one major through-line is the exploration of chaos theory, from both the perspective of a modern day group of academics, and a young prodigy from the 19th Century. Chaos theory is, of course, an extremely complicated topic, and one well-suited for such a chaotic atmosphere as the one created by this play; however the feverish discussion presented by the contemporary characters, though utterly engaging, is hardly helpful. Curiously it is the young girl, who predates any actual discovery of the field, who is able to make it clear to the layman.
She describes one tenant of chaos theory, which isn't so much about chaos as it is deterioration, as "stirring jam into pudding" -- the substances will eventually mix, and cannot possibly be separated again. This fascinating phenomenon is known as entropy, which is best understood as energy that is lost and cannot be regained. A common example is a cup of hot coffee left out: it will eventually achieve room temperature, and there will be no way to recover that heat lost without putting more energy into the system -- i.e. heating it up again. Eventually this loss of energy will always overtake us -- in the deterioration of our bodies, of our planet, and eventually of our universe.
I won't pretend I understand exactly what this has to do with the rest of Mr. Stoppard's amazing play, but I know it's a theme that stuck with me for a long time after having read it. It seems to me a universal theme, something that can be introduced into anything, and a remarkable topic of discussion for these characters, so obsessed with things past, to be immersed in. The idea of action which cannot be reversed or energy which cannot be regained is a haunting one, and becomes representative of almost every development in the play -- but to say more would be to say too much.
A fascinating read and a great way to learn more about stuff you may never even have thought about.
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About the reviewer
I'm a filmmaker, and as much as that means I love movies, reading is a passion I've always had and am always going to have. Often my first response to a book I love is a desire to adapt it -- … more
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