Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Garden of Theater: For Tom Stoppard 'Arcadia' is Close to Perfect

            In the play "Arcadia," written in 1993 by the cleverest, if not simply the best of contemporary playwrights, Tom Stoppard has his characters more than once mouth a famous classical tag: "Et in Arcadia ego..." A phrase translated, by general consent, as "Even in Arcadia I," which sounds harmless enough.
            In a play so full of allusions to both the world of mathematics and science, as well as to literature (and for that matter to landscape gardening), it's hard to fasten on any one such reference as containing the work's ultimate meaning. But this one stopped me, because my background is literature, rather than science or math. And even in the world of literature, while I'm not terribly fond of the principal figure Stoppard's contemporary characters are fighting over -- Lord Byron -- I'm troubled that I can't quite recall the point of this classical allusion.
            I knew it was Virgil, but my high school Latin sequence stopped before we got to Virgil (after our teacher, hopeless at controlling a classroom, was fired for coaching some students through the Regents exam), and so may familiarity with the great poet of the Roman world is patchy at best.
            I'll come back to this point -- "Arcadia" is after all the name of the play -- but first, if you have never seen this play, you have a chance to do through May 1 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. And I would strongly recommend it. It's an intellectual mystery, or series of interlocking riddles, set both in early 19th century and the contemporary day. Let me draw on the program notes by director Lee Mikeska Gardner, to sketch a few of the play's rich and complex outlines.
            Arcadia is "the grandmother of what we call Science Plays, weaving human foibles and passions between the lines of math and science and philosophy, not to mention literature and art," Gardner tells us. In short, almost everything that matters.
            If you can follow the explanation provided by one of the play's genius characters (there's a pack of them) of the importance of "iterated algorithms," so much the better. If not, it's good to bring along a PhD in mathematics, as my wife and I were fortunate to do Saturday night, to explain it during intermission. The play posits that another of the play's 19th century geniuses (a barely adolescent girl) intuits this possibility, but can't work out a "proof" since progress in this direction required the invention (as a 20th century math whiz tells us) of the electric calculator.  
            All right, so much for the Newtonian universe, the law of irreversible heat loss, and the consequent likelihood of entropy (the end of everything) in a closed system universe. (For further elucidation of these points your Google is as good,or better, than mine.)
            But, as Gardner happily points out, there is so more to contemplate. For instance, tutor Septimus Hodge -- near enough to genius to appreciate his young charge's mathematical insights -- astonishingly moving justification of the March of Time. Weep not over the burning of the Alexandrian library, and the subsequent loss of scores of Greek tragedies, and who knows how much Aristotle, he tells the girl (and us) because what we have lost is bound to come back in some other form. Instead, cherish what we have.
            What we don't have -- to plunge us into the contemporary story, set in the same old English estate where our 19th century figures quarrel over adultery, poetry, landscape architecture (and, on occasion, Newton's deterministic universe) -- is any proof that George Gordon Lord Byron ever visited this great old English estate and there fought a duel, killing a minor English poet after tupping his wife.
            We do have a contemporary scholar who is studying the plans to alter an already Romantic English Garden to bring it line with currently fashionable (and even more bizarre) notions, such as building a "hermitage" along with spotting the landscape with various ersatz "ruins." This female scholar ultimate confesses that she hates the whole "wild, Romantic garden" movement that, as she sees it, destroyed the more natural harmony of the Enlightenment plan for a balanced, reasonable "natural" landscape better suited to contemplating the golden mean.
            These two opposing present-day scholars, both mining the same period for discoveries to make their name -- the spokesman for the Byronic notion of poetic genius, and the spokesman for "reason" and balance (and for the women seduced and abandoned by Byron) -- battle things out in brilliantly comic fashion. Nobody has more words than Stoppard. And he doesn't spare any of them in this multi-layered, intellectually challenging (and engaging) feast of language, ideas, human types, and their typical foibles.
            So why is the play called "Arcadia"?
            Arcadia, I find, is an actual piece of terrestrial geography "celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness." Virgil writes of it, at least glancingly, in one of his major works know as the "Eclogues." Since everything in Roman culture goes back to the Greeks, "eclogue" refers to the Greek word for a perfect rustic place. And Arcadia, the epitome of all such places, is actually a region in the Greek Peloponnese. (More on this some other time.)
           So possibly "Arcadia" would be your naturally beautiful landscape if nobody had 'artistic' or 'cultural' designs to improve it with fashionable alterations (think McMansions).
            Ah, but the phrase "Et in Arcadia ego..." as it appears in Virgil's eclogue is written on the funeral monument to the shepherd Daphnis, who is himself the perfect human epitome of this perfectly harmonious natural place. These words appear to be a eulogy to an admirable figure lost too soon.
            And because they are written on a tombstone, it us supposed that the "ego" ("I") stands for death (though the word 'death' does not appear in the poem). Remember, these words warn (in the interpretation given them by later ages), that even in the most perfect and beautiful of places, death still rules our fate.
            This phrase can be applied in so many ways to the Stoppard's play that the head spins.
            If the deterministic Newtonian universe, plus the law of irreversible heat loss, means that everything in the universe will run down in the end... then death is everybody's fate. It's the answer to all the play's questions. Human progress? Byron? The design of your garden? What they all mean in the end is not very much.
            And yet, though as I confessed in the beginning I am no Virgil scholar, I do know that Virgil's great works celebrate Rome. The "Aeneid" celebrates Rome's birth from the ashes of fallen Troy. The Eclogues themselves, I understand, move to a prediction of a golden age of empire ushered in by Octavius (favored by Jove) who rules as the emperor Caesar Augustus.
            Yes, "even in Arcadia." But the meaning may be that since we can all foresee our end of days, isn't it time for us to be getting on with things that matter?