Sunday, June 9, 2013

and I also have seen Arcadia

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia has come to ACT in San Francisco, and I've been to see it. I'd seen the play once before, in Ashland in 1996, but didn't recall much of the detail, and more importantly my own experience with the intellectual problems faced by the characters was much less then.

It's a fascinating, provocative play, but was this a good production? I'm not sure. The actors were more than adequate at their craft, but I can't help thinking that, if the whole had really added up to anything compelling, I wouldn't have spent so much time distracted by thoughts of how long the play was. But maybe it was just the cramped, uncomfortable seats speaking.

Set in the same room in a northern English country house in alternating scenes some 200 years apart, Arcadia explores both investigations into the fundamental nature of the universe and literary-historical investigations made by the latter-day characters into the earlier ones' lives. The characters keep saying that it's really all about sex, but that in itself is a trivial aspect of this story.

What was important struck two personal chords with me. The modern characters, having discovered the notebooks of the visionary schoolgirl Thomasina of the earlier period, realize that she was trying to work out the theories of entropy and determinism using hand calculations, foiled only by the immensity of the mathematical task involved. If only she'd had a modern computer at hand, what could she have done? And I thought of my own interest in calculations of historical population growth in given geographical areas, and of how easy it is to work these out with downloadable census files and an Excel spreadsheet. As a child I used to do work like this with pencil, paper, and a desk calculator, and even that was wearying compared with what I can do with no trouble today.

Even more striking for me was the literary-historical aspect, because as a scholar I do exactly what Hannah and Bernard do in the play, work out biographical history using incomplete and misleading documentation. The only difference is that my topic is the Inklings rather than Byron. Hannah warns Bernard not to jump to unwarranted conclusions using hypothesized or unclear evidence, yet she does not follow her own advice. I try to be a follower of Hannah's advice, and have written, for instance, warning of other scholars' possible but completely hypothetical chronologies and personalia of the origin of the Inklings. The evidence we actually have is flashes of light amid darkness, and no period in Inklings history is darker than the early 1930s when they began.

This experience followed a visit to the vacation home of B's niece T in the Napa Valley. Anticipatory experience of the day: picking wine-country-soil-grown blackberries from the backyard trellis for the trip home. T told how the house was bought some three years ago, after many years of visiting the area, staying in guest homes and hotels. She and her husband had been coming up here since they were in college, back in 1991.

At which point in the conversation, her nine-year-old son exclaimed, "Wow, that was a long time ago!" He then tried to work out how many years ago it was, but the mathematics of the calculation defeated him. It's the curse of Thomasina.

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