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Seeing is believing: Unity of Place in Arcadia

Susan Blattès

Résumés

A première vue, l’espace scénique dans Arcadia semble relever d’une dramaturgie traditionnelle, notamment à travers l’unité de lieu. Cet espace scénique avec ses objets jouerait donc le rôle de cadre fixe à l’action, renforçant la vraisemblance de l’intrigue. Or, cette interprétation s’avère assez rapidement erronée. Peu à peu, l’espace scénique s’affranchit  de son rôle de repère dans le temps et participe pleinement  à la célébration de la théâtralité de la scène.

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1Stoppard’s desire to combine the play of ideas with high comedy or farce (see interview reprinted in Hunter 115) along with his frequently expressed interest in ideas of all kinds have frequently led critics to focus directly on the ideas themselves or on the language used to express them. We may, however, wish to approach this play from another angle, starting out from Stoppard’s repeated claim that theatre is essentially an event associating actors and audience in a theatrical space. Perhaps we will remember his recollection of a performance of The Tempest which emphasized neither the textual nor the intellectual features of the production, but primarily its visual qualities (Hunter 144). This paper will focus on visual elements in Arcadia, notably, stage space to see how it contributes to our overall impressions of the play. In a work which is usually seen in connection with the complexity of its ideas (scientific especially, but not only), the sophistication of its dialogue, the elaborate combination of fact and fiction, and an inventive use of non-linear time, Arcadia manifests a deceptively simple use of space which is also worthy of attention and study.

2The choice of the single set cannot of course be separated from the other elements which make up a play: characters, situations, themes and setting, not forgetting the dialogue either. It is by studying the interaction of space with the other elements that we can determine what type of play we are dealing with. The single set of Beckett’s Endgame functions differently from that in A Streetcar Named Desire and neither of these 20th century examples works exactly in the same way as the traditional anti-chamber in French classical tragedy. Neither can we argue that unity of place can, in itself, be considered the sign of conventional dramaturgy, although it came to constitute the cornerstone of realist aesthetics especially by reinforcing the fourth wall illusion. The decision to locate all the action of a play in the same space is always significant, however, and will always affect the way the audience responds to what the characters do and say.

3Although Arcadia uses a single set, the way this space is perceived by the audience is constantly shifting. It begins by operating as a fairly conventional indicator of the context, creating the potential for forward momentum, before being used to set up a pendulum effect with past and present scenes alternating. Finally, the way the set neatly keeps past and present apart is undermined, and the single set breaks free of its temporal and physical constraints to assert an explicitly theatrical and, ultimately, dual nature.

“It’s a one way street” or forward momentum

4This is Valentine’s remark to Hannah (106) about the way action progresses through time, using a spatial metaphor, as is frequently the case. This seems to be Stoppard’s first reason for using a single set. Indeed, the whole of the play takes place in one room, described in the opening stage directions as being located in “a very large country house in Derbyshire” (3). There is a French window which leads directly to “the typical English park of the time.” Be that as it may, we never actually see the rest of the house and, perhaps more importantly, we are never allowed into the garden although the action of the play is set against the background of the transformations of the park. An indication of what lies beyond the windows may be suggested “perhaps only light and air and sky” (3). Trevor Nunn, the director of the first production, speaks of the importance of not giving the audience the impression “of an arid debating chamber” (Hunter 207). From time to time the sound of guns being fired reminds us that there is a park beyond the house where family and guests gather to participate in shooting-parties. If we come to accept that the house is “what would be called a stately home” (3), it is because of such factors as what the characters say, how they behave, etc. In fact, the room we have before us on stage (shown in many photographs of the original production and described in the stage directions) is actually rather bare and not the elegant, beautifully decorated space we might expect to represent the wealth and splendor of the Coverlys. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis insist on the enormous expense involved in transforming parks and gardens in their book on the English landscape garden, whose title Stoppard seems to have borrowed for Hannah’s future study on landscape and literature, The Genius of the Place.

5The simplicity of the set design is even more striking when set against some of Stoppard’s earlier plays, for example Jumpers (1972). The stage set in Arcadia comprises “tall, shapely, uncurtained windows” (3) along the upstage wall, with a door in each of the side walls, while the furniture consists of a large table, straight-backed chairs and a reading stand. The floor is wooden. “What elegance there is, is architectural, and nothing is impressive but the scale” (3). The question of scale is, of course, not to be neglected in a play which introduces “iterated algorithms” but we do not realize this at first. As for the architectural elegance, it is not defined specifically by a style or period. The Coverlys, who apparently follow all the latest fashions in landscape gardening, are not shown to be constantly changing the interior design of their house. There is one reference to a teapot turning up at Christie’s (24), but no other references to paintings, furniture or decorative objects. This could be explained by the fact that the room is only used as a schoolroom, not designed to receive guests, but the room does not change over the 180-year period spanned by the action, even though the necessity of having a schoolroom for the tuition of the family’s female offspring has disappeared. In fact, it is soon clear that this almost bare stage serves the various requirements of the play quite adequately: it situates the action in time, places the characters in the social hierarchy of the day, establishes their relationships and prepares for the events to come. What we see happening at first could only take place in this room, in this house, at this period. The characters, dialogue and action see to that. There is no need for an elaborate reconstitution of an early 19th century schoolroom in a country house. Furthermore, by limiting the furniture and decoration, Stoppard brings the audience to focus on specific objects, details which they might have overlooked if the set had been elaborate. The audience must also play its part in discovering what has happened at Sidley Park.

6Since Stoppard’s use of time in Arcadia comes to be characterised by a forwards and backwards movement between 1809 and the present, including a scene which takes place both in 1812 and in the present, it may be that the permanence of the schoolroom provides the spectator with a necessary stable point from which to observe the two separate groups of characters (8 from the past and 5 from the present) over a period of social, cultural and scientific change. It is true that the audience is expected to be attentive to an array of complex issues, ranging from scientific theories, the relative merits of various aesthetic movements, the art versus science debate to the more mundane mechanics of the plot: What happened to Septimus Hodge? How did Captain Brice come to be married to Mrs Chater? They might therefore welcome the relatively easy task of recognising the familiar schoolroom as a constant in the unstable fictional universe. The way the stage set provides a fixed point of reference is especially important once the action moves forward in time.

7The shift from April 1809 to the present constitutes the first break in the play’s chronology, but the audience can be led across the 180-year gap through “the appearance of Hannah Jarvis and nothing else” (22). The transition from life in a country house in early 19th century England to the present is made swiftly and smoothly thanks to the continued presence of the schoolroom set. The set then plays a fundamental role in the temporal organisation of the play’s action. Stoppard does not simply transfer a modern-day set of characters into a location associated with the past. The link between the two is doubly justified. Firstly, the idea that we might find a future generation of an aristocratic family still living in their ancestral home some 180 years on does not pose any problems to audiences precisely because it is an aristocratic family. Secondly, the choice of the schoolroom (and an adjacent library which we do not see) is particularly apt since it provides justification for the presence of the two contemporary researchers. It is, of course, the documents associated with this space that ultimately prove Bernard Nightingale to be wrong (in his assumptions about Byron) and Hannah Jarvis to be right (in her assumptions about Septimus and Thomasina). Neither Bernard nor Hannah can discover the truth (a partial truth perhaps) until they come to Sidley Park and go through the books, portfolios and letters which are to be found there. The schoolroom is literally a schoolroom in the 19th century scenes but also metaphorically a schoolroom in the 20th century scenes since it is where knowledge is to be discovered and made sense of, for the characters but also for the audience. We can therefore argue that spatial continuity offsets Stoppard’s use of temporal discontinuity at first. However, the way spatial and temporal factors combine in the play actually turns out to be quite complex by creating both change and continuity. Having used the single set to bring out the difference between past and present and having made this clear and acceptable to the audience, Stoppard then seems intent on lessening this difference and then even contradicting it.

“The same room on the same sort of morning” (22) or change and continuity

8The stage directions at the beginning of Scene 2 announce the doubling of certain props, but probably, the audience does not become aware of this for some time so we will first mention what the audience cannot fail to notice, that is the sense that, despite the passage of 180 years, little has actually changed. There is a fine line to be drawn between using the same setting to create the impression that time has moved on, which constitutes one form of continuity, and using the same setting in a different period to suggest that time is actually standing still. Some elements in the play actually do both. There are many examples involving the repetition of fragments of dialogue from both time periods, countless instances of modern characters behaving in the same way as their 19th century counterparts and vice versa, but also many instances when the set and its objects are actually used in a particular way by both sets of characters, encouraging the spectator to notice similarities and make them wonder if all that much has changed. In modern-day Sidley Park, guns are still being fired; characters are still coming in and out of the various doors and the French window. Through one of the side doors there is still apparently access to a music room with a piano in it. Characters bring in their books, drink tea or wine, react to and comment on what is happening in the garden. Hannah’s muddy shoes in act 1 scene 2 find a parallel in Lady Croom’s complaints to Noakes: “your greenery is mud, your waterfall is wet mud, and your mount is an opencast mine for the mud that was lacking in the dell.” (116). Septimus’s brief tryst with the unseen Mrs Chater is discovered in the gazebo (5) in 1809 corresponding to a similar discovery by the unseen Lady Croom in the present involving Bernard and Chloé in the hermitage, which has of course replaced the gazebo in the new garden (18-19). We may prefer, of course, to notice the unseen triangle formed by Bernard, Chloé and Lady Croom as the modern counterpart of another unseen triangle from the earlier period in the play formed by Mrs Chater, Lady Croom and Byron (or Lady Croom, Byron and Septimus). There is an astonishing number of such potential parallels in Arcadia.

9However, these multiple echoes and parallels while attenuating the difference between past and present do not actually undermine it. The fact that the room serves a metaphorical as well as a functional role in the fiction also explains why it appears to be relatively “timeless” despite being located in a park which is apparently in a constant state of change.

10The transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2 does not pose problems for the audience, as we have seen. However, if Stoppard seems to be urging us to see the movement of the action as a forward movement, this is contradicted by Scene 3 which gives the play a pendulum structure, by reverting back to 1809. In fact the whole of Act 1 operates in this way with scenes alternating between past and present. This allows us to follow two story lines simultaneously without losing sight of the links between the two stories. One example will have to suffice to illustrate the way the pendulum structure operates, allowing the spectator to piece together the pieces of the puzzle. By the end of Scene 1 there are two letters concealed in Septimus’ copy of The Couch of Eros. The first one we know is from Chater demanding a meeting with Septimus (8). We are not actually given access to the precise contents of the letter at this point, but this is not important since the scene between Chater and Septimus makes the actual wording unimportant. The reading out of the actual letter, 180 years after, in Scene 2 (44) only reveals to the audience how it could be misinterpreted, notably through its absence of a named addressee. Information about the second letter, delivered to Septimus at the end of Scene 1 from Mrs Chater (21), will also be provided by Bernard in Scene 2 (44) as far as the contents are concerned, but again the knowledge of the contents proves to be far less important than the knowledge of the name of the addressee. Scene 2 also informs us of the existence of a third letter which contains a precise date and clearly indicates Chater’s intention to challenge someone to a duel. Although the audience has not yet seen this letter arrive, we can guess that it is once again addressed to Septimus and this is confirmed in Scene 3 when Septimus tells Chater of a letter he has just received which he feigns to believe is a forgery: “I have amazing news to tell you. Someone has taken to writing wild and whirling letters in your name. I received one not half an hour ago” (55). The pendulum technique thus shows how the two narratives can be closely linked to keep the audience at least one step ahead of the characters, notably the modern ones who, paradoxically, in true Stoppardian fashion, never seem to benefit from hindsight. The pendulum structure offers the audience help in keeping track of the intricacies of the plot whilst giving them the satisfaction of superior knowledge.

11Another reason for the numerous visual and verbal echoes across the 180-year time period is to found in the way some of the scientific theories at the centre of the play are actually acted out on stage. The visualisation of theory which Thomasina attempts in her diagram and in her equations, later demonstrated by Valentine with the help of his computer, is also at work in the stage images that are created by the movement and gesture of the characters. Ira Nadel’s discussion of “looping” constitutes a particularly apt description of Arcadia’s structure: “Looping describes the recursive function of non-linear mathematics, a form of periodic doubling which in mathematical terms becomes iterated algorithms, the mathematical feedback that enlarges exponentially” (434). A similar idea is put forward by Stoppard himself in an interview (1993): “The play mimics the way an algorithm goes through bifurcations into chaos, as a matter of fact. In a very compressed way” (Fleming 52). It is also stressed that Thomasina’s grasp of mathematical theory is essentially visual: “She saw what things meant, way ahead, like seeing a picture” (127).

12The association of spatial continuity and temporal change with an alternating structure constitutes an effective means of illustrating the combination of the predictable with the random, by providing patterns with variation. It is noticeable, for example in the way objects from the past, essentially texts but not exclusively, re-surface in the present and are seen in a different way. As we have seen, Bernard’s interpretation of the notes to Septimus written by Chater and discovered in The Couch of Eros constitutes an illustration of the influence of the observer on the observed central to much contemporary scientific theory. Of course, the fact that the whole play is submitted to the observation of the spectator should not be overlooked either. The play’s structure can also be set against the scientific discussions included in the dialogue, notably the question of reversibility.

“There’s an order things can’t happen in [...] You can’t run the film backwards” (128) or irreversibility

13Although the alternation of scenes in the present and scenes in the past may seem to challenge Valentine’s words, in fact, as long as the two narratives move forward, we are not being asked to believe that the “film” can run backwards, we are simply being invited to notice echoes, similarities and especially visual parallels. However, close examination of the stage directions from as early as Scene 2 and, of course, the final (and longest) scene of the play reveals that the seemingly logical and stable presence of the schoolroom is challenged by contrary forces with the result that progression, continuity and reversal are all possible. This is hinted at through the many references to the off-stage evolution of the park. The transformation by Noakes in the picturesque style is particularly significant. According to Lady Croom who is studying the sketch of Sidley Park as it is and the sketch of how it will be when Noakes has finished: “Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman’s garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house...” (18) or as Ira Nadel puts it: “ Picturesque gardens looked new by looking old” (438). It is an attempt at reversing time, just as the contemporary Lady Croom is involved in excavating the gardens in the hope, one presumes, of restoring some kind of past order. Such attempts are obviously doomed to failure and are not shown on stage. Yet, there are other instances of time being shown to work in reverse, as we will see.

14The second set of stage directions which prepare the jump forward in time announce: “Both periods must share the state of the room, without the additions and subtractions which would normally be expected. The general appearance of the room should offend neither period” (22). However, this is followed by the exception of the “books etc.” which “should exist in old and new versions.” It is then specified that various objects brought on stage by either of the two groups of characters should also remain on the table. “By the end of the play the table has collected an inventory of objects.” It is perhaps worthwhile distinguishing between objects which simply introduce anachronism and those which are doubled. (The case of the tortoise would be interesting to study.) In both cases this device obviously upsets our notion of progression which decrees that modern objects (the mugs, for example, which are still on the table in Scene 3 of Act 1) should not figure on stage in a scene only involving the 19th century characters, but this might well go unnoticed. The most obvious anachronistic object is the computer which is only brought on at the beginning of Scene 7 (99). It is not certain that the pot of dwarf dahlias which “do not look like modern dahlias” (99) in the final scene and create reverse anachronism (belonging to the past, yet visible in the present) is actually recognised as such by the audience, although, as an object, the pot of dahlias serves many functions. It embodies on stage the natural space of the garden which we do not see directly and links not just past and present but Chater as poet, Chater as botanist, a connection Bernard refuses to envisage in his vision of a world in which art and science are irrevocably separated (122).

15When it comes to the doubling of objects, our sense of order is more directly challenged. It should be said that there is no theatrical necessity for doubling the books. In absolute terms we could argue that an almost two-hundred year old portfolio should look old, yet in that case the same logic should be applied to the rest of the furniture and objects. On stage, we are not likely to be able to assess the wear and tear of objects and, in any case, we are used to making allowances and using our imagination. The use of doubling has nothing to do with maintaining credibility; on the contrary, by having two copies of objects that are supposed to be single and unique, Stoppard is subverting the more usual use of iconicity. If using real objects reinforces the theatrical illusion, by flaunting their “thingness,” to use the expression of Bert O. States, doubling seems to enhance their status as theatrical objects and invite metaphorical interpretation, notably the fact that the modern-day characters seem literally cut off from the original documents, whose old and worn status seems to render them incomprehensible to modern eyes. It is interesting that Valentine starts to change his mind about Thomasina’s equations only when they have been fed into the computer and turned into a form which then becomes meaningful for him. For the audience, the objects which exist in two versions embody the coexistence of past and present on stage, even if some degree of separation is maintained. At first, this type of doubling does not actually undermine the functioning of the alternating structure thanks to the presence of two separate sets of characters, as each set handles only the old or new version of objects that belong to its period. However this spatial distinction between the Sidley Park schoolroom in the past and the Sidley Park schoolroom in the present soon falls victim to Stoppardian transformations that are as radical as anything proposed by Capability Noakes. Gradually, it will become apparent that what we first see as a single set representing two different time periods comes to function in its own right and gradually is freed from temporal and logical constraints so that its full theatrical potential can be realised.

“Then we will dance” (128)

16This first becomes visible on stage through two objects: the apple and wine which allow a crossing of the barriers between 1809 and the present in both directions. First we can consider the apple (surely chosen for the symbolic weight it carries and therefore particularly appropriate for crossing the boundaries between past and present, fact and fiction, myth/religion and reality/science). The apple “with a leaf or two still attached” is presented by the silent Gus to Hannah at the end of Act 1 Scene 2 (48) in a contemporary sequence. The next scene reverses chronological order and shows Septimus starting to eat the apple and then Thomasina picking up the leaf announcing “I will plot this leaf and deduce its equation” (52). Analysis of the deictic “this” would reveal the extent to which the stage space is now double.

17As for the wine, it is Septimus who brings the decanter and glass on stage in Act 2 Scene 3 (104). We then see Hannah fill Septimus’ glass from the same decanter and sip from it (127). By this time however, not only do the past and present overlap through the handling of objects, but the spectators actually see the two sets of characters on stage at the same time, beginning with the arrival of Augustus and Thomasina just before Septimus comes on stage with his wine leading to Valentine’s comment: “And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly...” (128). Although he is ostensibly making a comment about heat exchange, his remark could also apply to the way the past seems to flow into the present.

18In the final scene of the play past and present overlap in multiple ways. This last scene has been described as “chaotic” (Fleming 65), but, although it may seem complex to the reader, in the theatre the situation is quite clear. The final moments of the play are designed to produce maximum theatrical effect. Nothing seems to have been left to chance. Study of the use of stage space in particular can bring out patterns which actually constitute a continuation of previous patterns allowing the possibility of predicting future events to some extent. In fact, occupation of stage space follows the previous alternating pattern virtually until the end of the play although there is considerable acceleration. The six sequences in Scene 7 follow a similar pattern of alternation to the six previous scenes. The scene begins with just the modern-day characters who are, interestingly enough, starting to dress up in their Regency costumes, an obvious hint at the theatricality of the scene (98-104) and the fact that the different temporal boundaries are about to be crossed. They are joined on stage by Augustus, Thomasina and Septimus (104-114). Although there are a couple of examples of overlapping dialogue— the cross–talk is highly entertaining (107)— most of the time the audience is led to listen to either one set or the other set and very frequently the subject under discussion is actually the same (Thomasina’s mathematical theories). In fact, one pair of characters is usually engaged in a silent activity (reading, studying, and sketching) while the other pair talks, providing another form of alternation. Contrary to the earlier scenes however, the spectators could, theoretically, watch one pair and listen to the other pair. Separation between the two periods relies for the moment on a separation of verbal from non-verbal signs. The third sequence (114-120) shows just the characters from the past (it reverses sequence 1). The fourth (121-124) and fifth (124-126) sequences alternate in a similar fashion culminating in the final sequence in which modern characters (Hannah and Valentine) join Thomasina and Septimus on stage (a reversal of sequence 2). These reversals are particularly significant in a play whose characters frequently insist on trying to put events in the right order. (See Bernard’s reconstruction of events around the duel page 81, Valentine’s refusal to believe that Thomasina had identified certain mathematical principles before the invention of the computer on page 69, etc.) The multiple symmetries and parallels at work here are particularly obvious on stage (man/woman, teacher/pupil, etc.). When attention is focused on Thomasina’s theory of heat exchange and the drawing she has made it becomes clear that what we see is just as important as what we hear. From a thematic point of view the play could stop now since Thomasina’s intuitions have been shown to be correct. From a theatrical point of view this would be less satisfying than what Stoppard actually proposes which is an explicitly theatrical and visual use of space.

19With our two pairs of characters in agreement of sorts, it would seem that the moment has indeed come for the last (or first in the case of Thomasina) waltz. We could notice the increasing presence of music as the play comes to an end as if to prepare for this. We have already mentioned how piano music is heard coming from the music room in both the contemporary scenes, (we are told it is Gus playing) and past scenes (Thomasina and Count Zelinsky). By the end of the play another source of music has been introduced: the music from the marquee (126), Contrary to our expectations, based on how music has operated so far in the play, that is by maintaining a separation between past and present, it is to the modern music from the marquee that Septimus and Thomasina will begin to waltz (129). This constitutes the third clear break with logic, after the apple and the wine. Stoppard then sets about engineering a change of partners for Hannah after the brief intrusion of Bernard and Chloe, which also takes Valentine off stage, leaving Hannah without a dance partner (131). It is specified in the last sequence that when Gus appears on stage, we do not realise at first that it is Gus since it could well be Lord Augustus (131). By removing the most essential distinguishing feature of the present, ie. costume, according to the stage directions at the beginning of Scene 2 (12), Stoppard temporarily undermines the spectators’ ability to identify a character with a period.

20There is also a corresponding modification of the lighting which might also serve to underline the shift towards the theatrical orientation of the set. All the previous scenes have taken place in the morning or early morning, the last sequence takes place in the evening. As the music from the garden takes over, there are “fireworks—small against the sky, distant flares of light like exploding meteors” (126). It is only when they pause that the piano music starts up again and this time it is Hannah who is invited to dance by Gus, leaving us with no logical explanation as to where this piano music might be coming from (from the past?). The modern couple dance to the music of the piano and not to the modern music. Each dancing pair has stepped across its temporal boundaries. Finally both couples do the same dance to the same music in the same space, yet theoretically they are separated by almost two centuries. Although they are doomed, Thomasina and Septimus most obviously, as Thomasina acknowledges “cheerfully” (127), along with all of humanity, as Valentine has told Hannah (106), the play ends on a positive note with the two couples swirling around the stage. It is as though Thomasina’s opening question: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” has finally been given a satisfactory and non-verbal answer (words being particularly liable to misunderstanding). Likewise, the endless discussions are replaced by an activity which occupies both space and time. Appropriately, it is the silent character Gus who provides the final visual and not textual proof that the hermit at Sidley Park was Septimus when he hands Hannah the drawing that Thomasina did of Septimus with his tortoise (132), a drawing that Gus’ Regency counterpart, Augustus, had taken off stage, a few moments, or 180 years earlier (120). It is not so much the triumph of modern mathematics over Newtonian mathematics as the triumph of the theatre (music, sound, light, dance, props and the physical presence of the actors on the stage) over common sense and logic. The play lets us see what we have been told throughout cannot happen. Contrary to the scientific theories that have been developed throughout the play, in Arcadia, seeing is believing.

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FLEMING, John. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Modern Theatre Guides, London, Continuum, 2008.

HUNT, John Dixon & Peter Willis (eds.) The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820, London, Elek books, 1975.

HUNTER, Jim. About Stoppard: the Playwright & the Work, London, Faber, 2005.

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KELLY, Katherine (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard, Cambridge UP, 2001.
DOI : 10.1017/CCOL0521641780

NADEL, Ira. Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard, London, Methuen, 2004.

STATES, Bert. O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the phenomenology of theatre,Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985.

STOPPARD, Tom. Arcadia, London, Faber, 2009.

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Référence électronique

Susan Blattès, « Seeing is believing: Unity of Place in Arcadia », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 13 | 2011, mis en ligne le 10 décembre 2011, consulté le 25 octobre 2014. URL : http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/2440

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Susan Blattès

Université Stendhal-Grenoble III

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