This post was written on September 12, 2009
On Friday, we went to the Duke of York’s Theatre to watch Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It was the first time we had been to this theatre and it was an interesting experience. The theatre seemed smaller and narrower than others. Even though we were in the first balcony, we seemed to be quite close to the stage. Duke of York’s opened on 10 September 1892, so we were almost there for its 116thbirthday. The contrast between the Victorian theatre and its modern audience and technology was appropriate for Stoppard’s play, in which there are dual timelines.
I was interested to see the play because it shares many similarities with the novels I am currently researching. The story takes place in a country house called Sidney Park in the years 1809-1812 and 1989. The modern-day characters, a literature professor and a writer, are researching the history and the inhabitants of the house from the earlier period. Academics researching the past is a common trope in neo-Victorian novels, the most well-known example being A. S. Byatt‘s Booker-Prize winning Possession (1990). The contemporary characters in Arcadia rely heavily on documents left behind by the nineteenth-century characters to piece together history. Because of their arrogance, romanticism for the past and desire for recognition, they make conclusions which are not necessarily true. The audience is aware of their mistakes as they can see the real events as they occurred in the other timeline. This discrepancy between history and interpretation creates much of the tension and humour in the play. Through the portrayal of these misdirected characters, Stoppard critiques both the impossibility of reconstructing the past and the often misguided attempt of those who try to do so. That having been said, the play also has a great deal of sympathy for the people who have genuine interest in the search for knowledge. Although the present characters make many mistakes, they are able to correctly decipher most of what happened in the nineteenth century in the end. Despite its postmodern themes about the uncertainty of history, the play may ultimately suggest a belief in our ability to accurately reconstruct the past.
I was also rather intrigued by the treatment of Lord Byron within the play. Although much of the action (both in the modern and the historic timelines) revolves around him, Byron does not make a physical appearance in the play; he is only referred to offstage. In fact, the contemporary literary professor is only interested in the country house and the documents that it holds as he imagines they relate to Byron’s disappearance from England. He constructs a drama out of some fragmentary documentation, which turns out to be completely wrong. Byron is one of the nineteenth-century literary celebrities who hold immense interest for contemporary writers, a fact illustrated by the many novels that use him as a central figure. In a number of neo-Victorian novels, the lives of nineteenth-century famous people are used as selling points and to make the narratives interesting. However, here, the placement of Byron offstage and the overenthusiastic and ultimately wrong conclusions that the modern characters draw about his life provide a criticism of this practice. If, for example, the literature professor was not so interested in using Byron’s celebrity to further his own career, he may not have pushed the documentary evidence beyond what could be reasonably concluded. But then, if he wasn’t taking the initiative to do the research, the truth about what had happened in the past may never have been recovered.