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Order, chaos and landscape gardening

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Janet Wilson 13 February 2006

Clever reflections of science and art underline this classic play

Stoppard, being Stoppard, is not content merely to pit representatives of the arts and sciences against each other in debate

Editor’s note: has recently launched a new initiative to review all published works of ‘lab lit’ fiction, including the classics. First published in 1993, this play opened at the Royal National Theatre in London in April 1993, where the cast included Emma Fielding, Rufus Sewel, Harriet Walter, Felicity Kendal and (playing the larger-than-life Nightingale) Bill Nighy. This is the production that Wilson saw, but she has re-read it recently in book form (Faber & Faber).

Arcadia, a play by Tom Stoppard, entwines post-Enlightenment aesthetics, literary discovery, romantic dalliance and chaos theory.

In 1809, Thomasina, the gifted daughter of an aristocratic family, is frustrated by a mathematics which deals only in regular figures and does not describe the shapes and patterns found in nature: "Armed thus", she complains, "God could only make a cabinet."

Nearly two centuries later, Valentine, a descendant of the same family, and a mathematician, uses the old family game books (recording grouse shoots) to try to find the pattern behind fluctuations in the grouse population.

This play presents concepts at the heart of chaos theory and, to a lesser extent, thermodynamics, to a non-mathematical audience, while at the same time never failing to be entertaining. There can be very few plays with lines about iterated algorithms, and even fewer whose wit is a constant delight.

Does the play supports the LabLit thesis that "scientists are normal people just like us"? Perhaps not, but the mathematicians are no more eccentric than any of the other characters (this is Stoppard, after all).

The mathematicians communicate the excitement of discovery:

People were talking about the end of physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics looked as if they were going to clean out the whole problem between them. A theory of everything. But they only explained the very big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about – clouds – daffodils – waterfalls – and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in – these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks. [...] It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.

Mathematics is only one strand in this multi-threaded story. Another thread concerns the ebullient literature academic Bernard Nightingale and his search for something new and striking to add to the biography of Byron.

The meeting of mathematician and literary don precipitates an argument about the relative merits of science and literature, culminating in Nightingale’s explosion: "Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you..."

But Stoppard, being Stoppard, is not content merely to pit representatives of the arts and sciences against each other in debate. The threads of the story become a spider’s web of interconnections, and all the themes are linked. He draws parallels between the 18th century classical aesthetics of Capability Brown (nature idealised as the country park) and the classical science and mathematics of Newton and Euclid (viewing nature through the filter of classical equations). He describes the shift to the early 19th century taste for "Romantic" landscapes of rocks and ruins, using it as a symbol of the more general retreat from the values of the Enlightenment, "the decline from thinking to feeling". Into this landscape, he introduces the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its challenge to the classical idea of a deterministic universe. This is, on many different levels, a story of classicism descending into disorder, in which an unexpected, unlooked-for salvation ultimately comes from Chaos Theory.

It also includes the inimitable line: "Lending one's bicycle is a form of safe sex".

Some may complain that this play is "just a lot of clever people talking". Well, yes.