Arcadia --- The Main Themes

Any gain in human knowledge (art, literature, music, science, ...) involves the apprehension and expression of ideas. The expression of any idea involves imposing order on some medium --- arranging paint on a canvas, arranging words or notes or mathematical symbols on a page, etc.. However, according to the second law of thermodynamics the entropy of the universe can only increase. An increase in order in one place must be offset by an even greater increase in disorder somewhere else. So on a universal scale, knowledge can only be lost as time goes on. Every expression of an idea that is put together must sooner or later fall apart. Valentine: "And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly till there's no time left. That's what time means." In the far distant future, all of our questions may have been answered, and yet all the knowledge will have disappeared into the mix. Septimus: "When we have found all of the mysteries and lost all of the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore." Thomasina: "Then we will dance."

The discovery of things lost and the piano-playing of Gus, "The Genius of the Place"

Byron's poem "Darkness" (1816) before the second law of thermodynamics was known

Thomasina's discoveries in science and math

The point is that art, literature, music, and science are free inventions of the human mind.

Scientific ideas can be objectively tested by performing experiments to see whether the ideas agree with the behavior of nature. Although any number of experiments can't prove that a scientific idea is true, a single experiment can prove an idea is false. Hannah points this out when she says, 'It can't prove to be true; it can only not prove to be false yet." Stoppard is using Bernard's behavior to criticize the current state of academic debate in some areas of the humanities, where what counts isn't evaluating and answering your opponent's arguments, but using intimidation and insult to bludgeon your opponent in an attempt to advance your own ideas. (Hannah: "It's only performance art, you know. Rhetoric. ... It's not about being right....") Bernard hardly understands what is required:


Christ, what do you want?




Proof? Proof? You'd have to be there, you silly bitch!

But Thomasina does understand, when she admonishes Septimus, "A gibe is not a rebuttal," after he criticizes her discovery of a new geometry.

Thomasina's "New Geometry of Irregular Forms" --- how an iterated algorithm can reproduce the forms of nature. (Valentine: "The freaky stuff is turning out to be the mathematics of the natural world.")

The limits to prediction caused by the chaotic behavior of a system. Chaos is a persistent instability related to an extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, and the noise in the grouse data in Valentine's game books interferes with his mathematically modeling the rise and fall of the grouse population at Sidley Park.

"The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is" in the natural world (Valentine). Recall in class that we saw how a deterministic algorithm produced a tree with an unnatural appearance (it was highly symmetric). A random variation was then added to the algorithm that produced a tree with a much more natural appearance.

Valentine believes that the ideas of chaos return mystery to science. He says that "It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. ... It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong." In "Plotting the Course of a Playwright" by Nigel Hawkes, Stoppard describes anti-scientific sentiments as nothing new: "In any age, including the period around the year 1800, we had a kind of reaction against scientism by the poets of the time, so you find that Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge as young men are resisting the thinking of that time that science was rapidly finding out all the answers, and would solve all the mysteries. The sense, or illusion, that science is doing exactly that seems to accompany every age, and creates an opposing force." [in Tom Stoppard in Conversation, ed. Paul Delaney (University of Michigan Press, 1994)]

In agreement with the second law of thermodynamics, the improved Newcomen steam pump (engine) used by the gardener must cause an increase in disorder, both in the scientific sense of waste heat and in the ordinary sense of destroying the order of the classical English garden. (Lady Croom: "Mr. Noakes ... is to a garden what a bull is to a china shop.").


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    Stoppard's plays challenge his audience. He assumes that the people watching his plays are both knowledgeable and attentive. To be fully appreciated, Arcadia requires at least a passing acquaintance with the poet Byron, landscape gardening, the Classical and Romantic periods in history, thermodynamics, and modern mathematics.

    In October 1988, Stoppard gave one of the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. At the end of his talk, Stoppard said,

... I'll tell you a very short poem. I didn't write it but when I read it, it seemed to me to be just the sort of poem that a playwright would need, wrapping up an hour of trying to explain what he tried to do and what people in the theatre think they're trying to do. It's a poem for two voices, written by an English poet called Christopher Logue. It goes like this:

Come to the edge.

It's too high.

Come to the edge.

We'll fall.

Come to the edge.

So they came.

And he pushed them.

And they flew.


- from "The Event and the Text" by Tom Stoppard, in Tom Stoppard in Conversation, ed. Paul Delaney (University of Michigan Press, 1994).


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Last modified:  Friday, March 26, 2004 11:10 AM