Arcadia Study Guide

Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia has been hailed not only as the playwright’s best work but also one of the best works of drama of the 20th century. This comedic, ambitious, moving, and cerebral work spans both time (but not space) and multiple thematic concerns, such as the unknowability of the past, the relationship between past and present, the construction and dissemination of knowledge, the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, science, art, poetry, gardening, sex, academic and scholarly work, and more.

In 1989 Stoppard read James Gleick’s Chaos and began to speculate how he could incorporate the idea of chaos theory into his next play. In 1990 he visited his friend Paul Johnson’s home and looked through his library to find inspiration; he ended up taking volumes on the Classical and the Romantic, and on Byron. At home he researched landscape architecture, mathematics, and hermits. Thomasina is said to be based on Ada Lovelace (1815-52), Lord Byron’s precocious daughter, who, with Charles Babbage, worked to elucidate the possibilities of computing machines before those even existed. Stoppard denies an explicit connection, but the similarities are rife.

Stoppard considered giving the play the full title of Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin’s famous work, Et in Arcadia Ego, but decided against it, saying “death is now in the title only by imaginative extension.”

It opened at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, on April 13, 1993. It starred such luminaries as Bill Nighy (Bernard), Emma Fielding (Thomasina), and Rufus Sewell (Septimus). Some of the cast was trained by Oxford professor of mathematical biology Robert May in chaos theory and mathematical modeling. His graduate student Alun Lloyd created the set – the “Coverly set” – for the play in the same complex leaf shape that Thomasina discovers.

The play was successful both commercially and critically, and won the Evening Standard and Oliver awards for best play of the year. Over 6000 print copies were sold, making it the bestselling play in print at the time, even outselling Shakespeare. Its New York debut was in 1995. Subsequent reviews were almost uniformly positive, with the occasional dissenting voice claiming too much cleverness or lack of realism.

The play, which Stoppard has described as a “thriller and a romantic tragedy with jokes,” has had many revivals over the past few decades and is often studied in college courses.