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Playing for time (and playing with time) in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

Time moves in odd and often unfamiliar ways in Tom Stoppard's theater, and no more so than in Arcadia, which opened in 1993 at the National Theatre in London to great and much deserved critical acclaim. The playwright had already earned for himself a reputation as an adventurous explorer of how time might be made to work on a modern and technically sophisticated Western European stage. In Travesties, The Real Inspector Hound, Indian Ink, and the landmark play that made every theater practitioner take note, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard's surprising arrangements for the relationship between stage time and stage space are nothing if not profoundly provocative and stylistically liberating. Stoppard is clever, sometimes in his earlier works too clever by half. Yet even in those first attempts at dramatic writing he made soon after abandoning his career as a theater critic for the Bristol press, (1) there was something at once hilarious and disturbing about an inquisitive mind turning its attention to the eccentricities of movement and meaning on a busy and bulky stage set. So much so that the appeal of his work quickly reached far beyond the specialized range of the most highly informed theater vocabulary. Physics, philosophy, iterated logarithms, Fermat's last theorem, Lord Byron, steam engines, landscape architecture, carnal knowledge and hermits all became essential parts of his new Arcadian game plan. Postmodern pastiche would now frame the ongoing debate between classicism and romanticism. As Beckett might have said (and as in fact he did say), "The rest is Ibsen." (2)

This essay aims to turn the discussion surrounding Arcadia back to the logistics of the proscenium, to the specific way time plays on Stoppard's stage, and to suggest how his careful manipulation of theater reality alters our perception of the intersections between time present and time past. How do such integers, subject to fracture, interruption and misinterpretation, claim a dynamic life for themselves in that imaginary realm that is also known as dramatic illusion?

Stoppard's rich allusive texture should clue us in to at least one thing: this writer is no mere innocent when it comes to understanding how stage space has been used before to accommodate any number of unpredictable time signatures. His reinvention of Shakespeare's dialogue has, of course, been richly celebrated, as has his retooling and refashioning of lines borrowed, sometimes with reckless abandon, from Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde. Less noted, perhaps--but not by Stoppard--is the way such playwrights have structured stage space to accelerate, decelerate, and in some cases even stop time completely. Let us review for a moment what Stoppard may have learned from them.

Shakespeare has always been a lively subject for Stoppard, just as he remains the usual suspect for any discussion of how time has been put to work efficiently on the Western stage. Even the most famous example we might lift from The Winter's Tale, the figure of Father Time who speaks midway through the unfolding action to mark the passage of sixteen years, is nothing more than a stage device to take the play's narrative energy forward. His speech urges us to "imagine" with him what this spectacle is unwilling or unable or simply disinclined to show. Personification here is an engine of choice; this play, which includes the sudden appearance of a bear in hot pursuit of a supporting player, as well as a statue that miraculously comes to life, has in any case made liberal use of what stage characters have been asked to do. Directors who try to trump the Bard in this regard will usually do so at their peril. The second scene of Othello, for example, suggestively retraces the blocking of the first, the one in which we meet Roderigo and Iago almost naturalistically, mid-speech, walking down a street in a Venice of Shakespeare's invention. How much time passes between these two scenes anyway, the second of which deftly replaces Roderigo with Othello as a parallel outdoor "conversation" continues? And talk of miraculous appearances: in act 1, scene 3, Desdemona, who lodges at the (hopefully nearby) Saggitary, is called for in line 115, just before the onset of Othello's well-known speech before the Senate, only to appear by her husband's side as he concludes, 55 lines and many gorgeous locutions later.

That speech itself, minus cinematic flashback, is loaded with time past made time present through the intercession of speech and what language is made to do. How swiftly Othello's words move us through time and through space: we're all at once back with him in Brabantio's house as he takes us on a free-wheeling tour encompassing several additional time frames. This multiple journey into the past will include "boyish days," "battles, sieges, fortunes" "disastrous chances" "moving accidents by flood and field" "hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach" "slavery" and "redemption" and let's not forget about the "Anthropophagi" those wondrous creatures "whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders," before returning us to Brabantio's house--where Othello tells the additional and final tale, the one which foregrounds Desdemona's "world of sighs" All this before the end of act 1, and we haven't even made it to Cyprus yet. No wonder that some members of Shakespeare's audience find such time-traveling so thrilling.

Moving quickly through stage time is one thing, but stopping it completely--or at the very least, slowing it down--is quite another. Here, too, the vast Shakespeare repertory may serve as a dependable laboratory. Soliloquies, generally considered a high point of such a rich dramaturgy, nonetheless pose a tactical problem in staging. What happens, for example, to the beating of a clock as such virtuoso speeches are delivered live in the instance of performance? Is time, this very particular and peculiar show time, arrested? Does the play slow itself down? If, as we have so often been told, such a bold volume of speech represents a character "thinking aloud" what, exactly, is the metronome taking the measure of an act of spontaneous thought supposed to be taking place in silence? Stage time has of course been conventionally applauded and appreciated for its ability to condense real time; so much so that we can even speak with assurance of a show's "running time" Yet in soliloquy the reverse might very well be taking place; the speaker suddenly expands the moment, stretches it out, offering the dramatic moment a chance to stand, so to speak, still. In these dramatic monologues stage time is recalibrated right in front of our very eyes before the pace of any previously established "play time" is permitted to resume.

In his late plays Beckett, the "Wham, bam, thank you Sam" Stoppard invokes with so much brio in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is especially sensitive to this particular playing with time, sometimes basing a complete dramatic work on such a magisterial concept. Anyone who has witnessed works like Footfalls or Rockaby in performance could not but feel that their running time is longer than it actually is--eighteen minutes in one case, fourteen in the other--and not because of their longueurs. In these time plays it is the economy of gesture that cauterizes and expands an otherwise fleeting moment. And during such bold Beckettian evocations the past is quite literally in the present. "It's the future, too" as Mary Tyrone intones in Long Day's Journey into Night. "We all try to lie out of it," O'Neill has her say, "but life [and in this case, stage life] won't let us."

Like Shakespeare and Beckett before him, Stoppard is a pragmatic man of the theater, and he knows how stage props can also be used to make time circulate freely. (3) In Othello an item as seemingly insignificant as a handkerchief is made to play its role as a significant time traveler, and it will do so again as the incriminating evidence in Stoppard's The Real Thing. Even before Shakespeare's drama begins, its provenance can be traced all the way back to the hands of an Egyptian charmer who gives it to Othello's father who gives it to Othello's mother, who then passes it on to their son. In time (and I use the word quite deliberately here) it passes into the hands of Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, Emilia, and finally Iago, who promptly makes use of it for the false but nonetheless effective "ocular proof" of Desdemona's supposed infidelity. There are no clocks in Othello, but that overly fetishized hanky might just as well serve as one. So too does Wilde allow a fan, in his case Lady Windemere's, to carry so much temporal weight. Its changing location moves us forward from one scene to the next, from one potential liaison to the next; and it is not until that same prop is placed back in the innocent hands where it belongs that time is finally allowed to stand still as the curtain slowly falls. An apple and a tortoise and "an old-fashioned theodolite" exercise a similar mantic power in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.


Stoppard's fascination with the choreography of stage time on a circumscribed playing space can be observed even in his earliest work. All playwrights in a certain sense share the same preoccupation, but some make their audiences more conscious of it than others. Papa Ibsen learned how to channel that equation into a highly flexible dramatic technique, often to help us appreciate the dynamics of how time functions in offstage space to advance the plot. In A Doll's House, for example, Mrs. Linde sits quietly on the set while we hear the muffled sounds of a party taking place in some imagined room in another family's home "upstairs"; and as The Wild Duck begins, we hear the clatter of a dinner party long before the hosts open the parlor door to confront an unexpected guest who waits for them, alone, onstage. Stoppard called his early play Enter a Free Man his "Flowering Death of a Salesman," (4) referring to the influence of Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry as well as to Arthur Miller's landmark work of 1949. Yet even his flippant remark reveals a certain homage for the sad tale of Willy Loman and the brilliant stage solution Miller, working in collaboration with his director Elia Kazan and his designer Jo Mielziner, found for portraying scenes both inside and outside a character's head. Imagine for a moment how tempting a stage direction like this might have been for a young playwright, fresh from the Edinburgh Festival, hell-bent on resetting some new stage clocks of his own: "Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But, in the scenes of the past, these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping 'through' a wall onto the forestage." (5) Sam Shepard uses simultaneous sets in Fool for Love and A Lie of the Mind, and even Beckett thought of using one in his unproduced play Eleutheria, written just before he started writing Waiting for Godot. (6) Closer to home, Stoppard could find ample precedent for playing with time in the work of J. B. Priestley, whose dramas like Time and the Conways and I Have Been There Before take their audiences from the present to the past, then back to the present again, in order to allow the passage of time to make its own social commentary and its own stinging revelations. Among his British contemporaries, too, Stoppard's orchestration of stage time is full of cross-references. In Betrayal Harold Pinter's nine scenes move backward and forward in time, including one double-journey into the past; and the work of Alan Ayckbourn comes loaded with all sorts of temporal eccentricities. How the Other Half Loves uses only one set and only one large table to accommodate the needs of two separate dinner parties staged simultaneously (in this case seeing is believing). Caryl Churchill's supper club might also be profitably added to the same list of permutations: in Top Girls Pope Joan, Mrs. Kidd, Lady Nijo, Dull Gret, and Patient Griselda, figures both fictional and historical, dine together with feminist purposefulness at a table in a fashionable London restaurant reserved for them by the modern-day yuppie, CEO Marlene.

In outlining such a rich and various theater history in its playing with time, my intention is not only to certify Stoppard's credentials as a serious investigator of contemporary dramatic form. His works before Arcadia should make that abundantly clear. But what we do need to notice is the originality and sheer wit he brings to such long-established conventions. The use of stage time in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is both parodic and farcical at the same time that it is deadly serious. The work achieves its most impressive effects because it hypothesizes two compelling and intersecting stage times, one counting down the "real" Hamlet in performance upstage and that quite different one determining the fate of two bit players--while everything is presently being framed in a third and final stage time that constitutes Stoppard's new play. Patterns proliferate and often compete for our attention, as they have been designed to do so again in the play-within-the-play-within-the-play that constitutes The Real Inspector Hound. Here we meet two definitely not first-string theater critics, one of them a dumbed-down Don Quixote, who mistake stage fiction for reality. Sent to review a provincial production of an Agatha Christie-like mystery, they get themselves caught in the mousetrap of the frame-within-the-frame-within-the-frame. And by the time Stoppard writes Travesties, any semblance of Aristotelian dramatic unities, equating stage time with real time, has gone seriously amuck, as has any semblance of reliable history. James Joyce and Tristan Tzara never met in Zurich in 1918, though they are fated to do so in Stoppard's play. Stage time here is even more ambiguously conflated: we are at various times with Lenin at the Finland Station and at other times at a rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by the British Consulate. Worse still, this play's highly unreliable narrator, Henry Carr, speaks to us in the present about a suspect remembrance of things past. Always worried about the cut of his trousers, even during the First World War, he seems to have got it all wrong. "I learned three things in Zurich during the war" he tells us in the quick curtain speech Stoppard has given him. "I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary ... I forget the third thing." (7)

Compared to these shenanigans, the play Stoppard wrote almost twenty years later is a work of almost classical design and restraint. In Arcadia the playwright organizes his eclectic time frames elegantly. Regency and postmodern, the years 1809 and 1989 overlap and interact (with the occasional foray into 1812). Time shifts have been premeditated to appear spontaneous, and the dual time structure is carefully manipulated to show cause after effect. "The architecture of the play" Stoppard said, "is what has made it work." (8) A fusion rather than a confusion of matters erotic, pastoral, and arithmetic, the structure of this work serves as its own emblem for what the lovelorn Valentine Coverly tells Hannah Jarvis near the end of the first act: "The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is." "It's how nature creates itself," he elaborates, "on every scale," (9) including, I would add, the scale of this play. And as we shall see as this most accomplished of Stoppard's works develops, that duality serves as both through-line and controlling metaphor for almost every dramatic device the playwright exploits in these highly theatrical shades of Arcady.


Arcadia, the play in two acts its author called "a thriller and a romantic tragedy with jokes," (10) pursues its dual time frames with authority, clarity, and a great deal of stylistic discretion and precision. Each act is paced differently, as are the separate periods evoked in the coordinated temporal realities. All action, divided as it is, nonetheless takes place in the same "room on the garden front of a very large country house in Derbyshire" (Arcadia, 1). Stoppard's stately home is called Sidley Hall, and though its gardens seem to resemble Stourhead in Wiltshire, he was probably thinking all the while of Chatsworth, not far from where he and his brother Peter lived with his Czech-born Jewish mother and her second husband, retired army officer Kenneth Stoppard, whose name and nationality he took. At Sidley Hall the ground rules run something like this: in the four scenes of the first act, time past and time present are always featured separately. All bets are off by the second act, however, for "just at the point the audience thinks it can guess what's coming next," as the playwright has said, "you have to fool them." (11) The second part of the play is therefore arranged somewhat differently, as Stoppard, working like a deconstructionist on a particularly good day, recycles a technique he has used before in Indian Ink: beginning with scene seven, characters from the two time periods now have the option of standing onstage together, though they do not see each other. The timescape is further complicated when a character in the present (Gus) is called upon to play his ancestor in the past, though no other modern-day figure is required to do so. Hannah, a reader of period romances as well as the author who knocks off popular how-to books about gardening, remains Hannah throughout, as does the designer-academic Bernard Nightingale, who yearns for headlines and never saw a trend he didn't like. "Publish!" is his mantra as well as the last word he utters "with a carefree expansive gesture" as he noisily exits the play (Arcadia, 96). Other members of this large cast, such as Septimus Hodge, who cuts such a decidedly dashing romantic figure, and the nothing if not over-the-top Lady Croom, are so much a product of their time that Stoppard very wisely decides to leave them where they are.

Stoppard's play benefited enormously from Trevor Nunn's initial London staging. Taking full advantage of the National Theatre's high-tech efficiency, as well as an A-list cast that included Rufus Sewell, Harriet Walter, Bill Nighy, Emma Fielding, Samuel West, and Felicity Kendal, that memorable production relied on its design elements of set, costume, and music to track and trace the fluidity of time built into the script. Respecting the text, and collaborating with it, the visuals in each scene made time look "real," emphasizing its complementarity and relativity (Nadel, 433-37). In Arcadia props cross time, as the tortoise does, enhancing the visualization of period doubling. And yet it is the verbal language of the drama that contributes just as forcefully to achieve this effect. When characters talk in Arcadia, and talk they do (this is, after all, Stoppard), they speak with dramatic accuracy and aplomb. Words on this stage similarly move through time as they change their meaning through time. A period exclamation like "Tush, tush" will be heard on this set as toosh, toosh, mediated as it is in this case by a familiar Yiddish contribution to contemporary English. Through syntax, rhythm, and diction Stoppard invents a faux-period English to accommodate the speech patterns of his figures from the past, though not all of them maximize its potential in exactly the same way. As the play opens on the scene in which Thomasina, age thirteen, asks her tutor Septimus about "carnal embrace" the two of them sound more like Sloane Rangers than Regency "youngins." Their inflections, as well as their choice of words, including "grouse" and "mutton" and Latin caro, caris, move the opening dialogue back and forth through time. Though Septimus and Thomasina will be careful to avoid the "nod, nod/wink, wink," they nonetheless deliver their early nineteenth-century dialogue self-consciously, as though it had a postmodern edge to it. At the dawn of a new century, they think of themselves, ironically, as speakers of a decidedly "modern style." Lady Croom, on the other hand, suffers no such trepidation as she tries to put on the best face she can to play her linguistic part as Regency matron and grande dame extraordinaire. Yet she, too, sounds somewhere lost in theater time, half Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop (1775), half Wilde's Lady Bracknell (1895). Poetry in this manufactured stage-period fares no better. The well-named Ezra Chater's "Couch of Eros," whose lyrical narration has been lost to time (and here English departments have had a narrow escape), would make even "the idiot mother" of "The Idiot Boy" wince. (12)

Stoppard's characters in the present likewise speak a language that is just as time-bound, though they hardly seem to be aware of it. Given another hundred years or so, Chloe and Valentine will sound just as dated as their ancestors. Hannah Jarvis is so very much a woman of her time that her speech dates her as much as her self-assurance: marriage for her simply isn't worth the sacrifice you have to make for it, which in her case includes a license for "farting" in bed. Bernard Nightingale (the Benedict of the same name, who just happens to be the lead critic for the London Times, was not at all happy about sharing a name with him) is of course the most delusional of all when it comes to recognizing the shelf life of his jargon. A don on overdrive, he is even more clueless than the "wife of the academic" Stoppard caricatured in Jumpers: someone who is "twice removed from the center of events." (13) Determined, nonetheless, to make his name a household word, his fifteen minutes of fame is reduced even further when his shoddy research is exposed for the nonsense that it is. Gus Coverly, age fifteen, doesn't speak at all, though at the close of the play he holds all the cards in his hand in the form of "an old and somewhat tattered stiff-backed folio fastened with a tape tied in a bow." "'Septimus holding Plautus'," Hannah thanks him. "I was looking for that" (Arcadia, 97). His silence speaks volumes. Gus would have made an excellent hermit, if only he had been allowed to live in this play's past.


Products of a language that is also shown to be as mutable as time itself, all definitions and classifications in Arcadia are equally layered, limited, and suspect. They also show themselves to be just as flexible. Stoppard's playing with time is partially sited in an uneasy past at the very moment when one Zeitgeist is about to give birth to another. The garden we see through this set's elaborate window frame within the stage frame is therefore the subject of considerable intrigue. Historical as well as horticultural revisionism is in the air. Time plays. The classical symmetry of Capability Brown's five hundred acres is about to be undone by Culpability Noakes in the New Age appetite for the "picturesque," complete with grottos, hermitage and "everything but vampires." The gothic scenery of The Castle of Otranto is about to take root and assert its supremacy in Sidley Park's very own backyard (13). Lady Croom, whose patronage of landscape architecture includes as many trysts in the glass pavilion as her busy schedule allows, couldn't be more put out by all of the fuss such a radical transformation involves. And yet the very English classicism threatened here, what this play calls "Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil," is as much a fashion as the romantic claptrap that is about to replace it (26). Each age re-creates itself in the image it makes of the past. That classicism so lately lamented was at its best only an imitation of an imitation, a Roman villa landscape remade as Renaissance-Italian before such a dolce stil no longer nuovo became the going fashion in England's green and pleasant land. Not to worry: the picturesque style won't last long. It, too, will be undone by time.

For Stoppard's modern-day figures, caught in a detective story that is also partly a romance, recuperating the past turns out to be the same sort of zero-sum game, this one less aesthetic than investigatory. That is what curious minds do: try to imagine a past that, pace Stoppard, may have never really happened that way in the first place. It's the asking that matters: and you want to make sure you do so before "we all end up at room temperature." "This is not science," as Septimus remarks. "This is story-telling" (93). In fact, it is neither; what this really is, is theater.

Stoppard's most instructive display of the theater's ability to disturb perception takes place, of course, in The Real Thing, his work from 1982 that was even more convincing in David Leveaux's London revival in 1999 at the Donmar Warehouse, with Stephen Dillane in the lead as Henry, the playwright-protagonist with a penchant for popular music (he has a special feeling for Herman's Hermits). This "real" theater "thing" opens on a scene from a play the audience only recognizes as such when the next scene begins. Once again Stoppard resurrects a well-worn device, the play-within-the-play, to expose the many mechanisms theater has at its disposal for the performance possibilities as well as the problematization of staging time. In The Real Thing the audience is awakened by a jolt when it suddenly recognizes in the play's second scene that theater is doing what it always does best: taking us for a ride. Before Stoppard, this used to be called "the willing suspension of disbelief."

In Stoppard's playing for time and playing with time, moreover, almost anything can be made to happen. From the point of view of physics, time really can't run backwards; but onstage you can at least manipulate it to create the illusion of its doing so. In Arcadia's last scene, characters from dual time periods join in a dance, the most conventional of all ways to end a play. But before they do so, Stoppard's modern-day wags put on Regency costumes. Only the intrepid Hannah demurs, as she sits at a table strewn with this play's messy props, still trying to figure out just what happened when Lord Byron visited this stately home of England, "Brideshead Regurgitated," way back when. The dance to the music of time continues all around her as past and present finally meet as one. Stoppard, a fan of the Rolling Stones, had originally wanted his musicians to play "You Can't Always Get What You Want," but he thought better about it. (14)

Longing to discover something about themselves or, at the very least, about the world of Sidley Park from a past that refuses to be recaptured, Arcadia's thoroughly modern characters are stuck in the strange time warp that is theater. Stoppard uses their dilemma to transform them into one more time signature in the overall architecture of his play. And as such they begin to paint themselves into the final picture we receive of Arcadia. Like the donors kneeling at the foot of some great Renaissance artwork--think, for example of Masaccio's Trinita in Florence's Santa Maria Novella--they are both inside the history they seek to recover and somehow, simultaneously, outside of it. What these characters in Arcadia have been doing all along, but without knowing it, is playing for time--but also playing with the conventions of stage time in the new dramatic unity that is Stoppard's most masterful play.

University of Michigan


(1) For Stoppard's work as a journalist, see Ira Nadel, Tom Stoppard: A Life (New York: Palgrave/ Macmillan, 2002), 58-77.

(2) Beckett quoted in Enoch Brater, The Essential Samuel Beckett (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 107.

(3) On this point, see Andrew Sofer, The Stage Life of Props (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

(4) See Nadel, 89

(5) See Miller's stage directions for the opening scene in Death of a Salesman (New York: Viking, 1949), 18.

(6) See Brater, 62-63

(7) Tom Stoppard, Travesties (London: Faber, 1975), 98-99.

(8) See Nadel, 434.

(9) Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (London: Faber, 1993), 47.

(10) Stoppard quoted by Nadel, 434.

(11) Ibid., 442.

(12) See David Perkins, ed., English Romantic Writers (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967), 788.

(13) Tom Stoppard, Jumpers (London: Faber, 1972), 36.

(14) See Nadel, 433.
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Author:Brater, Enoch
Publication:Comparative Drama
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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