Volume 20, Number 44 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 16 - 22, 2011
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by David Leveaux
In previews. Opens March 17. Closes June 19.
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 W. 47th St.)
For tickets, Telecharge.com, or call 212-239-6200.
For performance schedule & info, visit ArcadiaBroadway.com
Photo by Carol Rosegg
L to R: Raúl Esparza, Tom Riley, Lia Williams.
Revival confirms Stoppard’s place in pantheon
On 47th Street, seems like old times
BY JERRY TALLMER
It was the day of tech rehearsal, his last day in New York until just before the March 17 official opening of “Arcadia.”
“A bit of an edge-to-edge day,” Sir Tom said by cell phone from the cab that was rushing him northward toward the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. “Family in town including a granddaughter. After that and a thousand other things, the airport.”
Well, he is Sir Tom, isn’t he? Knighted by Her Majesty in 1997. At birth, in Czechoslovakia, July 3, 1937, with Hitler closing in, the little Jewish boy was Tomas Straussler. But the name that will live on through the ages, courtesy his straitlaced British stepfather, is just plain Tom Stoppard.
Oscar Wilde. George Bernard Shaw. Tom Stoppard. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: Stoppard belongs right up there in that company. Anyone with any doubt is advised to see and then — doubling that pleasure — to read the “Arcadia” that’s at the Barrymore. Or maybe the other way around, since at this writing I don’t yet know how well director David Leveaux’s 2011 refresher at the Barrymore stands up to director Trevor Nunn’s heart-stopping 1993 London original.
“I do like working in New York,” said Stoppard by cell phone from that taxicab. “The sense of everything — light, sound, whatever — being put at your disposal. Plays get to look and sound better as the years go along.”
It was impossible not to hear the slight touch of bittersweetness in that last clause.
It is easy to fall in love with a play. I’ve fallen in love with hundreds of them. But falling in love with “Arcadia” was, for this playgoing journalist, exactly like falling in love with a woman. You love every part of her, everything about her, even the bad parts. The very air and everything within it seems everywhere clearer, brighter — though “Arcadia” seems to me to have no bad parts. Indeed it is an overlay of one exquisite element mixed in with another with another with another.
Love. Sex. Poetry. Scholarship. Accuracy. Dueling. Duplicity. Poetry. Landscape gardening. Time. Space. Physics. Mathematics. Poetry. Lord Byron. Sir Isaac Newton. Television. Poetry. Adultery. The Classical era. The Romantic era…and much, much more.
It all begins in a private classroom in Sidley Park, Derbyshire, one of the stately homes of England, in the year 1809, where a delicious and deliciously inquisitive 13-year-old, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house and an unknown (even to herself) mathematical genius, is asking Septimus Hodge, her smartass 22-year-old tutor: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”
Is it like love, she wonders.
Oh no, he says, it is much nicer than that. He himself has been observed in the gazebo giving a surreptitious “perpendicular poke” to one of the house guests, a certain hot to trot Mrs. Chater, whose husband, Ezra Chater, is a third-rate writer whose work has already been panned by the young man — Septimus Hodge — who has now cuckolded him.
Chater is on the point of challenging the tutor to a duel when the prospect of getting a better review next time induces the pusillanimous Chater to call it off. Instead, a duel will be fought — or will it? — between Chater and the man who has more often and more truly — or is any of this true? — cuckolded him.
That would be George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), another houseguest and the pride and joy of Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom (a powerhouse borrowed by Stoppard from Oscar Wilde’s dragon lady, Augusta Bracknell). We never see or directly hear the offstage Byron. But the actual Lord Byron’s daring spirit is everywhere in this play — in thinking, in physics, in Einstein over Newton, in everything.
No, we never actually see Byron, but when Septimus Hodge suddenly comes out with the opening words of “She walks in beauty like the night…,” our hearts skip a beat.
The way plays start with Stoppard is often in his voluminous reading. Thus his “Travesties” began, I believe, when in reading about the Dadaists, Stoppard came across the astonishing fact that Lenin, Joyce and Tristan Tzara were all stashed away in Geneva at the same time in or around the end of World War I.
Now, by cell phone, I said: “Tom, I think you once told me that ‘Arcadia’ came out of a splurge you had of reading about early 19th-century English landscape gardening.”
In that taxi heading up to 47th Street, our playwright said: “Yes, but it was mostly the idea of doing a play that takes place in the same room in two widely different eras.”
Does he have it all plotted out before he actually sits down and begins to write?
“To some degree you’re making it up a you go along.” Pause. Then: “It’s not like a recipe, with ingredients.”
I said I thought — had always thought, since I first saw it in London in1993 — that “Arcadia” was, of all his plays, the one the most directly and fully about love.
“Yes,” he said again. “But ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ though it was about Czechoslovakia, was also about love.”
And “The Real Thing,” of course?
“And ‘The Real Thing,’ yes,” he echoed, as if having forgot that that 1984 Tony winner had ever existed.
In any event, “Arcadia” certainly does take place in the same place, that Sidley Park classroom with a large table and a few chairs its only furniture, in two eras widely apart. Act I is 1809. Act II is now.
All the people of Act I are, of course, dead. Fascinating little Thomasina Coverly had died in fact at age 17, in a fire started by her wind-blown candle. Her strange mute kid brother is dead, but lives on in different form. Lord Byron lives on forever in his poetry, we know that. But did or did not he actually kill dumbass Ezra Chater in a duel; and was there ever even such a duel? That’s what latter-day scholars would like to know.
One such latter-day scholar, the cocksure/unsure Oxford don Bernard Nightingale, has arrived on the scene having already committed himself by flatly and foolishly declaring — on national television yet! — that, yes, Lord Byron did kill Ezra Chater in a duel.
Debunking him is the eminently sensible researcher and writer Hannah Jarvis — who, for her part, has come to Sidley Park to look into the reality of a hermit who had lived on for many years in a hut on the estate called “The Hermitage,” and may have been Septimus Hodge grieving for the rest of his life over the loss of young Thomasina.
The cast of the show that’s to run at the Barrymore from through June 19 is described by Stoppard as “a very nice Anglo-American club,” with British Thomasina and Septimus, and all the rest Yanks.
“It’s funny,” said Tom into his cell phone, ‘’David Leveaux and I have done three plays together in this city — ‘Jumpers,’ ‘The Real Thing,’ and now this one, and all three have been on 47th Street.”
In the original London production of 1993, Hannah Jarvis was played by Felicity Kendall, twice-married Tom Stoppard’s lady at the time. Rather in the manner of Bernard Nightingale, I now asked the man in the speeding taxicab if he didn’t think that that had helped make “Arcadia” really and truly a play full of love.
He didn’t ask the driver to turn around and run me over. He just mumbled something like: “…all in the past.”
The key line, for me, in “Arcadia,” is spoken by Septimus Hodge, and has more to do with the eternity of art than affairs of the heart.
Even if the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria had destroyed most of the literature of the then known world, enough was salvaged — a handful of plays here and there by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — to start all over again. “The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march.”
We die on the march.
I threw that line at Tom, and he threw it back to me, half under his breath. Then, as the taxi slowed, I heard him say: “Right here!” to the taxi driver. Then, to me: “Don’t go away.” Then, to the driver: “Have you a five-dollar bill?”
Sir Tom had arrived once again for tech rehearsal at a theater on 47th Street.