Sunday, December 31, 2006

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

As a kid I went through a period of reading plays which seemed to serve as a good transition from reading kid novels to adult novels--the plays had grown-up content but an easy-to-follow, quick-to-read structure. And I suspect that my play reading helped me with dialogue as a fiction writer--though dialogue in fiction is typically less stagy than in drama, it also isn't as natural as some would have you believe. Anyway, Tom Stoppard's plays are now available in these fat collected volumes that I'm gradually obtaining via my Amazon wish list. And so my first Xmas-present-read this year was Arcadia, the one Stoppard play I've seen (though I think a trip to NYC to see the new trilogy would be a nice self-congratulatory gift if I happen to do anything worthy of self-congratulation in the near future). And it's just a fantastic piece of writing--even if you never get to see it performed, it's well worth reading.

What interested me most was the way Stoppard moves between the scenes in the past and those in the present. Half the story takes place in a big house in 1809 and the other half in the same house in the late twentieth century. The characters in the twentieth century (literary scholars mostly) are trying to figure out what happened in the nineteenth. But instead of just flopping between the two in an ABAB structure, things are more fluid. It is ultimately an ABAB structure, but sometimes A and B are taking place near simultaneously with all the characters on stage at the same moment. And the props from one time period (including a tortoise) remain in the later time period. Now Stoppard can get away with this because the setting is the same in both times, but it made me think about the way as a fiction writer I use flashback and exposition. Readers are quite accepting of shifts backwards in time, especially if they are cued by a space break or a chapter break, but it's an interesting thought to allow the two time periods to blend more. To use setting/detail/props and structure to allow the time periods to both feel present at the same narrative moment--and yet not to have readers confused between the two. I suppose Woolf and Joyce (and others I'm sure) have done this in ways, using manners not so different from Stoppard, but I haven't read anybody lately who's playing in this way.


ira d said...

I have never seen the play performed professionally, but I taught it about 5 years ago and it was a hit. I also like the use of time--there is a simultaneity of history. I think it may have something in common with Octavia Butler's "Kindred" in that sense.

The other thing I recall liking is the role of mathematics (in addition to the literary--was it Byron?). The discourses that are in dialogue are not only temporal, but also epistemological.

At least that is what I remember. Very cool.

A. Papatya Bucak said...

One of the great things about the play is that even though the dialogue is about math and other intellectual pursuits, it is a really human, emotional, sad play. And Stoppard is very clever in that he shows the before and after (warning: plot secrets about to be revealed...)of a very emotional event (death of a young girl) and of a very dramatic event (tutor going crazy trying to do her math after her death), he doesn't show the events themselves. Short story writers quickly learn that the most interesting elements of a story are often in the before and/or the after of a dramatic event, and it was interesting to see how in skipping the middle, Stoppard makes the play so much more mournful then if we'd seen Septimus raving in his hermit shack or seen the girl burning in the fire.