“The Experiment”, part 3: ARCADIA (Lantern)

Michael Fisher continues his multi-part critical experiment, seeing the Lantern Theater Company’s production of ARCADIA several times over its run. With each viewing, he shares his evolving thoughts not just on the specific performance, but on new revelations it provides with repeat viewing. Read his introduction and parts one and two of his experiment.

oe Guzmán as Bernard Nightingale and Kittson O'Neill as Hannah Jarvis in Lantern Theater Company's production of ARCADIA. Photo by Mark Garvin.
oe Guzmán as Bernard Nightingale and Kittson O’Neill as Hannah Jarvis in Lantern Theater Company’s production of ARCADIA. Photo by Mark Garvin.


Last weekend, as part of their immersive In Arcadia festival, Lantern Theater Company surrounded their ongoing performances of Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA with various events and activities related to the play and the playwright. I was sorry to have missed Saturday’s keynote panel and Sunday’s performance of some short plays by the young Stoppard, but on my final night as long-term critic of ARCADIA, I was lucky enough to catch a pre-show “curtain raiser” and a post-show discussion over (hooray!) drinks.

I have to be real here: As I awaited the pre-show presentation of Friday evening, I was afraid I’d gone too far. ARCADIA is a fine play, and Lantern has honored it with their excellent production, but after a long week at work and an embarrassing stretch for my fantasy football team (of course, as soon as I drop Chris Ivory, THAT’S when he runs for 107 yards and a touchdown) I just wasn’t sure if I could sit still for another three hours of theater. I feared that stretching this experiment to three performances was a mistake. After two performances and nearly five thousand words of criticism, I just felt spent.

What brought me back to life was the pre-show introduction. Titled “Arcadia in Objects,” it was a half-hour discussion of some of the key props in ARCADIA—what they are and how they contribute to the play’s themes—presented by the production’s director, Kathryn MacMillan. The opportunity to sit down with the objects of the play and connect them with the super heady concepts explored by Stoppard’s text reminded me why the play—and especially the opportunity to see it multiple times—is so valuable.

Daniel Fredrick as Valentine Coverly with toroise in Lantern Theater Company's production of ARCADIA. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Daniel Fredrick as Valentine Coverly with toroise in Lantern Theater Company’s production of ARCADIA. Photo by Mark Garvin.

For instance, Arcadia in Objects featured a cameo by my favorite actor in the production: a plastic tortoise who appears in the dual role of Plautus (in the 19th century timeline) and the superbly-named Lightning (in the modern day). So bottomless is Stoppard’s play that, though it never occurred to me before MacMillan’s talk, this time-traveling tortoise looms large in both the thematic and the narrative aspects of ARCADIA. Stoppard’s got so much symbolism, so much metaphor going on that in my first two viewings of the play I missed what might be the most obvious one: the tortoise and the hare. Much hunting is done at Sidley Park over the course of the play, and many a hare falls victim to gunfire, yet a tortoise that serves as a paperweight in 1809 manages to show up in the same spot in the present day. Stoppard’s almost beating you over the head with the classic metaphor, and yet after two viewings I’d still missed it. I’d missed the parable about impatience, about humans who, as one character says, confuse progress with perfectibility.

Among several other things, ARCADIA is about people desperately trying to convince themselves (and others) of things that obviously aren’t true, while other people stumble onto truths so profound, so mindbending, that it takes the rest of the world centuries to catch up with them. In 1809, we find young Thomasina Coverly (Alex Boyle) questioning her own common sense and, in the process, blowing the lid off the physical sciences as they were known at the time. Everyone knows that once you stir two things together, you can’t stir them apart. But it takes a real trailblazer of the mind—in other words, a precocious thirteen-year-old with nothing to do all day but think about stuff—to ask why. At a time when Newtonian mechanics were taken as gospel, Thomasina discovers that, while Newton’s equations work both forwards and backwards, reality does not. Time, matter, and particularly heat exchanges can only move forward. Current to future, integration to disintegration, hot to cold. In effect, Thomasina discovers the second law of thermodynamics before there’s even an official first law.

Meanwhile, in the present day, Bernard (Joe Guzman) can’t possibly prove that Lord Byron committed a murder in 1809, but that isn’t going to stop him from drawing that very conclusion and accepting widespread praise for his erroneous co-opting of history. Everybody tells him his case is flimsy at best, but the young Valentine (Daniel Frederick) crosses the line when he says that personalities—Byron’s, Newton’s, anyone’s—are trivial. Of course, Valentine is (technically) correct. It shouldn’t matter who came up with “She Walks in Beauty” or who gifted us with differential calculus. What matters—or what should matter—is the progress. The poetry. The song, rather than the singer.

But Bernard is deeply offended. His whole life has been dedicated to a discipline that, rightly or wrongly, places personalities on a pedestal. For whatever reason, students of the arts, more than those in any other field of study, are as obsessed with the people who create art as they are with the art itself. I often wonder if this is the classic sin of the academic come to life. We’ve all heard the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” What Bernard suffers from is a lack of talent and a resultant compulsive sense of inadequacy. Like all immature humans, Bernard lashes out at his own inadequacies by projecting them onto those more successful than he, the more successful the better. It helps greatly that Lord Byron, the subject of Bernard’s righteous judgment, has been dead for nearly two centuries and therefore cannot defend himself. Bernard cannot simply appreciate “She Walks in Beauty” because it reminds him of his shortcomings—his advancing age, his absence of creative talent.

Bernard treats life like a race, and he’s losing by a mile. It’s no wonder he idolizes Byron, whose genius was evident at an early age and who died before turning forty. Stoppard’s script indicates that Bernard is in his late thirties; it’s likely that he’s hyperaware of the fact that he’s outlived his hero (Byron died at 36) and remains a speck of dust in the late poet’s long literary shadow. Panicked, he creates a fiction to retroactively humiliate Byron, a fiction that will forever alter the popular opinion on the great romantic icon, effectively altering history itself as well.

Thomasina, on the other hand, has every right to treat life like a race, because her discoveries have made it clear that the earth will indeed one day come to an end. Instead, she is nothing if not patient, so much so that her patience becomes her undoing. It’s a tragedy, and you could theoretically count it as a loss for the tortoise, but really it’s a win. Because, as Valentine says, personalities are trivial. The science did not die with Thomasina, and the science is what matters. The poetry did not die with Byron either, and that drives Bernard crazy.

At the Lantern Pub event after Friday’s performance, the company devised an ingenious tactic for provoking conversation about the play. Each little plastic cup of wine that was served bore a sticker with a discussion question printed on it. (Colleges and universities take note; employment of this tactic for midterms and final exams will undoubtedly boost those retention rates.) My cup asked whether I agreed with Bernard or Valentine on the subject of personalities. My first instinct is to say that, of course, the work is more important than the personalities involved. I don’t care what Paul McCartney eats for breakfast; just give me “Hey Jude” and go away. However, so much of our interest in the arts is tied up in personalities that in many instances they seem inextricable from the work. Would Citizen Kane be as interesting if we didn’t know that it essentially ruined Orson Welles, that he was granted but one masterpiece and then banished to the artistic hinterlands forevermore? Can we possibly read A Confederacy of Dunces or Infinite Jest outside the context of their authors’ suicides? Don’t we love Samuel Beckett as much for being a curmudgeon in life as we do for being a gallows comic in his art?

The problem, of course, is that agreeing with Bernard means…well, it means agreeing with Bernard, who’s got so much hot air in him he should be wearing the Goodyear emblem. Of course the work matters more. Without the work, the personalities would be lost to history. It isn’t a race to see who wins. It’s a race to see what endures. You don’t need to be a thirteen-year-old girl to see that. [Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Church, 10th and Ludlow streets] September 25-November 9, 2014; lanterntheater.org.

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