The Surface Brilliance of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia Inhibits Appreciation of the Underlying Design

In a lecture at the University of California in January 1977, Stoppard himself admitted that there might be some idea content lurking beneath the surface. He was referring here to the underlying design of his plays. This underlying design refers to puns and metaphors intricately dispersed throughout the play, along with themes that only reveal themselves upon closer inspection. The surface brilliance of Stoppard’s plays is something that is clearly evident to all that read or watch Arcadia.

It is full of linguistic flair such as hyperbole and apostrophe giving it immediate audience appeal, the sarcasm and innuendos only add to this, immediately giving the play a sense of comedy and also serve to emphasise the plot. But then ‘Stoppard had always written plays of ideas disguised as comedy, or as he says, plays that’ make serious points by slinging a custard pie around the stage for a couple of hours’.

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As far as Arcadia is concerned the underlying design contains many key points craftily disguised; one such example appears during a conversation between Septimus and Thomasina, in which Thomasina makes a point about her rice pudding being stirred forwards and the jam spreading itself out as she does. However when it is stirred backward the jam does not come together again. Although the surface brilliance may simply show a nai?? ve young girl making an observation about the world she inhabits, there is a serious point made in this particular instance when the reader delves in for a closer analysis.

Stoppard has in fact managed to conceal within the words of Thomasina, an interesting point about the characteristics of time. It is able to move forwards and events can unfold. However it can not move backwards and things will undo themselves. This surface brilliance of Arcadia is also not localised to Arcadia, – it can be seen through a whole range of Stoppard’s work, suggesting it to be part of his writing style.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game in which you can only speak or answer a question with a question: Whose go? ‘ ‘Why? ‘ Why Not? ‘ ‘What For? ‘ Not only does this significantly increase the pace of the play but it also allows the audience to stay interested in the action. In this case it can be said that there really is no underlying design for the surface brilliance to inhibit, the game is purely fun for the audience. This is a recurring feature in the play. For example; on one occasion Thomasina and Septimus are having what seems to be an eloquent conversation about Cleopatra.

In the middle of this conversation there is a sudden use of the word ‘noodle’ by Thomasina to refer to Cleopatra; this change in tone works to grab the audiences’ attention while also providing a witty take on a very serious matter. Septimus is often the focus of the play, providing many witty moments for the audience to enjoy, and it can be argued that this is perhaps the most effective type of surface brilliance that occurs in the play. When Septimus and Chater are arguing about the former and Mrs.

Chater in carnal embrace in the gazebo Chater claims that Septimus insulted his wife through his actions in the gazebo to which Septimus replies ‘You are mistaken, I made love to your wife in the gazebo’. This bluntness on behalf of Septimus is only one of the few linguistic techniques that Stoppard employs for comic effect. For example the use of hyperbole as Septimus argues with Chater and claims that Mrs Chater’s reputation could not be defended by a ‘platoon of musketry deployed by rota’. However, occasionally there is a serious point to be made; a good example of this is Thomasina’s rice pudding metaphor.

It can be said in this instance that the surface brilliance does inhibit the underlying design because the audience may not think any deeper than Thomasina simply making a statement about something her rice pudding does instead of really looking into the complex observation about the passage of time. For this point to be emphasised it was once said that ‘Stoppard had undertaken to provide a satisfying evening’s entertainment for a broad spectrum of theatregoers, and to do so with out underrating the audience’s intelligence’.

With this idea in mind, one can say that perhaps Stoppard used the metaphor simply to get a complicated point across. If Stoppard had attempted to explain what he was trying to say in complicated terms, perhaps the play would not have been as enjoyable for the audience and may have meant they would not have been able to fully appreciate the point Stoppard was trying to make. When looking at this example alone it can be seen why Stoppard may have thought it appropriate to blur the underlying design of the play with this surface brilliance.

By doing this he has not underestimated the audience’s intelligence but has simply made a complicated point simpler through the use of surface brilliance. The underlying design also contains more than an in depth study of words and phrases, Stoppard wrote Arcadia to contain many parallels throughout, and the audience must constantly work to keep track of props on stage, such as the pile of things gathered on the table as the play progresses.

One of these things is ‘The Couch of Eros’, and with the collision of the modern and older worlds the reason behind the recurring mention of handwritten letters which are placed inside its pages finally comes to light as Bernard discovers them hidden and then attempts to discover the history of Sidley Park. This is not the only parallel; there is also a constant repetition or at least reference to the chaos theory. Thomasina predicts that the universe will end by using the laws of thermodynamics and discovering that there will not be enough heat to sustain the universe.

When looking at this it seems ironic that the reader should be told Thomasina will die in a fire when Hannah says …… ‘burned to death’: as she comes to an end because of an abundance heat, the universe comes to an end because of a lack of it. This does mean, however, studying the play very carefully and examining almost every part of it. However one can appreciate the surface brilliance alone; the underlying design seems to be there if people feel the need to search for it.

Not only can the dialogue be enjoyed on two levels, so also can the characters. On the surface Thomasina appears to be a bright, young and innocent girl. Septimus seems to be a learned man who occasionally enjoys frustrating his pupil, Thomasina. However, when studying the characters acutely we can discover that Thomasina in fact flirts with Septimus through the use of innuendos, showing her not so innocent side, but also revealing a side to Septimus that shows him to be, for once, uncomfortable in the company of women.

Thomasina often says things like ‘It is very difficult Septimus; you will have to show me how’. To which Septimus can only reply by attempting to move the conversation on. Throughout the play the surface brilliance continually keeps the audience interested, and it is because of this that it seems Stoppard intentionally uses it so that the audience may concentrate more effortlessly on the play and discover the underlying design if they feel the need.

The sound of gunshots that continually reappear during the play, present the audience with an opportunity to make the decision, whether to appreciate it as a foreboding of the death of Chater, or simply as a gunshot during a hunt. Arcadia, as a whole seems to present a strong argument that the surface brilliance really does not inhibit the underlying design; the audience is able to fully appreciate each part of the play.

The language, characters and plot provide entertainment for the whole audience but particularly appeals to those who do not wish to examine the play closely. Then the rest of the audience can look beneath the surface whilst appreciating it and also appreciate the underlying design by recognising the parallels and examining the characters and language very closely. Although Arcadia is structured in quite a complicated manner it is easy enough to follow. The language as a whole is quite colloquial making it very appealing to a whole variety of audiences.

Studying the surface brilliance alone would not make the play confusing, showing that Stoppard had perhaps thought about this and made the play enjoyable to those who will look deeply at it and those who will purely enjoy the surface brilliance. The references in the underlying design can be understood with thought, and the references are quite easily spotted. For this reason the surface brilliance does not inhibit the underlying design and it seems that Stoppard has succeeded in providing an evenings entertainment for a broad spectrum of theatregoers.

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