Playing for Time (and Playing with Time) in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

Article excerpt

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? …