Et in Arcadia ego

“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

Two days ago, writer Tom Stoppard was presented a lifetime achievement award at the Writers Guild Award ceremony. I’m not familiar with that much of his work, but I remember vividly studying one of his plays in English Lit lessons at school. The play was Arcadia, and I was struck by Stoppard’s use of characters almost speaking over each other, but not able to hear one another, as some are in the present day and others in the Nineteenth Century. The modern characters discuss the past and the fate that befell the inhabitants of their house many years ago, while the others debate science and intellect versus love and emotion, and all wonder how they may be remembered in years to come. I loved this play when I read it and loved it more when I saw it performed on stage, seeing the interplay between the characters from past and present. The audience knows the fate of Thomasina and Septimus as it is described by those from the present day researching into their lives, but equally their research leads to assumptions that are proved wrong as we start to see what really happened – how easy it is for people to look into history and think they can put two and two together, only to come up with five and not even know it (and will never know it).

“You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

 

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