Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Et in Arcardia Ego


Again, I have come to affirm that the history of one's reading life is the history of discovery, like little explosions that detonate, like pop rocks in the mouth, sparking ideas and sensations and connections; an individualized map where all the world is dark, but little red lights glint on different coasts and a something spidery journeys from point to point to form a road.

Last Friday night I turned on NPR as I drove home, my illicit late-night entertainment, and it seemed like an interview about gardening. But then I thought it too formalized to be an interview: the recording was too clean and there was too much vocal inflection. So it must be a radio play about horticulture. There was something about geometry and sentimentality and game books and Capability Brown - and by the time I heard the name Lord Byron, I was hooked. I contemplated sitting in my car outside the house to catch the author's name, but ran inside to sit by the radio until midnight instead.

The play was Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Regrettably, midnight brought the end of Act I and, as in oldentimes, I am forced to wait until next Friday night for Act II. I couldn't wait that long - I bought the play at the bookstore (with credit) and read it speedily. It does not, however, lend itself to speedy reading and I'll have to re-read it at some point.

The play concerns two academics - Bernard, a literary don, and Hannah, a garden historian - investigating their research subjects at an English country estate, Sidley Park. The play alternates between early nineteenth century Britain and the present day as the academics and the modern-day inhabitants of Sidley Park try to establish what really happened with the original Sidley Park crew (wandering wives, philandering poets, enraged husbands; a tutor and his young pupil, she aflame with mathematical theories). What seems at first like a historical drama becomes a literary mystery, which becomes less about Byron and more about physics and science and chaos theory, which becomes more about sex, and so on. It is like Gosford Park and Possession and a science lab rolled into one. The dialogue is witty, vivid and sharp - one must pay attention to keep up. It is amusing and ironic, detached and subtly heartfelt - the perfect tension between the Classical and Romantic eras.

The name "Tom Stoppard" sounded familiar, so I shouldn't have been surprised to see that he is best known for his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, something I've been meaning to read - in fact have had the first few pages acted out for me by friends while I cleaned my room.

So I've gone to the Seattle Public Library and put nearly every Tom Stoppard play on hold, eagerly awaiting for the next one.

The road goes on. New discoveries, new dots on the map. Now I know Tom Stoppard. Now I am reading a biography of Byron and Shelley, which - so far - I must say - is very good.

1 comment:

Ian Woolcott said...

That first paragraph of yours is very nice, by the way.