by Tom Stoppard
In A Nutshell
If you want to stump your teacher, ask her to sum up Arcadia in ten words or less. (Or if you want to impress her, figure out a clever way to do it yourself.) The wide range of topics in Tom Stoppard 's Arcadia has made it a favorite for college freshman-year read-alongs, as a book that, ideally, can appeal to anyone from emo poets to science nerds.
Early reviewers of Arcadia's initial run remarked that Tom Stoppard, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, had at long last found his heart. After almost three decades of plays that some saw more as intellectual exercises than heartfelt drama (Stoppard's first success was with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play that retells Hamlet from the point of view of its two most insignificant characters), lots of commentators felt that Stoppard was finally getting his emotional groove on. While his subsequent plays have been successful both in London and on Broadway, Arcadia and good old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain the plays for which Stoppard is best known. (You may have also heard of a few films that he contributed to: Shakespeare in Love and Brazil.)
While Arcadia may seem like a model of English-ness (which can make it a little confusing for an American audience), Tom Stoppard was in fact born in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), under the name Tomas Straussler. He lived in India before moving to England. While England has become his adopted home, Stoppard has also never forgotten his roots: his play Indian Ink is set, not surprisingly, in India, and his most recent work, Rock 'n' Roll, moves between Cambridge and Prague. And the Czechs haven't forgotten him either: there's a Tom Stoppard Prize, given to writers of Czech origin. Besides his plays, Stoppard has also worked for decades on human rights issues in Eastern Europe and elsewhere...so maybe those critics shouldn't have needed Arcadia to know he had a heart.
Why Should I Care?
Arcadia is made of paper, and we're not just talking about the book you have in your hand. Notes, books, essays, drawings, diaries – without these material leftovers from a bygone age, it seems there wouldn't be much to Arcadia. As Bernard says of his historical predecessors at Sidley Park, "They wrote – they scribbled – they put it on paper. It was their employment. Their diversion. Paper is what they had" (1.4). Today, however, the idea of using colored water to inscribe your thoughts on sheets of pressed wood pulp is starting to seem, well, quaint. In the age of the Internet, is Arcadia's attention to history-on-paper still relevant?
The Internet has certainly made it seem like any information you want is a mere Google search away. Curious whether that cutie has a sweetie? Check their relationship status. Wondering what your best friend did today? Read up on her Twitter feed. Zing! Instant info-gratification. If only Byron and Co. had had access to social networking sites, Bernard could have answered his questions from the comfort of his iPhone. Or could he? Would he be able to figure out if Byron killed Chater just through searching his tweets? Perhaps not. Just like with paper, there's always the question of what's missing from the record. Arcadia's cautionary tale – be wary of jumping to conclusions based on your opinion of a text's meaning – is still worth listening to.
An imaginary sequel to Arcadia, in which a group of scholars in 2089 try to figure out something that happened today, would almost certainly involve a lot less paper than Stoppard's version. But the big questions – how do we know something is true? And what counts as proof? – would still apply, whether they're searching for that proof in papers or pixels. The method of searching may have changed, but the process of thinking about the search isn't all that different – and whether you're flipping pages or Feeling Lucky, the thrill of discovery is still the same.