Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arcadia and History

I just saw a new production of one of my favorites, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, and I am still bedazzled. The play deals with order v. chaos, classicism v. romanticism, logic v. intuition, and that's just scraping the surface. Given its themes, I am not sure how it happens (Mr. Stoppard has famously written of the theater, "It's a mystery"), but in the course of the play, witty conversation, brilliant ideas, hilarity, tears and, if you're lucky, a moment of transcendence all ensue.

The play takes place in one room of an English country house, but at different times -- 1809-1812 and the present, with scenes alternating between the two periods. Much of the hilarity has to do with a modernday professor, armed with a few documents, who theorizes about events which occurred at the house when Lord Byron visited there in 1809 . The audience knows exactly what happened, and we delight in how very wrong the academic gets it.

This time around, this particular aspect of the play hit a little closer to home than ever before. Two weeks ago I presented my ideas at the Rosenbach Museum & Library about what happened when Washington Irving and Walter Scott had a chat at a Scottish country house in the late summer of 1817 (similar, isn't it?). I was explaining how Rebecca Gratz might have become the topic of conversation between the two literary men. It has long been a legend that Irving's description of her to Scott inspired the character Rebecca in Scott's novel Ivanhoe; I provided a historical context which lent more credence to the story.

Arcadia served as a reminder of how past the past is, how we will never really know. This can be a salutary reminder of the limits of "expertise," but it also casts the pursuit of knowledge as an often futile exercise. Fortunately, the play provides a response to this dilemma. In the second act a scholar and a scientist are arguing about the ridiculous triviality of each other's specialties, when another character breaks in with, "It's all trivial....It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in."

So we want to know, but we can never know. We're doomed to failure and yet we keep trying to make sense of things, sometimes discerning patterns in history and nature, sometimes creating and imposing patterns on the same. It's a human thing, and if I cannot acquire or pass on perfect knowledge, I may still see further, though through a distorted lens, than I would have done otherwise. In this blog, I'm just letting you know what I think I've found and why I think it's true. I hope it will be of some use to you.

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