ANIMAL, VEGETABLE OR MINERAL? OBJECTS IN TOM STOPPARD S ARCADIA SUSAN BLATTÈS - PDF

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Cercles 22 (2012) ANIMAL, VEGETABLE OR MINERAL? OBJECTS IN TOM STOPPARD S ARCADIA SUSAN BLATTÈS Université Stendhal Grenoble 3 The simplicity of the single set in Arcadia 1 with its rather austere furniture,

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Cercles 22 (2012) ANIMAL, VEGETABLE OR MINERAL? OBJECTS IN TOM STOPPARD S ARCADIA SUSAN BLATTÈS Université Stendhal Grenoble 3 The simplicity of the single set in Arcadia 1 with its rather austere furniture, bare floor and uncurtained windows has been pointed out by critics, notably in comparison with some of Stoppard s earlier work. This relatively timeless set provides, on one level, an unchanging backdrop for the play s multiple complexities in terms of plot, ideas and temporal structure. However we should not conclude that the set plays a secondary role in the play since the mysteries at the centre of the plot can only be solved here and with this particular group of characters. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that the on- stage objects play a similarly vital role by gradually transforming our first impressions and contributing to the multi- layered meaning of the play. In his study on the theatre from a phenomenological perspective, Bert O. States writes: Theater is the medium, par excellence, that consumes the real in its realest forms [ ] Its permanent spectacle is the parade of objects and processes in transit from environment to imagery [STATES 1985 : 40]. This paper will look at some of the parading or paraded objects in Arcadia. The objects are many and various, as can be seen in the list provided in the Samuel French acting edition (along with lists of lighting and sound effects). We will see that there are not only many different objects, but also that each object can be called upon to assume different functions at different moments, hence the rather playful question in the title of this paper (an allusion to the popular game Twenty Questions in which the identity of an object has to be guessed), suggesting we consider the objects as a kind of challenge to the spectator, who is set the task of identifying and interpreting them. For reasons of time and space, I will not attempt to deal with all the objects in the play, but will focus on those I consider to have more than the simple function of creating the spatial and temporal context of the action. 1 All quotations from the play will be taken from the 2009 Faber edition. Susan Blattès, Animal, vegetable or mineral? Objects in Tom Stoppard s Arcadia, Cercles 22 (2012), Susan Blattès / 109 Marvin Carlson has discussed how iconic objects on stage are carefully selected or created to approximate such objects in the world outside the theatre as closely as possible [CARLSON 1990 : 76]. This is obviously the case here, since all the objects I will mention correspond to what he calls iconic identity, a term coined by Keir Elam, in that objects are the things they represent [ELAM 1980 : 76]. However, as Bert O. States reminds us, even in the case of the most ordinary object: theater balances the tension between the pressing real world and its own ritual [STATES 1985 : 42]. Because it allows the possibility of creating the illusion of the fourth wall, we tend to think that it is the room which plays the major role in setting up iconic space. This is not strictly speaking true, for stage space is more complex than that. Kenneth Pickering points out that: There is a distinction between the walls of that room, which we know not to be made of plaster, and the furniture, which is as real as any in our own home. In some ways, the effect of placing a natural object in an artificial environment is to sharpen the audience s awareness of the importance and function of that object. [PICKERING 2010 : 188] I would argue that this is particularly true in Arcadia. From the outset, virtually all the objects of importance in Arcadia are placed on the large table which occupies a central position on the stage. Both the size and position of the table are significant since it attracts the audience s attention and makes the objects more noticeable. It is probably the books which first catch our eye. If we cannot, of course, see which particular books are being studied, we can at least identify them as books, magazines, portfolios, papers etc. of varying shapes and sizes. At first these documents seem simply designed to inform the audience that this is a school room with its occupants engaged in appropriate activities. The play starts off with a picture of quiet study and this short sequence of studious silence will be repeated at intervals throughout the play with the same characters, for example at the beginning of scene 3 [STOPPARD 2009 : 48], or with other characters, for example sequences involving Hannah and Valentine [104, 107]. In the early stages of the play, a certain order is to be seen on the table with his and her documents. On the one hand, there are those relating to Thomasina s education in the portfolio (there will later be 3 items assembled in this portfolio: the mathematics primer, the lesson book and the diagram). On the other hand, there are those relating to Septimus s involvement in the affairs of the Chaters: the copy of The Couch of Eros (later to contain the 3 letters). The description of these documents is quite precise in the stage Susan Blattès / 110 directions (size, quality, tapes etc.) since the audience will have to identify them when they reappear later on: In front of Valentine is Septimus s portfolio, recognizably so but naturally somewhat jaded [58]. This use of objects which relies on the audience s ability to identify the rightful owner also operates in Stoppard s 1974 play Travesties [STOPPARD 1974 : 19] where Lenin s folder gets mixed up with Joyce s. So far the objects are behaving as we might expect: helping to create time and space, being specifically associated with certain characters in order that the first plot (the identity of the addressee of the three letters in The Couch of Eros ) can function properly. I will not dwell on the whodunit element involved here, suffice it to say that this first plot uses the books, letters etc. in a fairly conventional way. (Aloyssia Rousseau discusses this most convincingly in her study of the play.) We can notice that the three letters in the volume come to light in strictly chronological order and that, as the spectators see them delivered, they are never in any doubt as to who sent them and to whom. This means that the spectators are always at least one step ahead of the contemporary characters as far as the duel episode is concerned. This is not true in the case of the documents relating to Thomasina s intellectual development. Like Septimus s book and letters, these objects are also passed back and forth from one character to another across the centuries, raising the question of ownership, for example, as in the case of The Couch of Eros, which Bernard presumes Byron had borrowed from Septimus before the letters were placed in it [STOPPARD 2009 : 76]. The mathematics primer, used by Thomasina in the 1809 scenes actually belongs to Septimus. Thomasina expresses her surprise in scene 7 that Septimus still has her old primer [126]. In other words, Septimus s portfolio contains items belonging to different periods and of different types. More importantly, this object disrupts the chronology of the play in several ways, in a play in which the question of ordering events is constantly brought to the fore. Whereas the letters in The Couch of Eros all belong to the same short period of time, this is not the case for the three items in the portfolio. The primer we have seen belongs to the early period when Thomasina is 13, the lesson book is used both in 1809 and Although we do not know in detail what she has written in them, we know of their existence from the start. As for the diagram with its equations, this is an altogether different affair. We see Hannah and Valentine looking at this diagram and commenting on it in scene 4 [58] long before we actually witness Thomasina doing the diagram. The stage directions on page 116 highlight the temporal disruption since we read: She settles down to drawing the diagram which is to be the third item in the surviving portfolio. We are left in the dark about what this diagram means until the end of the play when Valentine Susan Blattès / 111 suddenly announces: It s a diagram of heat exchange [127]. Put in another way, we are placed in the same situation as Hannah and Valentine, trying to discover its meaning instead of being in the comfortable position of superiority we enjoyed during The Couch of Eros letters episode. A frequently repeated remark in the play is: I don t know. I wasn t there [see 66, 77, 78], but being there is not really enough either, since we have to be able to understand what we are witnessing. What the play suggests is the necessity of collaboration in order to understand. Hence we watch both Hannah and Septimus pouring over Thomasina s lesson book [105] and both Septimus and Valentine studying her last diagram: Septimus and Valentine study the diagram doubled by time [127]. The doubling of these items described at the beginning of scene 2 in the stage directions, is not just Stoppard playing games with his audience, it also serves to illustrate a number of other points. The doubling of the objects makes visible, of course, the doubling of the time periods and groups of characters, but it also illustrates the notion of iteration which is fundamental to the scientific theories under discussion. In other words, the objects looked at separately may lead to misinterpretation, but the objects if combined with study and discussion finally give up their secrets. The characters struggling to make sense of the various documents mirror the audience s position too. As the play proceeds, the table gathers more and more objects, not just papers, although written documents constitute the bulk of what we see there. Almost every time a character comes on stage s/he brings in more documents, letters or books to the extent that it becomes necessary to rummage around to find things. By the second scene the tortoise is half- hidden [26]. In scene 7 Valentine roots about in what is now a considerable mess of papers, books and objects to lay his hands on Thomasina s diagram [127]. It is hard not to see in this accumulation of objects: the geometrical solids, the computer, decanter, glasses, tea mug, Hannah s research books, Septimus s books, the two portfolios, Thomasina s candlestick, the oil lamp, the dahlia, Sunday papers [131], a visual representation of the search for knowledge, the difficulty of understanding the past, or simply knowledge itself. There is an abundance of information but the difficulty lies in interpreting it. We have come some distance from seeing the objects merely as the means to create the illusion of reality. These objects never seem to blend in with the background, they constantly attract our attention. If the jumble on the table may be read metaphorically, we could say the same for the large wicker laundry hamper full of Regency clothes. These clothes serve to further blur the temporal boundaries between past and present at the end of the play when, contrary to what happens in the first half, costume is no longer used to indicate time. Beyond the impression Susan Blattès / 112 created that the contemporary characters are being drawn back into the past by these clothes (is iteration at work again?) or at least that they have to immerse themselves in this past in order to make some sense of it, the actual description of the action surrounding the laundry hamper suggests another possibility. Chloe is described digging into the basket and producing odd garments for Bernard [123]. This seems to produce on stage the equivalent of the excavation process which is going on in the garden which has also brought to light relics of the past. Valentine explains to Hannah how his brother Gus managed to find immediately the foundations of Capability Brown s boat- house while the experts had been digging for months [65]. Unless of course we choose to see the dressing up in Regency clothes as a variation on the Red Book theme, the before and after transformations of the park through the centuries. We can also compare the difficulties involved in putting past events in order and trying to read order into the evolution of the English garden. The play contains several contradictory versions of this story too. Although we never actually see the garden, we are nevertheless aware of it, at least as another narrative (compare Lady Croom s account [18-19], with that of Hannah [39]). The vegetable world however has not been completely relegated to the off- stage area since we are shown two objects which fit into this category: the apple and the dahlia. The second item belongs to the Bernard plot and its role in Bernard s misunderstanding of past events is made explicit. We are told that Ezra Chater discovered a dahlia in Martinique in the second scene of the play [31]. There follows a series of references to the dahlia. Lady Croom comments on Chater s botanical mission in the West Indies [97], the stage directions indicate its presence at the beginning of scene 7 [99]. The most striking use of the pot of dahlias comes on page 113 where Lady Croom touches them as she tells Septimus how she came to have dahlias in her garden while Hannah, we realize, is reading precisely the extract in the garden book which explains all this some two hundred years later. The audience for a moment is witnessing the intersection of past and present, telling and showing. We have the impression it is an illusion of course that we can actually see the text Hannah is reading because we can hear Lady Croom s words. It seems particularly fitting that Bernard, placing his faith in the male seducer and male violence (the duel), should be brought down by a dahlia called Charity (a victory for the female seductress). Reversal is also at work in the case of the apple. Several scholars have pointed out the parallels between Sidley Park and the Garden of Eden. Both Hannah and Lady Croom describe the garden as a kind of paradise, but they are speaking about two very different stages in the evolution of Sidley Susan Blattès / 113 Park. The word serpentine is used first by Lady Croom to describe the garden before Noakes sets to work on it [19] and then by Hannah [36]. For Lady Croom the word has positive connotations, but not for Hannah. Septimus refers to Noakes as the serpent in the scheme of the garden [8]. However, it is the young (and innocent?) Gus who offers Hannah the apple and the same Gus who finally offers her the drawing that constitutes the proof that the hermit is Septimus. The apple is passed around (even the tortoise gets its share!) crossing the time gap from present into past. Of course, the choice of the apple provides a timely reminder of Newton s work on the law of gravity, said to be have been inspired by the fall of an apple. This leads to a discussion between Valentine and Chloe on the multiple meanings of the word attraction : The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden [100]. The apple has therefore obvious symbolic meanings in the play. However, in Arcadia the apple is not restricted to conventional symbolic meanings. It is also used in another way, directly and indirectly contrasted with more complex forms. As a sphere the apple is like one of the simple geometrical shapes that Thomasina (and Augustus unwillingly) is set to study and draw [105]. The opposition between geometrical shapes and natural forms is already present in scene 3 when Thomasina expresses the desire to find a more complex equation to represent the more complex forms in nature: If there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? [51]. Before attempting to find the equation for a rose, Thomasina turns to something more simple: the leaf attached to the apple. The enterprise is obviously difficult, since three years later she announces to her mother: Mountains are not pyramids and trees are not cones. God must love gunnery and architecture if Euclid is his only geometry. There is another geometry which I am engaged in discovering by trial and error, am I not, Septimus? [114] It is these attempts which Valentine finds in Thomasina s lesson book and which he finally converts into computer images [103]. Both the dahlia and the apple contribute to Stoppard s efforts not only to give a concrete form to the scientific and aesthetic ideas under discussion, but also to make visible to the spectators the peculiar interactions between past and present. As we have just seen, it is the silent character Gus who hands the apple to Hannah, suggesting that on stage, it is not just the words that count. Susan Blattès / 114 If the apple suggests an interesting link between the object (sphere) and the vegetable, the tortoise takes this one step further and crosses another boundary between the animate and the inanimate. The tortoise, too, could be seen as a shape or form. However, just as the apple can be interpreted in multiple ways, so too the tortoise can lead the spectator in many different directions. It should be said first that tortoises figure in other Stoppard plays, notably in the 1972 play Jumpers where the main character, George, is also given a pet tortoise called Pat. In Arcadia, Septimus has a pet tortoise called Plautus, while in the contemporary scenes it is Valentine who keeps one with the unlikely name of Lightning. Both tortoises are mentioned many times, both in the dialogue and stage directions, so the spectator is unlikely to forget their presence. Furthermore, the tortoise, like the apple, plays a role in both time periods although in both cases the contemporary one cannot be distinguished from its Regency counterpart, according to the stage directions [48, 58]. Both Septimus and Valentine feed their tortoises [49, 72], talk to them [9, 26] much to Bernard s obvious annoyance. The tortoise therefore makes a clear visual link between Septimus and Valentine, reinforcing their resemblance as teacher/scientist figures in association with Thomasina and Hannah. Just as it is an object, the dahlia, which proves Bernard wrong, it is an object, the tortoise which proves Hannah s theory about the identity of the hermit to be correct. It is worth noting how, yet again, Stoppard gives us the impression we can see something distinctly on stage (the drawing that Thomasina does of Septimus with his tortoise) which in fact we cannot possibly see, by showing us the action of drawing. We see her drawing, hear her say what the drawing is and then think we can see the drawing itself. Thomasina announces she has done the drawing and gives it to Septimus [119] who later gives it to Augustus [120]. It is quite appropriate that it should be Augustus s silent double, Gus, who should hand the drawing on to Hannah. This drawing of Septimus with the tortoise might seem insignificant but it does serve two purposes. Firstly, since Bernard has found evidence that the hermit of Sidley Park kept a tortoise, the last piece of the puzzle concerning the identity of the hermit falls into place. Secondly, the drawing episode shows clearly how the play relies on a combination of verbal and visual clues. The tortoise then plays a role in the plot, like the books we discussed earlier, and allows the visual elements of the play to be foregrounded. There is more to it, of course. After all, another object could have served the same purpose of associating Septimus with both the hermit and Valentine. To identify another reason behind the choice of the tortoise, we will return to Jumpers. As we have seen, the main character George, a philosopher, keeps a tortoise, Pat, but he also has a pet hare, who goes by the name of Thumper. Susan Blattès / 115 In the lecture he dictates to his secretary he announces his intention of exposing the fallacy of Zeno s paradoxes, according to which: an arrow could never reach its
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