Ever since artist Nicolas Poussin painted his famous picture "Et in Arcadia Ego," which shows a group of pastoral shepherds (pardon the redundancy!) discovering a tomb with this inscription, scholars have argued about the meaning of this Latin text. So, whether you interpret it as "I, who am now dead, also lived once in Arcadia," or the more popular "I, Death, exist even in Arcadia," please do me a favor: before you die, make sure that once in your life you experience Tom Stoppard's masterful play Arcadia.
I've seen the play three times thus far. Twice in London, and once here in New York, last night, in its new Broadway revival that opened last week. My first encounter with Stoppard's play was during its initial West End run back in 1994. That landmark production, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Joanne Pearce and the incomparable Roger Allam convinced many theatergoers that Stoppard might have written the crowning masterwork in a career that up to that time also included, among others Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, and Travesties. In the summer of 2009 I was lucky enough to see Arcadia again, this time at the Duke of York's Theatre with a cast that featured Ed Stoppard, the playwright's son, in the role of Valentine. It is this production, directed by David Leveaux, with sets by Hildegard Bechtler that opened last Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
This current production, with its mixed cast of American and British performers turns out to be, as expected with this casting choice, a bit of a mixed evening. The English actors, among them Bel Powley (Thomasina Coverly) and Tom Riley (Septimus Hodge), and especially Lia Williams (Hannah Jarvis) perform Stoppard's language with the facility that can only come from those born and raised in Blighty. The American stars of this production, Raúl Esparza (Valentine Coverly) and Billy Crudup (Bernard Nightingale) struggle at times with their accents, although in all honesty, they do an admirable job overall maintaining the illusion of britishness.
Mr. Crudup's Bernard Nightingale is arguably the character that casts the longest shadow in this play. The other, of course is Lord Byron himself, a character who like Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Agamemnon in Richard Strauss's opera Elektra never appears. Bernard is an opportunistic don who dreams of striking it rich in the academic world unearthing a little-known episode of Byron's life. Basing himself mostly on speculation, and a few letters he's unearthed, the biographical details that he pieces together do not altogether complete the puzzle. The beauty of the play is that, as in the film Citizen Kane, we the audience end up finding out more about the true events of the past than the characters in the present will ever be able to decipher. Bernard needs that last impossible-to-find "Rosebud" piece that will complete his hypothetical puzzle.
But the play's the thing, and Arcadia remains as fresh and as fascinating today as when I first saw it. Along with its themes of Classicism versus Romanticism, the geometry of English gardens, Newtonian physics versus chaos theory, the lost years in the life of Lord Byron, and the publish-or-perish mentality of the college don, Arcadia celebrates the unquenchable thirst of man in its quest towards intellectual discovery.