“Arcadia,” by Tom Stoppard

The Big Bang Theory meets Lord Byron

The Big Bang Theory meets Lord Byron


This 1993 tragi-comedy is The Big Bang Theory Meets Lord Byron on stage. Many view it as Stoppard’s best work, though reviews are polarized: some view it as a sort of physics lecture. In 2006, Arcadia was nominated for “the best science book ever written” by the Royal Institution.

But there is much more to it. “Arcadia” won the Laurence Olivier Award in 1994, and was nominated for the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award in 1995. Sexual comedy alternates with a historical literary mystery, and the early 19th century alternates with the present, in the same set, and sometimes the two eras seem to merge. The background plot and several of the characters are based on Byron’s life, a fertile field for academics. Stoppard tries to capture the excitement of intellectualism and historical detective work, while acknowledging human foibles. Mostly it works, but the plot must be paramount, and clues are sometimes lost in the chaos. For example, the most important clue, the sketch of Septimus with the turtle, is easy to miss. The attempts at creating multiple parallels and contrasts overreaches at times. One has to pay attention to catch it all. OTL,S! guesses that a great number of college essays have been written on the themes and clever devices used by Stoppard in “Arcadia.” OTL,S! will not set sail into that great ocean (not to say it wouldn’t be fun).

A few interesting (to us, at least) points:
At one point in the second act, we hear the word “primer” (a book), pronounced “pry-mur” (long i). Americans often use the pronunciation “primmer” (short i) for this meaning, while using “pry-mur” as the pronunciation of the same word used to denote a type of paint. A little research shows that both pronunciations are correct, but apparently “primmer” is not used much in England (where the play is set).

Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, was the inspiration for one of the central characters and was, in fact, a gifted mathematician who studied Charles Babbage’s computing machine and pioneered the idea of computer algorithms.

When the play opened in New York, the role of the cuckold Ezra Chater was played by Paul Giamatti, in his Broadway debut.

Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti

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