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Tom Stoppard’s Lighted March

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

A the top of his form, Tom Stoppard writes tragicomedies or comic ironies. Stoppard’s top form has given us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) and Arcadia (1993), contenders for the finest postwar English-language drama, and in neither case generic comedy, since comedy includes importantly a limited, socially satisfying resolution over and above the laughs. Because the recent brilliance of Arcadia happily implies that Stoppard may give us much more, I do not think of these two plays as bookends enclosing his life’s work. At the same time, however, a close look at each of the two will provide a useful awareness of Stoppard’s dramatic structures and methods as well as of his preoccupations as a man of his century, his extraordinary sense of humor, and his commitment to the history of ideas as humanity’s river.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (hereafter R&GAD gets a big and essential head start from the fact that Hamlet tends to be more or less a part of the cultural equipment of anyone reading or seeing R&GAD. Indeed, I can only suppose that Stoppard’s play must be confusing or even incomprehensible to one who has not heard of the Shakespeare tragedy.

As a writer of the 1960’s, Stoppard in this play was also indebted to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Like Beckett’s Gogo and Didi, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters among history’s dramatis personae. Their puzzled, funny, painful, perhaps not hopeless search is for meanings, answers, causes, reasons. They spend their time, like many moderns, not deriving answers but playing the game of “Questions” Also like Didi and Gogo, one of them is weaker than the other, and they encounter Shakespeare’s troupe of players where Beckett’s pair meet Pozzo and Lucky. Both couples wait to find out what it’s all about. Beckett’s couple hope that Godot will turn up as promised (they seem to recall) and will explain things. Stoppard’s team remember being “sent for” in the dark of night by a faceless messenger from court, told to report to the king, and made to cool their heels while agonizing over what they’re meant to be and do, and where they will end up. The condition of all four resembles that of Sartre’s existential loner, or indeed that of the early medieval bird flying from an unknown place of origin through a lighted mead-hall to an unknown destination. Each couple wants to know the significance of the relatively lighted interval.

Another debt is to the make-believe realm of Jean Genet’s The Balcony and, farther back, the plays of Pirandello. For Stoppard is out to dissolve any fourth wall, any notion that art and life are distinct. R&GAD insists, frighteningly and delightfully, that art is life, illusion is reality, the mirror gives us whatever truth may be, acting is the way it is. For the imagination generating this play, as implicitly for the metafictions of the 1960’s—I think especially of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman—Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is reworded by implication to read “to seem or not to seem” We are to forget about “to be,” about objective facts or truth on any significant level.

All of this abstraction barely suggests, of course, the brilliant dramaturgy with which Stoppard delights our eyes and ears in the theater. To start, we might remember that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such walk-on characters in Shakespeare’s play as to be omitted altogether by some directors trying to save time. These two appear only seven times in Hamlet. Stoppard upends Shakespeare by putting these walk-ons at center stage, from which they are virtually never absent. The effect created is that Hamlet appears to be going on in the wings of Stoppard’s play and intrudes only seven times on R&GAD. A couple of not-too-bright Oxbridge (or Heidelberg) undergraduates on a bare Beckettian stage speak 1960’s colloquial prose except where Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and Company drop in from time to time to speak Shakespeare’s blank verse at and with them.

R&GAD operates from the premise that “all the world’s a stage” To drive home this point Stoppard makes strategic use of the Player and his troupe, who play a small, if necessary, part in Hamlet. Early on the Player recognizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “fellow artists” Neither they nor the audience know at the time precisely what the Player means, but we all gradually learn, as Hamlet does, that “thinking makes it so”,

On several occasions the Player explains and demonstrates that what we see constitutes the real for us. When Guildenstern grows impatient with what he regards as the frivolous pretense of these actors, and cries out in desperation that they only pretend to die but can know nothing of real death, of ceasing to be, he seizes the Player’s dagger and stabs him with it. At that moment, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, the troupers, and the entire audience are hushed and staring at the fallen Player. When the Player then rises to the applause of his fellows he has clearly proven his point about the truth of seeming-to-be. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the audience have been smitten with Stoppard’s thesis and we all share the realization that we are “fellow artists” inevitably in that we spend our lives constructing our own meanings. The fourth wall is gone and we and the other actors are one in the human condition.

But what is this renowned human condition? In this play we must work at Stoppard’s definition by juggling Calvin, Saint Augustine, and Sartre. In other words, the familiar issue of determinism vs. free will underlies this play and keeps it percolating in our heads long after the performance. The principal manifestation of this age-old debate occurs after the Player informs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the troupe members are not free to “decide” what they perform, for “It is written” “ The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means” Then in about one page he paraphrases what seems to be The Murder of Gonzago, the play within the play of Hamlet, which is the play within Stoppard’s play. As both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fear, however, and as we viewers realize, the Player is actually paraphrasing Shakespeare’s play, from the murdering of Hamlet’s father right through to the final switching of letters that culminates in the king of England’s killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This occasion frightens Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, combined as it is with their operating almost totally in the dark and with their play-opening experience of watching 94 consecutive coins violate the law of probability by coming up heads. But it engenders more than fear in the audience. We know, of course, that Stoppard’s title marks his limitations: he cannot change the outcome that has been “written” by Shakespeare. That much is determined.

Beyond Stoppard’s being confined by his predecessor, however, lie a number of similar questions about artistcreators and their creatures. How did Shakespeare alter his source? Who authored Shakespeare? In what sense is Stoppard “written”? Can we clearly separate Shakespeare’s source from him as maker of Hamlet, or are artist and artifact inevitably blended and blurred, as in the case of Stoppard’s choosing to have his Player create the play that turns out to be Shakespeare’s Hamlet, featuring the Player and Stoppard’s title-figures? Where do the mirrors and the onionskin layers of seeming begin and end? Perhaps finally (if such an adverb applies here), we in the audience want to know whether we are as doomed, as “written,” as Calvin and the Player assert and as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel.

This sense of doom descends at the end of Stoppard’s play, which, as always, coincides in some sense with Shakespeare’s. Just as Stoppard anticipates Shakespeare by having the Player invent Hamlet, so he alters Hamlet by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read Claudius’s letter condemning Hamlet to death, choose not to inform Hamlet of this command, and then read and decline to act upon Hamlet’s substituted letter ordering their own deaths. In these ways some elbow-room is given for variations or choices within fixed limits, but outcomes are nonetheless determined as “written”

In view of such tight metaphysical or theological confinement, how are we to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s final attitude, and what is to be our own attitude? An answer may be attempted in two parts.

First, ambiguity coats the term “final attitude,” for, inasmuch as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are artifacts, they do not end. They are potentially susceptible to as much literary analysis and criticism as is Hamlet. Indeed, Stoppard is having a good time with the whole critical industry, present company included. For the play suggests an additional layer of applied significance for every reader or viewer who takes in R&GAD and tries to make it mean. Thus the play, like Hamlet or anything else created, will go on acquiring significance indefinitely. So much for finality, then, at least aesthetically.

Second, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and we would seem to be restricted to a certain few conclusions. We can accept the plain deterministic reading of all creation and creatures. Rosencrantz seems to take this view and to be glad to know at last where the royal ship, beyond his control, is taking him. He likes certitude and is tired. Guildenstern’s “Now you see me, now you—–” [blackout] appears to comment on anyone’s quick mead-hall flight between darknesses. It is hard to know whether he is suggesting a view of his own demise or is remarking on the wondrous technical expression of snuffing it.

Or perhaps we can join the Player in an acceptance of whatever creative leeway is available to us, and enjoy such limited freedom within our cages. Augustine’s view would be that, although we cannot work it out rationally without religious faith, the Creator’s knowing our outcome and our choosing it are not contradictory. We simply cannot know the mind of God, and we err gravely if we assume that mind to function as ours does.

The only other option would seem to be Sartre’s. That is, if we cannot know anything of what lies outside the mead-hall, then in effect nothing lies outside it and we had better attend to the business of making choices for the only life we can be sure of. Therein, says Sartre famously, we will find and exercise the only meaningful freedom, to which we are condemned.

Obviously Stoppard does not twist our arms to force us into buying one of these views in isolation from the others. He does, however, force us to consider or reconsider all of them. More strikingly, as he dissolves the form-content dichotomy, he creates an illusion of oneness, of ultimate inseparability, among life on stage, life in the wings, and life out front. Whatever this life is, we are clearly all in it together, mirrors and all, jokes or no jokes. We laugh a great deal at Stoppard’s humorous ingenuity, but we eventually experience our modern middle-class human unity with Elizabethan-Danish royalty and two movingly klunky courtiers. We’re all afraid to die, especially without being sure of why we’ve lived. In the end do we submit fatalistically to our death, or do we freely choose to embrace it? And how are we to contemplate and—in Stoppard’s case—express the difference?


All of these Dostoevskian questions return in the intellectual vigor and delightfully amusing fireworks of Arcadia, a drama every bit as lastingly serious, ingeniously crafted, adroitly worded, and humanly moving as R&GAD. However, because this play is so recent, some briefly detailed outline of its structure is in order. Arcadia employs, like R&GAD, a single, fairly bare, set, which serves both of its plots, one moving from 1809 to 1812, the other in time present—approximately 180 years later. The place is “a room on the garden front of a very large country house in Derbyshire,” Sidley Park, the home in 1809—12 of the Coverly family, headed by Lord and Lady Croom. Principals in this plot include Thomasina Coverly (aged 13—16), her tutor, Septimus Hodge (aged 22—25), Lady Croom, Augustus Coverly (aged 12—15), Ezra Chater, a very minor poet, and Richard Noakes, a landscape architect. Principals in 1993 include Hannah Jarvis, an author in her late thirties, Bernard Nightingale, an entrepreneurial don of Hannah’s vintage, and the current Coverlys—Valentine (25—30), Chloe (18), and Gus (15). The entire backstage opens and looks onto green distances and endless skies. The main furniture is some chairs and a long table holding books, computer, a tortoise, and assorted portable schoolroom materials suited to two centuries. We are at all times in the presence of activity learned, academic, scholarly, apart from its dramatic qualities.

Where Stoppard had previously kept us juggling the action of Hamlet and that of R&GAD, and had compelled us to sort out two plays for differences and universal similarities, so here he peoples his stage alternately with cultivated Regency characters and our contemporaries in post-Thatcher England. Thus once again he plays off one culture and mindset against another, while complexly challenging us by including us in the mix. Stoppard structures his two acts and seven scenes thus: Act One: past, present, past, present; Act Two: present, past, conjunction of present and past. By the time we reach the seventh scene, humankind’s universal oneness is poignantly fixed.

The Regency plot shows us and Septimus that the young Lady Thomasina is a scientific and mathematical prodigy. She works with only paper and pencil, but her work is seen to foreshadow such later scientific dogmas as the second law of thermodynamics and chaos theory. Thomasina is equally interested in discovering the facts of sex, and quite innocently sets the tone of much of the play with its opening line: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” Septimus, a conscientious, qualified, handsome Cambridge graduate, tutors Thomasina well in “good English algebra,” drawing, and literature; indirectly, the interaction of these two strikes a blow against those in any century who consider women inherently unequipped for mathematics and science. In the matter of sex, Septimus is awkwardly placed. On the one hand he replies with dictionary-like literalness and straight-faced mental reservation to her adolescent inquiries. But on the other hand his role in the household and in the social-class system keeps the friendly relationship quite formal and apparently a model of student-teacher propriety. At the same time, either within the class system or on its fringes, he flirts rather reciprocally with Lady Croom and on at least one occasion enjoys “a perpendicular poke in a gazebo with a woman [Mrs. Chater] whose reputation could not be adequately defended with a platoon of musketry deployed by rota”

The class system and the whole idea of cultural and social pendulum-swings collaborate with the discussion of Romantic and Classical views. For example, Septimus Hodge was at Harrow and Cambridge with Lord Byron, who is visiting Sidley Park for a few days in 1809. Septimus, the algebraman, regards Byron as a descendant of Pope, while Thomasina, the intuitive physicist, sees Byron as Childe Harold. Or again, Lady Croom is somewhat reluctantly supervising “Culpability” Noakes’s tearing-up of Capability Brown’s neo-classical, Arcadian, rationally proportioned landscape in favor of Noakes’s gothic, picturesque, “natural” terrain. This Regency schoolroom is shown as a microcosm of debate between reason and emotion, the rational and the instinctive, abstract and concrete. Poetry, landscaping fashions, and scientific theory and method all contribute to the discussion. That Noakes will destroy Brown’s graceful, sociable gazebo and install a hermitage with a hired live-in hermit demonstrates this familiar tussle humorously.

Of course the same conflict goes on in 1993, with the later Coverlys and their acquaintances. Hannah Jarvis is a classicist and a feminist whose first book showed the grave and persistent critical and cultural injustice done to Lady Caroline Lamb in her relationship with Byron. Hannah is at Sidley Park to do research for her book on the hermit installed by Noakes, and she sees that figure as symbolic of “the genius of the place,” her prospective title designed to mock Romanticism and exalt Classicism. She is all for the Enlightenment, and therefore plays devil’s advocate in the teeth of Nightingale’s efforts to assert, on gut feeling and little else, that Byron killed Chater back in 1809 at Sidley Park, in a duel over Mrs. Chater’s honor. Hannah scorns what Noakes did to Brown’s landscape, but she realizes that Brown himself operated under the illusion that he was recovering the Classical landscape style also regarded as “natural,” but in fact “brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look—Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Rosa” Even before she finishes her research, she is prepared to present the hermit not only as “the genius of the place” but as “an idiot in the landscape,” so anti-Romantic is she. In the end, although Bernard is a scholarly fraud and a sexual and academic opportunist while Hannah is personally and professionally honest, both Bernard and Hannah are victims of their preconceptions. They learn enough to see that their pet projects will have to be revised and that their evidence is sometimes lacking, wrong, or ambiguous.

Co-existing with Hannah and Bernard is Valentine, a graduate student in biology at Cambridge and a whiz at mathematics and computer science. When Valentine discovers Thomasina’s portfolio, he is forthright enough to explain her remarkable mathematical skill to Hannah, but reluctant to admit to this feminist that indeed Thomasina got there first, sans computer technology, in some ways well ahead of modern scientists. Hannah won’t let him get away with a refusal to regard Thomasina’s genius properly. She was in fact the real “genius of the place,” whether or not it can be proved that she was aware of what she had discovered.

Into this triangular scholarly grouping of bright researchers who all require a lesson in humility are mixed Chloe, whose mind is on Bernard and sexual adventure, and Gus, who plays the piano and demonstrates acute intuition, but who hasn’t spoken since he was five years old. Several teleological and epistemological positions emerge from the two plots and so much academic badinage.

Those familiar with R&GAD will not be surprised that determinism is aired in both plots: Newton’s physics has everyone and everything going through foreordained motions to prescribed ends. Chloe’s variation on this view is that sex messes up an otherwise orderly predestinational schema: “Ah” [replies Valentine]. “The attraction that Newton left out” Bernard, for his part, takes pride in the glaring self-centeredness of his free will: “If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much. . . . I can expand my universe without you” Self-aggrandizement and shameless opportunism, passed off as romantic grandeur, are what life and each of us are for, Bernard implies, assuming that speaking of purpose or end makes any sense at all. Bernard looks like what Sartre might have been without les autres.

Septimus, on the other hand, sounds like a Regency fore-runner of Sartre. When Thomasina asks how we can bear the thought of so much ancient learning lost in the fire that burned the library at Alexandria, Septimus’s philosophical response is optimistic and foreshadows, as we shall learn, later events in Thomasina’s own life: “We shed as we pick up . . . and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again” Not only does he anticipate Sartre, who thus might be picking up from him; but he also fore-shadows Thomasina’s own demise and Valentine’s latter-day discovery of Thomasina’s mathematical brilliance. Septimus thus suggests that human purpose resides in communicating with those flying before and after us through the mead-hall.

Like Septimus, Valentine and Hannah think of purpose and knowing strictly in the Enlightenment’s scientific terms. Valentine had been afraid that quantum physics and the relativity theory had explained absolutely everything. Now, however, he is “so happy” in the realization that “the unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is,” and because computers and iterated algorithms enable us to know the “ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives . . .clouds—daffodils—waterfalls— and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks. . . . It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong”

Although equally secular in her view, Hannah qualifies Valentine’s enthusiasm. She focuses not on ends but on the driving need to know. “Comparing what we’re [Hannah, Bernard, Valentine] looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after . . .but not in the life. . . . Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final” In other words, “life” for Hannah is the here and now (Septimus’s “march”), where the process—not the outcome—of research is its own value and reward. Her stance, Valentine’s, and Septimus’s present variations on optimistic fatalism; each in turn is a modification of Rosencrantz’s fatigued, “grateful-dead” attitude and Guildenstern’s matter-of-fact stoicism.

As in R&GAD, so here, the fact and meaning of death stand out. Whether one accepts Newton’s determinism or the second law of thermodynamics prefigured in Thomasina’s diagram of heat exchange as exemplified by the Regency steam engine, all will end. Whether we will bounce about like Newtonian particles in a preordained pattern, or burn up according to thermodynamic law, the play stresses fire and burning. Septimus burns, unread, a letter to him from Lord Byron, likely the most renowned epistolary artist in English. Both Thomasina and Valentine are engaged with physical law and cosmic burnout. On the perhaps not so incidental side, Septimus observes that Mrs. Chater’s “chief renown is for a readiness that keeps her in a state of tropical humidity as would grow orchids in her drawers in January”

The culmination of this fire motif occurs, however, in the seventh and final scene, where Stoppard achieves a magnificent epiphany that merges his two plots. The annual costume dance at Sidley Park in 1993 and the eve of Thomasina’s 17th birthday, in 1812, are staged to coincide, and to assist in the transition-merger, Stoppard dresses his 1993 characters in Regency clothing for their dance. The characters from different centuries are of course not visible to each other, but the audience watches Hannah drink from Septimus’s wine glass and listens to Valentine explicate Thomasina’s heat-exchange diagram for Hannah even as Thomasina, barefoot and gowned for bed, puts down her candle so that Septimus, also perusing Thomasina’s diagram, can keep his promise to teach her the waltz before she reaches 17. We know from Hannah’s research that Thomasina burned to death in her bed on this very night in 1812, a fact that crushes us as we watch Septimus kiss his pupil, decline firmly to come to her bed, and whirl her about the room to the waltz being played on a nearby piano.

Thus, whatever the historical phase or persuasion or fashion, the centuries are at one in passing by, burning out. Whether one reads the words “Et in Arcadia ego” to mean that personified Death is present in any version of Arcadia, or to mean that every happy Arcadian eventually dies, or indeed whether one sees no significant distinction between these readings, Thomasina, the 1993 characters, and we come to that still moment confronted by Rosencrantz and Guilden-stern and everyone who has ever lived, even by those who endorse John Donne’s rendition of Saint Paul, “Death, thou shalt die”

Small wonder that the Sidley Park hermit—all but certainly Septimus, as Hannah realizes—spent the remaining 22 years of his life alone in his Noakesian hermitage, filling “thousands” of pages “with cabalistic proofs that the world was coming to an end” Thomasina’s fiery death on the eve of womanhood appears to have driven the Classicist into a lifetime of filling those thousands of pages to demonstrate, by “good English algebra,” his late pupil’s hypothesis:

THOMASINA: If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

Valentine, the computer-aided hare, establishes overnight what Septimus did not live long enough to prove, although Thomasina (the tortoise) had got there first with her brilliant insight.

Just as Septimus must relive his and Thomasina’s final scene (Why did he stay away from her bedroom? honor? professional distancing? fear of losing his job? attachment to her mother? class barrier?), so we cannot forget Stoppard’s inter-centuried dialogue as he gives us the human condition:

SEPTIMUS: So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold. Dear me.

VALENTINE: The heat goes into the mix.

THOMASINA: Yes, we must hurry if we are going to dance.

VALENTINE: And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly . . .

SEPTIMUS: Oh, we have time, I think.

VALENTINE: . . . till there’s no time left. That’s what time means.

SEPTIMUS: When we have found all the meanings and lost all the mysteries, we will be alone, on an empty shore.

THOMASINA: Then we will dance. . . .

The characters speak to their contemporaries, but surely they speak to and of their fellows on stage and in the audience, whatever the dwindling time may be. Even as Septimus foreshadows Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” we realize that reason and facts are necessary and desirable (Classicism), but that the mysteries which reason can never solve both frustrate us and give our lives zest (Romanticism).

At the end of R&GAD the Player puns soberly: “All in the same boat, then!” At the end of Arcadia the wordless Gus induces the classicist Hannah, who has gone off sex and who doesn’t dance, to join him in the waltz occupying Thomasina and Septimus. While dancing in the dusk across centuries, the two unspeaking couples embody the Player’s truism. We remember as well some other words of the Player, fitting both dramas and capturing Stoppard’s abiding insight, that “every exit [is] an entrance somewhere else”

Thomasina’s lighted candle remains front and center during scene seven. Its heat will soon ravish Thomasina, and it measures that expenditure which is all human life and eventually cosmic life. Its very light and heat are its own wasting away to the point where, like Guildenstern, it and everything will vanish with a poof. In the interval, however dim the light, we have not yet “found all the meanings and lost all the mysteries,” and are not quite “alone” Why not burn out companionably in three-quarter time, to probably the wittiest, most movingly paradoxical, English dramatic language of this half-century?


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