How does Tom Stoppard develop the main themes of Arcadia in Act 1 Scene 1?
Tom Stoppard introduces the themes as well as the characters in Act 1, Scene 1 at the beginning of the play. These themes include transitions, love, making discoveries and chaos. They are introduced to us through not only the characters being used as a mouth piece for Stoppard, but also through the use of language, structure and form.
The character of Thomasina, who we could argue maps onto Ada, the Countess of Lovelace is one of the main ways Stoppard presents the themes and ideas of love and making discoveries. Ada’s discoveries and articles she wrote concerning the analytical engine were ones that gained her the title of the first computer programmer. Similarly, in Arcadia we are immediately shown Thomasina’s eagerness and desire to gain knowledge and learn about the world around her whilst questioning it in such a way that leads her to making discoveries about art, science, maths, and of course, love.
The opening line of the play is Thomasina asking Septimus “what is carnal embrace?”, which immediately throws us in the play and foreshadows the themes that will be discovered throughout. The innocence of the question shows how she is still young and is on the brink of her sexual awakening. The innocence she possesses is shown through the constant questions of few words as we see she is aiming to find out and understand as much as she can about the subject. Although she is patronised and teased by her tutor Septimus, she continues to question it, showing her nature to query what she is told rather to accept; as well as her determination as a character which later leads to her making discoveries.
Thomasina maintains the act of questioning the world around her throughout the scene; specifically, about love and science and poses the idea that “you can’t stir things apart” which is one that people at the time the play was set would not be thinking about, especially young girls. This is proven to us as we see the stress Lady Croom faces about such a trivial situation such as the design for her garden, showing the audience the contrast between the ideas of Thomasina and her mother/ many other people in the 1800’s. As Charles Spencer points out in his review of the play for the Daily Telegraph; “sexual attraction, for instance, is one phenomenon Newton didn’t find a law for”. This again reiterates the idea that Thomasina, although clearly extremely academically intelligent, cannot, just like Newton, write proofs and theories for love no matter how many questions are asked, unless she experiences it for herself which marks the true turning point in the transition from child to adult. Thomasina is in many ways Stoppard’s way of encouraging questioning in his audience as well as to make them think about topics and ideas they may have not done so before 1993, when the play was written, as the majority of people are most likely to accept the theories rather than aim to prove, challenge or simply create new ones. Although it the idea of love is the final mystery of the play, Thomasina sets it up from the beginning by opening with the line “what is carnal embrace?”, as her journey to make her own discovery throughout the play as she transitions from child to adult.
Again, the idea of the audience being able to witness Thomasina’s innocence and consequentially the transition and journey she takes throughout the play, is shown through meta-theatricality in phrases such as “Does carnal embrace addle the brain?”. The use of the word ‘addle’ as well as the phrasing of the sentence, reminds the audience they are watching the life of a young girl over 200 years ago as it is language atypical to our modern day dialogue that is showing us her transition and giving us an insight to the innocence she possesses at this early stage in the play.
The idea of making discoveries is also presented to the audience through the character of Septimus who is Thomasina’s binary opposite, in the way he patronises her questions as we know he has experienced this for himself. As we are able to gather from this initial scene, Septimus is experienced and knowledgeable on many subjects. In the opening of the play we see “Septimus has a tortoise”, which in literature, is a well-known symbol of longevity; reiterating the knowledge Septimus has as the idea of the older you are, the wiser, is portrayed in the very early stages of Stoppard’s play. Contrary to this, the idea of wisdom growing alongside age is challenged by Thomasina when she questions “stopping every atom in its position and direction”. We see the extent of Thomasina’s incredibly intellectual intelligence through Septimus, who’s response features several pauses as if he has to think and comprehend his student’s difficult theory; showing that although the audience originally believed him to possess a higher developed intellect than his student, they are asked to question this, again through the use of meta-theatricality as this is an unusual question for a child of only 13 years to ask. It allows the audience to question what they see. The audience is also able to learn the answers to the questions Septimus answers, alongside the student as in Scene 1, Stoppard sets up the main questions that need to be answered and uses the lesson between the two characters as a way of doing so.
Stoppard uses language, structure and form to introduce and develop the themes in Act 1 Scene 1, such as the transitions and different stages each of the characters are at with their lives. The use of stichomythia in a conversation by Thomasina and Septimus shows how Septimus feels he has power to control the conversation as it is his student who is asking him for the answers and he only has to reply with very few or one-word responses. The misunderstandings and use of comedy as a genre of Stoppard’s play helps him to convey the themes in the first scene. The theme of chaos is also set up in scene 1 when Thomasina explains who has heard about “Mrs Chater in the gazebo in carnal embrace”. The confusing syntax of the phrases she uses adds to the idea of chaos in the house as well as the world around them. Again, when she’s explaining where she heard the phrase, it is a humorous exchange between her and her tutor as it is clear to the audience she is unclear on what she is talking about, showing the use of comedy being one of the ways Stoppard presents his themes. As Johann Hari wrote, “the play stirs the most basic and profound questions humans can ask” which relates to Thomasina’s questions about not being able to make jam in a rice pudding come together again. The confusing form of a word order of Thomasina’s questions require the engagement and full attention of the audience in order to be able to follow the narrative as the play also has a post-modern structure.
To conclude, it is clear that Stoppard presents the main themes of love, making discoveries, chaos and transitions to later on develop as the play progresses, mainly through the use of the protagonists of Septimus and Thomasina but also through the use of structure, form and language. The genre of comedy also helps to convey the idea of chaos and the miscommunications between the characters create a humorous tone throughout the first scene.