Theatre and theoretical physics are not usually considered the most natural of companions. The canon consists of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s rather macabre production The Physicists, and… actually, that’s about it.
Enter Tom Stoppard. Arcadia, set in both 1809 and 1993, is superficially a comic drama. There’s dancing, hunting, adultery, at least one elopement, colossal levels of sexual tension, and much more besides. But these are the surface phenomena: scratch below and you’ll certainly find “more than one can usefully wish to know”. And it’s the interaction between the romance and the rest that gives this script its status as Stoppard’s masterpiece.
The play’s opening scene is a dialogue between Thomasina, a girl of 13, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (aged 22). The subject of their discussion alternates between Fermat’s last theorem and the exact meaning of ‘carnal embrace’. This is weighty prolepsis. Thomasina is precocious (a genius, in fact), and Septimus clever, but neither is especially studious – the only way we get discourse about entropy is through consideration of rice pudding, and the first law of thermodynamics is discussed simply because Thomasina is struck by the sad irreversibility of cooling tea. A more open treatment of the theoretical subject is given through Thomasina’s homework: whilst it’s never explicitly stated, we can infer from the dialogue that she is, in effect, working on fractals. She’s using the results of her equation to generate the values used in its next iteration, and this is where chaos theory (also not mentioned by name) starts to take the stage.
Put very roughly, chaotic results are obtained by creating a system whose output is recycled, and used to create values for the input. What’s exciting about this is that we end up with unpredictability, and that is what lies at Arcadia’s heart. The question we, the audience, are really concerned with is to do with mathematics and nature – or, as the thesps among us might have it, art and life (and mirrors). So what, if any, is the relation? Thomasina endeavours to create an equation that will describe a leaf, but what is exciting is the play’s own representation of certain mathematical laws.
For, as a piece of theatre, Arcadia certainly tends from order to disorder. Those characters who don’t fall in love with the wrong person are busy holding altercations over research, fighting imaginary duels (with Lord Byron, no less), or composing purportedly awful poetry. The two time-streams begin to coalesce; Thomasina and Septimus waltz to music from 1993, whilst the modern characters adopt period dress and employ props belonging to the nineteenth-century residents. The unfolding of this sequence is accompanied by regretful discussion of the universe’s ultimate heat death, which seems to be the motivating factor in a fair degree of hasty behaviour.
Another theme is the well-rehearsed conflict between free will and determinism. Thomasina’s novel suggestion is that determinism cannot be true, because it does not take love into account – elective affinities (think Goethe) undermine any force it may otherwise have had. And it is certainly true that relationships in Arcadia defy all expectations. But this conflict betrays a wider schism in the play: Newtonian rationalism fights Byronic romanticism for dominance of an increasingly enlightened age. The dialectic between the classical and romantic is played out in discussion of mathematics, physics and poetry, making Arcadia truly interdisciplinary. The audience, however, must come to its own conclusions as to which is the victor, for Stoppard gives nothing away…
The result, then, is a script wrought with romance and rationalism, with humour and tragedy; it is an intense formula. So, as to the question of whether physics and theatre can sit together comfortably: it’s chaotic, but yes. The two are a perfect complement – even in Arcadia.