The Uses of History in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 1)

[Note:  Of one thing I am convinced:  There is nothing new in the world of “Education.”  Rather, the same ideas, usually with different names and/or ever greater reliance on technology, keep coming ’round, like some sort of bizarre, quasi-“intellectual” carousel on which all teachers are supposed to ride, until told by those above them in the administrative food chain that the time has come to dismount and try a different horse, or another merry-go-round.  As that sterling academician, Lawrence Peter (“Yogi”) Berra, liked to say, “It’s deja vu all over again.”  In my school we had a traditional curriculum when I arrived in the 1970s, then went heavily into electives, followed by “back to basics,” after which we developed a rather awkward modus vivendi featuring survey courses but with just enough electives to complicate almost beyond belief scheduling classes, especially for juniors and seniors.

A hardy perennial in this game of educational musical chairs, arriving like clockwork on the curriculum carousel every decade or so–and greeted each time, by Those Who Made The Bigger Bucks at any rate, with dewy-eyed enthusiasm–stressed “interdisciplinary” learning.  We might select an important current event and present it to our students in an “interdisciplinary” fashion, for example. Another approach was to select a play for presentation to the school community, then ask representatives of several academic departments to use their special skills to help throw light on the dramatic production.  For a while we also had an “Explore” program, in which we introduced a different culture or civilization to our students annually, looking in an interdisciplinary way at customs, language, music, dance, food, geography, history, and government.

For a time, we actually offered (for seniors) two interdisciplinary courses involving History, one stressing community service and Christian ethics, the other American Studies, but these perished when the economy tanked and “interdisciplinary learning,” at least of that sort, became too costly. And then there was an English/History semester elective on Shakespeare’s “history plays” and the History behind them.  I was a sucker for these cooperative endeavors and did my bit, when asked, to try to make the study of History more “relevant,” as we used to say in the ’60s, by putting it into a broader, interdisciplinary, context. Here is an instance, a look at the role played by the discipline of History in Tom Stoppard’s play, “Arcadia.”]

 * * * * *

George III, the last king of America, was on the throne of Great Britain for sixty years (1760-1820).  Beginning in 1765, he suffered bouts of temporary insanity.  Things got so bad that in 1788 Parliament passed a regency act empowering the king’s son, the Prince of Wales, to take over the throne while his father was incapacitated, but George III recovered within a year.  Nevertheless, the mere possibility that a “Prince Regent” might occupy the throne again before his father died affected political alignments in England for the next thirty years.  George III became blind in 1809 and hopelessly insane in 1811, so his son ruled as Prince Regent from the latter date until the King’s death in 1820, at which time he ascended the throne as George IV.

As Prince of Wales, the future George IV was known for profligacy and extravagance.  In 1785, he secretly married a Catholic, but two years later, in order to get money to pay his debts, he allowed Parliament to declare the marriage illegal, which it was anyway under laws going back at least to the Glorious Revolution.  The  Prince needed money again by 1795, so he agreed to marry his German cousin, only to become estranged from her a year later, after the birth of their daughter.  The  Prince Regent’s conduct alienated many “average Britons,” but well-born Englishmen may have modeled their less than stellar moral conduct on that of the Prince Regent, which gave to the period of the Regency a well-earned reputation for sexual license and immorality.

Still, all of this “real history” has little bearing on Tom Stoppard’s play, nor do the great political issues of the time, such as the long war with Napoleonic France, repressive laws passed by Parliament to keep commoners in their place, or the position of Catholics in England and the related issue of the future of Ireland.  There are, however, a couple of broader trends that find their way into “Arcadia”:  the most obvious is the sometimes bizarre cultural movement known as Romanticism; another is the Industrial Revolution, symbolized in the play by the chugging steam engine heard offstage.

There are two characters “doing history” in Stoppard’s play.  Hannah Jarvis qualifies as a historian, but, according to Bernard Nightingale, just barely, for, as he reminds her early on, she writes “popular history,” books that large numbers of people actually buy and read, as opposed to dull academic tomes of interest only to other specialists.  The author of a widely-reviewed book on Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron, Hannah is spending time at Sidley Park trying to unravel the mystery of the “hermit,” whom she sees as a kind of living metaphor for the transition from the Enlightenment to the Age of Romanticism.

Bernard Nightingale, on the other hand, is a professor, or “don,” at a college in Sussex.  In the best tradition of such “academics,” Bernard does not take his teaching responsibilities all that seriously.  Rather, he is searching for the elusive break that will give his career a much-needed jolt, bring him his “fifteen minutes of fame,” and he thinks he’s found it in the copy of Ezra Chater’s poem, Couch of Eros, with three mysterious letters inside, that he carries with him to Sidley Park.  Make no mistake about it:  Bernard has a definite agenda when he arrives.  He hopes to find at the Coverly estate proof that Lord Byron fought a duel there in 1809 and fled the country as a result.

So, because he’s interested in what he thinks is a hitherto undiscovered aspect of Byron’s life, rather than in his poetry, Bernard is also “doing history,” whether he admits it or not.  The problem, as we soon learn, is that Bernard has already committed the cardinal sin of the feckless historian:  he has become convinced that his hypothesis, that Byron killed the poet Chater in a duel, is true, and he is only prepared to find and use evidence that will confirm it.

Playwright Tom Stoppard manipulates the sources, the raw material of the historian, very cleverly indeed in “Arcadia.”  The ones he introduces are mostly primary:  letters; the Couch of Eros; game books; garden books; Thomasina’s math primer and drawings; even an article from Cornhill Magazine in 1860 that refers briefly to the hermit.  Stoppard’s handling of the three letters hidden in Chater’s poem is particularly deft.  Because Septimus Hodge discarded the “covers” (early 19th-century equivalents of envelopes), there is no way to be sure for whom the missives were intended (unless, like Bernard, the investigator already has made up his mind).  Moreover, in Scene Six (pp.70-72), Stoppard has Septimus burn a letter to himself from Byron, and he has Lady Croom destroy two letters from Septimus, one to herself and the other to Thomasina.  If these three letters had been preserved, they might have saved Bernard a lot of embarrassment.

The main problem I have with Stoppard’s handling of the sources is that it’s all just a little too neat.  By the final scene, Bernard has of course gotten his comeuppance, and then, after he leaves, Stoppard has the mute (perhaps idiot savant?) Gus Coverly give Hannah the last piece of evidence she needs to identify the hermit, Thomasina’s drawing of Septimus and Plautus.  My experience with historical research is that questions we ask of the distant past are seldom answered so fully.

In a sense, what Stoppard does here is to validate Bernard’s early claim, which Hannah seems to share with regard to her own research:  the elusive “smoking gun” exists; all he and Hannah must do is find it.  Well, Bernard clearly stopped looking too soon, satisfied that he had all the evidence he needed, largely because he could shape (or warp) the documents that had come to light so that they validated his sensational hypothesis.  Now, there comes a time in every research project when the historian realizes that he has exhausted all of the sources he knows about.  It’s at that point that the researcher puts his conclusions–and any remaining questions–in writing.  Sometimes this process works well enough to make a worthwhile book or article, but at other times the gaps between what the historian can actually know or reasonably assume are too wide.  When that happens, the historian has several options:

1.  He or she can of course give up, which most  are reluctant to do.  This is probably what Bernard should have done, but that would have removed much of the humor from the play.  Many years ago, I was in roughly the same position as Bernard.  I was determined to prove that a certain person was the author of a pamphlet published anonymously in 1784.  Unfortunately, all the evidence I found was circumstantial; moreover, I kept tripping over hints that inclined me to think that the author of the piece could be a different person.  So, I gave up, but I still have all my notes.  Maybe someday. . . .

2.  The historian can continue the search for evidence.  Sometimes this quest is rewarded, but at other times this, in a way, is the same as giving up.  A historian I admire very much retired without publishing a book he’d been working on for much of his career.  The reason:  he was a perfectionist, and he refused to publish so long as there might be letters out there he hadn’t yet seen.  This was the course Hannah pursued, but, unlike my friend, her patience eventually was rewarded, thanks to Gus.

3.  The historian can look at the material he has from a different angle and try to reshape it into something more plausible.  This is what Bernard briefly considers doing after he is, um, “screwed” by a dahlia.  I found myself in this position while working on an article about one of Georgia’s first U.S. Senators.  I intended to make his election to the Senate the climax of the piece, but the sources were remarkably silent on exactly how he’d managed to secure his victory.  So, instead, I decided to focus on why his major opponent lost the race (which is hardly the same thing as explaining why my guy won, but, hey, it worked, and the article was published).

4.  Finally, the historian can publish the work as is, hoping of course that nothing turns up later to make him or her look foolish.  This is the course the ambitious Bernard took, but, it is important to note, he did so because he thought he had “proved,” to his own satisfaction at least, what he had been determined to show from the outset, and he paid the price for his obtuseness.

I believe one could assemble quite a workable approach to the study of History from Stoppard’s play.  For example, I’ve never seen a better description of the sometimes haphazard way in which primary sources are preserved than Septimus’s line on p.38:  “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.”  As a teacher of history, and a historian, I share Valentine Coverly’s view (on p.47) that “The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.”  I also think that Bernard is onto something when (on p.50) he describes the “gut instinct” that is part of every historian’s makeup, as “The certainty for which there is no back-reference.  Because time is reversed.  Tock, tick goes the universe and then recovers itself, but it was enough, you were in there and you bloody know.”  And, finally, every historian worth his or her salt must agree with Hannah (p.75) that “Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”


About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
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3 Responses to The Uses of History in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 1)

  1. That last quotation hits on an idea that seems central to Stoppard, the value in “useless” knowledge. My own response to the play is, natch, that of an Episcopalian playwright/director more than a student of history. Hope you’ll take a look at my thoughts on ARCADIA, along with some more Stoppard and some tangents:

    • “Useless knowledge”–ouch! That hurts a historian,since, if you went to grad school, you practically majored in knowledge that most people consider “useless”! I looked at your post on Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and was impressed, as I always am with your work. Hard to escape the conclusion that we went at the play from two very different directions, though,and mine was the narrower.

  2. admiral17 says:

    Sorry it took so long to get to this one. I think I was mired in one or more aspects of the “complicating beyond belief” moments you noted. This is great stuff. I have slowly come to realize that my own work needs to follow your third option. Keep up the good work.

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