March 17, 2011
Arcadia back on Broadway
I went to see Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia last night, on the final night of previews before the critics review it tonight. I'd seen it once before during its first run in London in 1994, back when I was a hardcore theater nerd, and at that time it was the best, most perfect play I'd ever seen. It was complicated and cool, funny and touching, an unabashed adoration of poetry that also made math and quantum physics into something accessible and neat.
The revival production is pretty good, and there are some wonderful moments and a few stand-out performances, but it didn't have the same magical spark that it had for me back in 1994. A theme that unites the two parts of the play, one set in 1809 and one in the present day, is the second law of thermodynamics, the idea that the flow of heat and energy only moves in one direction. When you throw a ball through a window, even if you gather up all the glass and put the pieces back together, you can never regain the energy that was released when the glass shattered into pieces. It's gone.
In the physical world, this is the same thing as entropy: once the milk is in the coffee, you can't stir it back out again. Once you've had your mind blown by one production of Arcadia, you can't unblow your mind and walk into a theater in 2011 expecting the same thing to happen again.
Still, there's some great stuff in this play. Both literature and physics are held up as the things that make life meaningful, and dismissed as esoteric nonsense. Billy Crudup, an arrogant and unbalanced Byron scholar, says: "I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars, big bang, black hole -- who gives a shit?" [you can listen to it on today's NPR story] There's a beautiful explanation of chaos theory by Raul Esparza (in the photo above), a stage actor I'd never seen before but who is totally phenomenal and great.
All this theatrical science reminds me a class my college offered that was popular among terrified English majors: Physics For Poets, a course that's been part of Patton Oswalt's routine. Hope Arcadia's on the syllabus.
Mostly, this play made me really want Tom Stoppard to write another one, already. He does a lot of rewrites and punch-ups of big Hollywood movie scripts, usually uncredited. I dug around a little, and Tom Stoppard contributed to the following movies, not necessarily what you'd expect from such an eggheady playwright:
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Steven Spielberg brought him in at the last minute to rewrite the script (Stoppard also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.) Spielberg says "Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue."
UPDATE: Emily pointed out to me that Fermat's Last Theorem, which is a topic of heated discussion in Arcadia, also appears in The Girl Who Played With Fire. Higher math is very hot right now! I've seen a few mathematically-oriented discussions of the GWPWF treatment of it, which suggest that Stieg Larsson maybe didn't have the greatest understanding of math and what proving theorems is all about (in reality it's not at all like solving a puzzle, apparently.)
While Stoppard was writing Arcadia, a lot was going on in the real world regarding Fermat's Last Theorem: it was actually solved in 1994, while the play was still running. The 13 year-old probable genius, Thomasina, posits that the Theorem was a joke created by Fermat to drive future mathematicians nuts. That reference probably went over better when we all thought it was still unsolvable.
Here's a full list of references to the Theorem in literature.
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