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Classics Chat #1: A Review of “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard

Okay, I’m a huge classics buff.

I know that’s typically not something you hear from an eighteen year-old particularly often, but it’s true; I love reading classics and works of literary merit. In fact, I love it so much that I can count the amount of YA books I have read in high school on one hand.

I do read a pretty good mix of modern literature and classic literature and have a tendency to have very strong opinions on them. For instance, Pride and Prejudice is EXTREMELY overrated, and the best thing about that novel is the wit of the Austen narrator. Seriously. Only reason I kept reading.

It also takes a lot to impress me. While I can appreciate every work of literature (even P&P), I have read so many classics that it just takes something spectacular to blow me away. As much as I enjoyed “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”, they didn’t blow me away as much as As I Lay Dying.

Also, I hate humourous works. While I really do enjoy satire, I find that works that are humourous for the sake of being humourous (The Importance of Being Earnest comes to mind) does not add as much to a work as it could. I guess the best way to put it is that I enjoy well-placed, witty humour over absurdity.

So how did I get to reading “Arcadia”? Long story short, it was a part of my AP Literature curriculum.

Granted,  “Arcadia” would not be something I would’ve picked up on my own. I would definitely classify it as a more humourous play, which would have been an immediate turn-off. It’s also pretty modern (1993) and I tend to gravitate more towards works published before 1960. All in all, it just didn’t seem like something I would particularly enjoy.

My literature teacher, who is one of my all time favourite people, told me that based on all the conversations he had with me that I would get a kick out of “Arcadia”. In fact, he had been telling me this all year, and “Arcadia” was the last book in our curriculum, so I was definitely extremely excited to read this.

So the play is about one hundred pages long, divided into six scenes that alternate between present day and the past (which I believe is meant to be early 1800s). There are two sets of main characters, Septimus, Mr. Chater, Lady Croom, and Thomasina in the past and Chloe, Bernard, Valentine, Hannah, with a few minor characters that come and go, one that is notably double cast.

As I was initially reading it, I was intrigued by the use of the stage and props, namingly the table. I’m a professional actor, so I can appreciate some good blocking and stagework, especially because I feel like theatre is starting to lose the “literary” aspect of it (more on that in another post). I remember screeching in delight when Lightning was picked up by Valentine in Scene II right after Septimus had used it. I got a lot of weird looks from my friends in that one.

For the most part, my initial reading was a bit rough. I could tell everything was placed deliberately, but I was struggling putting the pieces together; after all, what did Stoppard mean when he wrote this? What did he want to say or accomplish?

It wasn’t until I started digging deep into the play that I began to see it for the art that it really is.

I’m not gonna spoil too much of the novel, but I’m a big title person: as a poet, I feel like the title can often times open an overarching theme that may have been glossed over otherwise. This piece of literature can be read through a title lense  (which oh my god I appreciated) as well as several different lenses, which adds to a factor that I refer to as “rereadability”. I HATE rereading books, so any book that I can reread and enjoy immediately scores highly on my list.

Second, everything within this play is well-placed. From the witty humour to the use of somewhat minimal props is VERY deliberate, and when I was finally able to sit down and analyze the book did I discover just how much was packed into a somewhat measly 100 pages.

On top of this (and probably a good selling point) is the fact that the play is VERY accessible. I love reading classics, but I totally understand that it isn’t most people’s cup of tea. However, I feel this is a good play to start out with if you’re looking to dip your toes into the classics realm.

Honestly, I have found a gem among the works of Tom Stoppard. I have written several essays on the play itself and am so excited to sit down and continue analyzing it. It has honestly brought me so much joy, both on paper and seen live.

If you’re looking to try something new and different for the summer, highly recommend!

It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.

-Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”

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