Sunday, January 3, 2010

Et in Arcadia ego

Last week I finished Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. My family and I saw one of his more recent plays a few years ago off-Broadway. And what I understood through the characters' thick accents and layered dialogue, I enjoyed immensely.

From my limited experience with his work, Stoppard seems enormously appealing for two predominant reasons. The first is his effortless touch with intellectual topics that he explores in razor cunning badinage. The second is his method of incorporating abstract forms of storytelling into his drama/comedies.

Take Arcadia. The whole play is set in one room juxtaposed by a 180 year time difference, 1993 and 1809. The characters both then and now casually discuss determinism, Fermat's Last theorem, chaos theory, thermodynamics, etc. Props from one time frame remain in the other. Two characters, played by the same actor, even ferries some of these props back and forth through the temporal divide.

I could have read Arcadia simply for his poetic treatment of maths and physics concepts, but Stoppard goes further. Rather than simply discussing the concept of chaos theory, he bends the idea into the structure of the play itself. The action begins in a unified starting point (the room) but quickly biphurcates into chaos. At the climax of the play the chaos converges as Stoppard piles the present and past on top of one another. Both characters in the past and the present share the stage. Their dialogues momentarily overlap in perfect synchronicity, before again diverging into the inevitable far-flung entropy. Kudos to anyone who can weave poetry out of my college physics experiments.

The title Arcadia is taken from the Greek word for a pastoral utopia. It's the name of the gardens visible from the window of the isolated room in which the plot unfolds. It's a word most commonly seen in the latin phrase Et in Arcadio ego, a statement by Death meant as a memento mori. It tinges the upbeat comedy with the biting edge of tragedy. For Stoppard, it seems that life is worth living for the sacred moments of order which span the engulfing gaps of chaos-filled life.

There's a lot to talk about with Arcadia. The dialogue, themes, characters, structure, and ideas all shine brightly. So much so, that it's not worth it to relay a plot synopsis but rather share some of the fruits I found most poignant. At the risk of depreciating the currency of the word, the play is simply brilliant. Stoppard is a master of his craft, and awe is really the only proper response for Arcadia.

Read it.

In other news, our Yeshiva is winding down on its four-day weekend after 2 months of intense learning. Since I completed Aliyah in mid-November I have put off many of the next steps in the process. So I decided to use this mini-vacation to complete many of these tasks. This morning I ran back and forth over Jerusalem so I could complete many of these tasks. I'm glad to say it was a productive morning and I now have a bank account, a Teudah Oleh, a specific health insurance plan (I was already covered but it would be a big mess if something happened to me without a card), the initiation of my aliyah payments.

I also started part one of Robert Caro's four-part biography of Lyndon Johnson on the recommendation of a friend from my ulpan this summer. The whole series thus far spans over 2000 pages. I'm only 90 pages into this first 800-page tome, but I can see why it is considered a classic.

His research on Johnson, from his family history down to the topography of his ancestral lands in Hill Country Texasis impeccable. Only by such exacting and intimate research could he get away with tearing down the myths and essentially assassinating Johnson's character. What makes the book so compelling, beyond the biography, is Caro's use of LBJ to meditate on greater themes of humanity and American history. Johnson's singular pursuit for power and the rise of South-western influence on 20th-century politics are not just historical events but deeper reflections of the human soul.

As he stated in an interview with Kurt Vonnegut: "I was never interested in writing biography just to show the life of a great man," saying he wanted instead "to use biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times—particularly political power."

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