Field of Science


The super-lame New Yorker review of the recent Broadway revival of Stoppard's "Arcadia" moved me to do a rare thing: write a letter to the editor. They didn't publish it, despite the fact -- and I think I'm being objective here -- my letter was considerably better than the review. Reviews are no longer free on the New Yorker website (you can see a synopsis here), but I think my letter covers the main points. Here it is below:

Hilton Als ("Brainstorm", Mar 28) writes about the recent revival of "Arcadia" that Stoppard's "aim is not to show us people but to talk about ideas." Elsewhere, Als calls the show unmoving and writes that Stoppard does better with tragicomedies.
"Arcadia" is not a show about ideas. It is about the relationship people have with ideas, particularly their discovery. Anyone who has spent any amount of time around academics would instantly recognize the characters as people, lovingly and realistically depicted. (Als singles out Billy Crudup's "amped-up characterization of the British historian Bernard Nightengale" as particularly mysterious. As Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times review, "If you've spent any time on a college campus of late, you've met this [man].")
As an academic, the production was for me a mirror on my own life and the people around me. Not everyone will have that experience. The beauty of theater (and literature) is that it gives us peek into the inner lives of folk very different from ourselves. It is a shame Als was unable to take advantage of this opportunity.
Where the play focuses most closely on ideas is the theme of an idea (Thomasina's) stillborn before its time. If one feels no pathos for an idea that came too soon, translate "idea" into "art" and "scientist" into "artist" and consider the tragedies of artists unappreciated in their time and quickly forgotten. Even a theater critic can find the tragedy in that.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I enjoyed it years ago, but about all I remember is this exchange:

Valentine: It may all prove to be true.
Hannah: It can't prove to be true, it can only not prove to be false yet.
Valentine: (Pleased) Just like science.

...which we used to introduce a paper on Strong Inference.