|Stoppard's critically successful play includes long discussions of topics of
mathematical interest including: Fermat's Last Theorem and Newtonian
determinism, iterated algorithms, the second law of thermodynamics,
Fourier's heat equation, and chaos theory
In the historical portion of the play, we follow teenage math genius Thomasina Coverly as she uncovers the secrets of the universe. Although she does not prove Fermat's Last Theorem (which she tries to do), she does discover fractal geometry and the eventual "heat death" of the universe from monotonic increasing nature of entropy...all in 1809! In the contemporary portion of the play, a mathematical biologist studying chaotic population dynamics lives in the same house that Thomasina had occupied almost 200 years earlier.
The Scientific American review of this play is here.
Ivars Peterson's comments about the math in this play are here and the
MSRI video with scenes from the play and a discussion with Stoppard
can be purchased here
Although most of the reviews I have seen for Arcadia have been entirely positive, one anonymous contributor to this site wrote to tell me that...
....the ideas discussed
are not new - being found in many works of population science and
scientific commentary. It will date quickly. As drama, it is close to
empty: where is the dramatic tension? where would the play be without the
references to sex and illicit liaisons? And is it not all-too-predictable
(and saleable) that the young female genius is portrayed as desperate to
seduce her tutor and, dear oh dear what a tragedy, perishes in a tragic
More recently, I have received this "rebuttal" from an anonymous director:
The anonymous critic who described the
play as dramatically empty was woefully
missing the point and, I would suggest,
not used to appreciating theatre of
As an actor, theatre director and one
time student of mathematics and
philosophy, I have to redress the
balance by rating Arcadia as on of the
finest theatrical works of this
century. I am surprised that anyone who
saw the original production at the
National Theatre could not have been
moved by it. I cannot vouch for lesser
productions and interpretations.
While in college I played the role of
Septimus in Arcadia. As I suspected,
the performance received mixed
reviews. The show is obviously written
for those have an unconventionally
curious mind. As an actor, it was by
far the most well written, enigmatic,
subtle and, yet, complex role I have
ever had the pleasure of performing.
The show opened up a world of interests
that rapidly became `underground'
hobbies and I would highly recommend it
to fellow curious minds.
I was a math major taking a literary interpretation class for fun when I met Arcadia. As math major, former English major, and someone who has been active in many parts of the theatre, this play holds much for me to enjoy. What I enjoy most though is not only is mathematics discussed in the play, mathematcs is also central to the play thematically. In fractal geometry, every part of the graph is a copy of another level of the graph.Or, the graph looks similar to itsef no matter how far you "zoom in". This similarity between iterations is shown in the two generations in the house and the fact that time itself collapses in the last scene. This is one of my favorie plays of all time!
Thomas J. McGuire|
The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (http://www.msri.org/) invited Stoppard to visit in 1999. At one public event, Robert Osserman and Stoppard discussed math, theatre, etc. amidst a few bits of the play. Search their web page for further infomation, including a video of the event.
A wonderful and inspiring piece of mathematical/scientific theatre.
Miguel Ángel Mirás Calvo|
I can only wish that it had been written in Spanish...
We just finished reading Arcadia in class, and it is a great play! I just wish we could find a filmed version, since I think that seeing this play would make it that much better. I like the complexity and the fact that the work itself resembles a fractal (whether or not the author intended this).
The format that Stoppard utilizes in writing about two time periods contributes to the notion that perhaps Arcadia is a fractal itself, separated by the 4th dimension. Both the characters and the settings mirror one another in the past and present. Not only does this play reveal a struggle between science and mathematics but also between reason and chaos in a transitional time period between the Enlightenment and the Renaissance.
Often in the play, issues between determinism and free will also arise in conversations between the characters in both time periods. In paralleling people to equations, iteration makes sense for both. Essentially, people make decisions that lead to results that lead to more decisions. Stoppard seems to convey that time repeats itself, like a monkey at a typewriter who is bound to type the same thing twice. Septimus even says that we are like travellers who pick up what others have left behind.
Readers will surely ponder these questions after having read Arcadia.