We went to see Arcadia by Tom Stoppard at American Players Theatre (APT) over the weekend. Arcadia is a wonderful play done to near perfection by APT. It intertwines two of our favorite topics: time travel and academics.
Rebecca Hurd is up to being an adult playing the Thomasina, the 13 (and later 16 year-old) genius from the 19th century living at a country house called Sidley Park. Thomasina is the focal point of the science and math of the play. Old friends Jim DeVita (Bernard) and Colleen Madden (Hannah) play the archival researchers in the present. The play is extraordinary because it captures math, science, archival research, and love all at once. The research part of it is often underreported, check out Reception here, but Stoppard shows great understanding of the joys and challenges of such research.
Sidebar One: Arcadia is a great play because you can take parts of it and leave other parts. You don’t need to know the math, science, or research to enjoy it because the humans are so much fun. Knowing a little of it helps. End sidebar.
In archival research you need to tell a story based on incomplete data. Often, as when we find out that Lord Byron was a house guest at Sidley Park, some of the data comes from unexpected sources. In this case it was the hunting logs which the biological mathematician was using for other purposes. Bernard gets overly excited about the certainty that Lord Byron was there and concocts a wonderful theory that will be published but slain by an ugly fact.
Sidebar Two: A great example of the challenge of research is that data is incomplete. Stoppard vividly displays this when a character in the 19th century claims that he, rather than Lord Byron, shot the animal. Of course, if he had ben recorded then Bernard would not have a data point to work from. End sidebar.
Bernard and Hannah get to theorize while we see parts of the truth from the 19th century. He gets published but she gets the last laugh. It is a stern reminder for all of us that seek to uncover the secrets of the past. It is also great fun.