Stoppard’s Arcadia on Broadway

Picture of the ending waltz (NOT from the current Broadway production)

It all ends in one swirling waltz, with both past and present people circling each other in a ring of time and thought. Indeed, Stoppard’s Arcadia, currently running at the Barrymore Theater, gives the sense that time dances with itself as well. The two intertwined narratives, one in the 1830s and one in the present day, step around each other in the space of an old British country house, never touching except perhaps if the present day inhabitants feel a ghost-like chill as they research the earlier characters.

Aptly played by most of the cast, except perhaps a really galling and annoying portrayal of Bernarad Nightengale by Billy Cudrup that toned itself down in the second half, the lines were spoken well. (The NY Times disagrees here.) Stoppard loads his lines down with so many -isms that are then undercut by so many comedic lines that just getting them out naturally and so that the audience can follow deserves applause. The characters themselves are warm and human, if not particularly fleshed out. In their limited roles, the mouthing of Stoppard’s suddenly heart-wrenching epigrams, full of yearning and paradox, can seem a little startling.

Many of Stoppard’s plays have been history lessons as well, bringing us into the intellectual thoughts and mores of an era. Nothing revolutionary happens here, and a quick explanation of plot or purpose is hard to come by for Arcadia. Set in Sidley Park, an English country house, the research of two modern scholars and the house’s current residents are juxtaposed with the lives of those who lived there 180 years earlier. In the present, writer Hannah Jarvis is researching a hermit who once lived on the grounds of the estate and Bernard Nightingale, a literature professor, is investigating a possible connection to the life of Lord Byron. As their investigations unfold, helped by Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology, the truth about the 1800s era residents Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, is gradually revealed.

What the actors do very well is make the search for knowledge and truth a passionate, heartfelt affair. The possible futility of it lends pathos to the character’s individual searches. Time and Sidley Park brings them together for a brief moment. Altogether, a little wilder than the average Bristish country house story.

Brian Bedford’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Roundabout

Another day, another drenching of wet snow to struggle through, adding the misery of a full body contact subway commute with people whose horrible taste in music pounds through their earbuds. Anyhow, as I intended to write, last night I went to see one of my favorite plays of all time, the one I write my university thesis on, have seen on stage four times, and viewed every movie version of, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde directed by Brian Bedford.

It de-ceded expectations. Perhaps because I was bringing so much to it, I lost a naive enjoyment of it. Surely a joke is bound to lose some of its funniness when I already know the punch line. Yet I also think I have some distinct opinions about how to deliver the mannered and difficult lines (with preferably less camp) and really about how to do the whole play.

Two perfect things: the set and Brian Bedford (also the director) in his role as Lady Bracknell. He was perfect, and every line of his was a joy to hear. The campy Algernon, and over-modulated voices of the Gwendolyn and Cecily, and character roles the servants took on, and the histronics of Miss Prism–somehow none of them hit the right note of artificiality. They were all too excitable about it, not nearly languid enough. Dr. Chausable and Jack were actually rather good. They ham up the obvious theatrically of the piece rather than treating it with the upmost seriousness.

While it didn’t live up to my expectations, Wilde’s brilliance is unsquashable and it is a serviceable rendition. True to Wilde, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” The New York Times reports this morning that the critically acclaimed show’s run is being extended.

Apropos my discussion yesterday against the glorification of Nature in Schiller, this quote of Wilde’s seemed deliciously suited:

“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” – Lady Bracknell, Act 1

The Screwtape Letters’ “soft, gentle path to Hell”

I saw an adaption of The Screwtape Letters at the Westside Theater the other night, in one of last performances before it hit the road (check out the site to see if its coming near you). The Screwtape Letters is a satirical novel by C. S. Lewis first published in February 1942 and the play, set in a stylish office in hell, follows the clever scheming of Satan’s chief psychiatrist, Screwtape, as he hungrily entices a human ‘patient’ toward damnation (human souls being hell’s primary source of food). Evil, the banality of evil, and specifically the insidious ways it works into individual’s lives is told here through a demon’s point of view. It is damn funny, because psychologically is is dead on and startlingly true even today, even from a non-Christian perspective.

As I learned in discussion after the performance, Lewis wrote this story about a senior demon, Screwtape, teaching his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, how to secure the damnation of a British man after hearing a translation of one of Hitler’s speeches on the BBC radio. Hitler’s silver tongue, as he exhorted the English to believe that he only wanted to work together to lead a great cultural world upheaval, struck him as being the purest evil. 

Lewis dedicated the work to his friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, who had warned that delving too deeply into the craft of evil would have consequences. Lewis later wrote:

about_chair“Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment . . . though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.”

However the play is much more lively and interesting than that, and I imagine a much better theatrical experience that reading the meditative letters might give one to expect.