Staff Reviews

The Birth of Chaos


Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia, revived on Broadway in March, engages the intellect more than most contemporary drama. Sex, fractals, poetry, the heat death of the universe, and the joy and frustration of academic life frame a contest between reason and emotion.

In 1809 tutor-seducer Septimus Hodge, a schoolmate of Lord Byron, instructs 13-year-old mathematical genius Thomasina Coverly in the library of an elegant English estate. Two centuries later, competing literary scholars, feminist Hannah Jarvis and egocentric Bernard Nightingale, convene in the same library to debate the evidence that Byron might have dueled there. Jarvis also wants to know who the hermit lodged in the estate's hermitage was. But the real discovery is that Thomasina left notes pointing toward modern chaos theory.

Alternating scenes show what happened and how it later gets absurdly misinterpreted, its significance overlooked. The play demonstrates that both the literary and the scientific imagination are needed to understand who we are. —Ronald Bailey