Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: A Decade of Loving “Arcadia”

Marissa Skudlarek dissects the deepest of all love affairs: that of a fan with the work they love the most.

“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”

“Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.”

Ten years ago, I read the opening lines of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and fell in love. This wasn’t merely a playwright’s platonic love for a skillfully written script. No, I was a high school junior at the time, and I developed a massive crush on Septimus Hodge, the character who makes such a witty quip about the meaning of carnal embrace.

Spare me your Heathcliffs and your Mr. Darcys – for me it has always been Septimus and Septimus alone. He’s a ladies’ man, quick-witted, amusing, and rakish. But at the same time, he is capable of profound insights: “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”

In the play, Septimus is hired as tutor to the teenaged Lady Thomasina, who turns out to be a math prodigy. I identified with Thomasina, too, the way that I always identify with clever girls in works of fiction (Hermione Granger, say, or Roald Dahl’s Matilda). Being a smart girl, Thomasina naturally develops a crush on wonderful, sexy Septimus. He responds with mixed signals: he kisses her, but refuses to go to bed with her.

Yet, after Thomasina dies in a tragic accident, Septimus withdraws from the world and dedicates his life to investigating her mathematical theories. What greater proof of love could there be? Septimus may tease Thomasina, but deep down, he respects her. And he may sleep with other women, but it’s Thomasina who he loves. He admires her insight, her curiosity, all the essential traits of her personality. He loves her not in spite of her intelligence, but because of it. And when I was a gawky, bookish fifteen-year-old girl, that idea was very, very powerful.

There are many other reasons I love Arcadia: the script is brilliantly constructed, sparkles with epigrams, and expresses a perspective on life that I find both true and moving. But my original obsession was with Septimus and Thomasina. Perhaps I even took my identification with Thomasina a little too far: I made a point of rereading Arcadia on the night before I turned seventeen, because Thomasina dies in a fire on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. Yes, I feared dying in a fire that night, too! (This may make more sense if I explain that the night before my birthday is the Fourth of July, and people were shooting off bottle rockets nearby.)

And I still love Arcadia, though in recent years I’ve come to see it with a more critical eye. Even though it contains some excellent roles for women, it can also be criticized on feminist grounds: it’s a “dead girl play,” one of many in the dramatic canon that derives its emotional power from killing off a young female character. And, as a teenager, I found Thomasina and Septimus’ relationship wildly romantic – but, to my adult eyes, it looks kind of shady. My reaction has shifted from “Get over yourself, Septimus, and go have sex with your 16-year-old student!” to “Septimus, thank God you only went as far as kissing her.”

Yet, in ten years of loving Arcadia, I had never seen it staged. Though it’s a popular play at colleges and community theaters, years went by without my being in the vicinity of a production. Then, too, I didn’t want to be disappointed in the play when I did see it. I refused to attend a recent local production because I deemed the actor playing Septimus too old for the role – to see him would have dashed my girlish romantic dreams.

Then ACT, here in San Francisco, announced that Arcadia would be the closing production of their 2012-13 season. My feelings about this were as mixed as the jam in Thomasina’s rice pudding. Carey Perloff is famed for her productions of Stoppard plays, and ACT’s budget and resources would surely allow them to cast appropriate actors (i.e., they’d be able to find a young, cute Septimus). However, ACT is far from my favorite Bay Area theater company; I’ve seen some good shows there, but also some dreadful ones, such a dire production of Racine’s Phèdre helmed by Perloff herself. My optimism and my burning desire to finally see Arcadia prevailed, though, and I bought tickets to ACT’s production.

I’d always thought of Arcadia as a sprightly, fun script to read, but watching it, it seemed longer and talkier. It’s never dull, but it’s definitely a three-hour play of intricate complexity. However, seeing the play staged made me gain new respect for Stoppard’s dramatic construction. At the start of the play, there are dozens of unanswered questions; by the end of the play, everything has been tied up, to dazzling effect.

Thomasina was played by Rebekah Brockman, a student in ACT’s MFA program. Presumably, Brockman is in her twenties, yet she made an utterly believable thirteen-year-old, fidgeting and tucking her feet up under her as she sat in a chair. Meanwhile, to play Septimus, ACT imported Jack Cutmore-Scott, a New York actor who had understudied the role on Broadway. And yes, he’s cute. But more importantly, he gave a very human portrayal of Septimus. On the page, Septimus can come off as almost too good to be true – that’s why I developed a crush on him. But in Cutmore-Scott’s portrayal, Septimus wasn’t always in control of the situation. Though his quick wit soon enabled him to regain his equilibrium, he also had moments of vulnerability and confusion.

The production wasn’t perfect. Indeed, the night I saw it, there was an understudy in the role of Bernard Nightingale. His English accent was shaky, and he had to shout “Line!” several times. But it didn’t ruin the play.

Tom Stoppard has revealed that at the end of Arcadia – where modern music plays as the characters dance a Regency waltz – he wanted the song to be the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That’s always been my favorite Stones song, I think because its lyrics acknowledge that life is not some Arcadian idyll and yet the music grooves and swells and exults. Thematically, it makes a perfect match for the final moments of Arcadia.

All right, then: you can’t always get what you want. (Even Stoppard couldn’t get what he wanted: he couldn’t use that song at the end of Arcadia because it’s not a waltz.) The Arcadia production at ACT wasn’t perfect, and Septimus Hodge doesn’t exist in real life. At the same time, I saw Arcadia with my boyfriend, who loves the script as much as I do, and is pretty special in other ways too. I had to wait ten years to see Arcadia; I also had to wait ten years to meet a man who’d love me for my intelligence. It was worth it, both times. If you try sometimes, you get what you need.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.