In their press release for an exhibition, The Garden at War, Aganippe Arts write of the eighteenth century that “This was a time of classical revival, when the prevailing cultural attitude was to reform the world based on venerated classical ideals. The enlightenment provided a cultural environment which called for a form of art suited to this ‘Age of Reason’. The proponents of such a movement saw in the potential of the garden a symbolic embodiment of civilisation and of man’s relationship to nature. The garden suggested a lost Arcadia, a stage for philosophical thought, and just as irrationality may be conquered and turned to logical reasoning so too the wild forces of nature may be brought into quite alignment.”
Stoppard’s Arcadia, set partly at the end of the 18th century and partly in the late 20th century, picks up some of these themes – and some of the underlying violence and eroticism that underpins the garden design of the earlier period. The gazebo, boathouse and other garden buildings of his Derbyshire setting are, as at Stowe, locations for what might generously be termed ‘dalliance’. Though the garden’s relationship to enclosure, war and colonisation is not explicitly touched on in the play (there’s a glimpse of plant collecting in ‘the Indies’), violence against wildlife is a recurrent motif:
Thomasina: Pop, pop, pop… I have grown up in the sound of guns like the child of a siege. Pigeons and rooks in the close season, grouse on the heights from August, and the pheasants to follow – partridge, snipe, woodcock and teal – pop-pop – pop, and the culling of the herd. Papa has no need of the recording angel. His life is written in the game book.
Septimus: A calendar of slaughter. ‘Even in Arcadia, there am I.’ (p.13)
The relationship between attempted order and harmony and the subversions of sex and death (violence), is very much the theme of Arcadia, suggesting the doomed utopianism of Enlightenment thought, the inevitability of disorder’s triumph over order, the resurgence of the mythic and irrational.
The wit and brilliance of this play means that it ends up feeling rather sanguine and comfortable about this descent into chaos (theory), presenting it with the inevitability of original sin. There’s even an apple to suggest ‘t’was ever thus’. Although it is quite clear that predatory attitudes to both wildlife and women were present from the start, the progression towards disorder is presented as a decline that takes place because in the course of nature, order cannot be sustained and humans are naturally irrational. Nature will overcome the human attempt at regularity, all is disordered by sex, death and time. Towards the end of the play, we learn of the reintroduction of a parterre that suggests a return to an earlier style – a compromise, or a repetition.
No doubt entropy is a reality. But although it might be equally realistic to suggest that the Enlightenment was doomed because it ignored the id, to treat this decline as analogous is to de-historicise it. Such order as existed here was already built on the violence and eroticism and power struggles that would surface. Things could have been otherwise.
The misogyny that is part and parcel of this Arcadian ideal is evident in the casual contempt expressed by all for the permanently off-stage, permanently sexual Mrs Chater, as well as the painfully inevitable way that the innocent teenage daughter of the house, presented as an improbable mathematical genius, is implicitly brought to an early demise by the long-established inability of her tutor to keep his pants on and, one presumes, a related carelessness with candles. With her goes the potential brilliant future of the Enlightenment.
Two deaths that take place in Sidley park are brought to our attention: that of a rabbit, killed by Septimus and given to Thomasina for rabbit pie; and that of Thomasina herself. Thomasina draws a ‘rabbit equation’, her title for an iterated algorithm which, like the rabbit ‘eats its own progeny’, or rather, where the results of the equation are fed back into it – the first anachronistic steps towards a fractal diagram, linked suggestively to the fractal features of the apple leaf. This is a stage garden that eats its own progeny, and this equation is represented as the mathematical principle for mapping nature and its irregularity.
In general, the failed attempts at such mapping, whether mathematical, or historical, are more interesting than the fact of their failure (something acknowledged by the 20th century researcher, Hannah). The modern world, which occupies the spaces of the early 19th century past, is peopled with characters who are trying to understand the irregular details of that past. Theirs, like Thomasina’s, are attempts to make meaning, to find the pattern.
This theatre, too, eats itself in relation to its form, commenting on its own theatricality, feeding the present back into the past to contemplate the future (both periods occupy the stage simultaneously in the final scene). It also rather eats its own ideas, as its presentation of history is a little smooth and well-ordered given its exploration of historical disorder. It takes us through some well-established phases of garden history, for instance, moving from the neo-classical styles at the beginning of the 18th century, through the rolling landscapes, vistas and carefully positioned trees of ‘Capability Brown’, to the picturesque, without complicating this with the recognition that in a garden like Stowe, all these tendencies could co-exist in the mid-18th century, and that they were not necessarily presumed to be antithetical, and were only partly successional, but rather in dialogue. So, too, the shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism is presented largely in terms of degeneration from one state to another, from intellect to emotion. Although the earlier age is not entirely idealised, the latter is quite baldly represented, without any acknowledgement that the Romantics were often seeking a different relationship to children, women, nature and the privileges of class and wealth, in all these respects offering quite rational and indeed realist critiques of what both preceded them, and paved the way for them.
Although the play is complex enough to provide the materials and evidence for its own critique, its implicit relativism now feels out of date. If it suggests, as John Dixon Hunt proposes, that ‘any garden style is as valid as any other’ (1996:62), since all will lose their battle against nature, then surely this isn’t the case. All garden styles are not equal. Some garden styles are profoundly destructive, of both people, and the non-human world. Other approaches are more benign, even constructive, even vital to sustenance and survival, though there is room for dispute about what values are most important and what most needs to be propagated, nurtured and sustained. This includes discussion of how change and disorder are to be an acknowledged element – the rambunctiousness of the garden (Emma Marris). Humankind’s ubiquitous, though not always obvious, effects on the world, mean that to some extent (and always escaping control) all the world is a garden, as much as all the world is a stage. But what kind of garden, what kind of stage? This does matter.
Like so many plays, the natural world is left to our imagination here. Only a dead rabbit and a bitten apple cross the threshold of this interior space. They, like the garden, are overladen with symbolism. So, too, is Thomasina, despite having some of the best lines. We might begin by imagining a garden, a stage, a world, in which young women and non-humans escape their oppressive reduction to a doomed, symbolic idea, and erupt into the space, with all the material exuberance, contrariness and contradictory thus-ness of living creatures.
Dixon Hunt, John (1996) ‘”A breakthrough in dahlia studies” on Arcadia by Tom Stoppard’, Landscape Journal, 15.1, pp.58-64
Stoppard, Tom (1993), Arcadia, London: Faber and Faber.