Friday, May 6, 2011

Here I am in Arcadia

Thursday night I saw one of my favorite plays in the history of ever, Arcadia [editor's note: A girl named Zelda is seeing a crapload of plays during the month of May. Consider yourself forewarned]. This was my third time seeing this production, my fourth time seeing the play, and my bazillionth time experiencing it, as I've read it more times than I can count.

I love this play. I love this play. I would see it every night for a month if I could.

(Please bear with me, o those of you unfamiliar with the play, as I promise I will get to you in a moment.)

Articulating what I love about this play is sliiiiiiightly more difficult because there's just so much in it. Many people point to the argument made by Hannah, one of the researchers in the play, that "It's wanting to know that makes us matter," as the modern-day characters try to puzzle out from bits of paper, lost letters, and gamebooks, what it was that happened nearly two centuries earlier. And that is part of it - the driving need to know, to understand, to tell a story that's been untelling itself in the intervening years.

There's also the love, the beating heart in each character yearning to connect, to be seen and recognized.

But what I always come back to is what Septimus says in 1809, as his young pupil Thomasina mourns all the great works lost forever when the library of Alexandria burnt down. He comforts her with this thought:
You should no more grieve for the [lost writing] than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those left behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient curses for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. [emphasis mine]
This moment of course carries dramatic irony, as we have already seen the modern-day characters trying to reconstruct the very moments Septimus is currently living, including mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view. I guess the cynic could argue that this is just a more flowery way of saying "there is nothing new under the sun," that anything new you find has already been found. But I think it's more than that. It is a comfort to us, beyond whatever religion you may have, that no idea is truly lost, that the potential is always there to rediscover it again. That we can rebuild what has fallen, that we can continue forward.

Which does come back to the "wanting to know," because of course that is how we rediscover old ideas and create new ones - we quest for it.

And of course, the heart - that is there in every time. So the play closes with two couples from two different centuries, sharing the stage as they waltz - a moment out of time, out of place, when their worlds cross - because there is always time enough for that, even as the earth goes irrevocably on toward its eventual quiet death, as the heat of the universe slowly fades away.
Because time is reversed. Tock, tick goes the universe and then recovers itself, but it was enough, you were in there and you bloody know. - Bernard Nightingale
What this means to people unfamiliar with the play:

This problem of lost moments, forgotten thoughts, is an epidemic fast becoming obsolete. Everything is saved and documented now - even tweets are being logged for posterity by the Library of Congress. And this is both a good thing and a bad thing - a good because things are getting saved in a way that can't be burnt down by a temperamental Roman (though I suppose they could be hacked by a temperamental techno-wiz); and a bad because everything is being saved. Yes, the revolutions in the Middle East, but also the roast beef sandwich that guy had for lunch.

The problem we have now with our internet media culture is TOO much information, not the large gaping holes of silence of the past. And a great deal of that surfeit of data is false, because anyone can put anything out there, and it's out there forever.

So the "wanting to know" that drives the characters in Arcadia - is this therefore something we've lost? Or something we've just become lazy about, as the information (true or fabrication) is just a click and a search engine away. Or perhaps we just have to look in different directions now - there is less looking back, at least by non-academics, and more looking forward. And a lot more looking around to either side. The fascination has morphed into what our neighbor is up to, as the privacy walls crumble down.

You'll be seeing a further discussion of privacy versus internet persona at some future date. Promise.

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