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A witty pointed play, as Stoppard usually is, intercutting between the eighteenth century and the twentieth in the same room of the same English aristocratic house. In the eighteenth century, a young girl and her tutor bicker and work at mathematics, while the tutor carries on an affair with the wife of a minor poet; in the twentieth, academics pawing through the remnants develop entirely the wrong ideas about what happened in the eighteenth (a beautiful demonstration of the principle that, when in doubt, people tend to blame everything on Lord Byron).

The intercutting reminds me of Byatt's Possession, somewhat, in the way that it's both funny and sad to watch the academics fumbling about when we've seen what actually happened and know they're never going to get it right, ever; but the emotional dimension here is added in a way that Byatt did not do it, which is that the academics have some pointedly accurate information also. Thomasina, the young girl, is lively and snarky, sarcastic at thirteen and a mathematical genius at sixteen-- and we know from quite early when she dies and how, though not why, and it colors every time she steps on the stage. Most of the suspense comes out of this sort of thing, knowing the date of a death, or thinking we know, knowing the date of a marriage when that marriage does not seem very likely from what we have seen of the past. Eventually, of course, the whole thing ties itself in a neat knot, because this is Stoppard, whose precision is the greater part of his irony.

Thomasina and her tutor, Septimus, are the heart of the thing and the best of it. I particularly like a moment when he tells her that as Fermat's last theorem has been bothering the best minds in Europe for a hundred and fifty years, he had rather hoped it would keep her occupied until lunchtime. The early scenes with them are unmitigatedly delightful, and the two of them know it. Et in arcadia ego-- the phrase recurs, used by several of the principal characters, appearing as a Latin quiz, a sexual reference and a description of the state of living in an English country house: all very well, until you remember who it was said the phrase in the original. But Thomasina and Septimus are in a kind of Arcadia, one where he can talk the husband of his lover into liking him again whenever he wants to, one where she can revolutionize calculus before going out to play in the garden.

And yet I rather think that, touching and witty and brave as they are, they are overwhelmed eventually by the structure of the play, which does not allow anything gold to stay. I would like the whole thing better if it weren't so crystalline perfect in the way every single detail echoes back and forth through time, and Stoppard knows I'd like it better and doesn't want me to, which makes the play more admirable than enjoyable in the final analysis.

The fact that the playwright can make us care about things that are inevitable, predictable, in fact tragically foregone conclusions is what makes the play at least a minor masterpiece. He builds a thing so beautifully, icily, magnificently bitter that I am at a loss to try to describe it, and his point is that his characters-- and every human being-- deserve much better, and probably won't get it. But I can't stop wishing his characters could have a life outside their structure, because he is a genius, damn him.


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March 2017

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