Here, Stoppard explores a broad range of academic disciplines as he creates a drama of ideas that spans the centuries. He translates thoughts into concrete people and concrete events. Stoppard takes a dry, even uninteresting subject, and turns it into a dramatic spectacle of great literary merit.
The play is set in two time scales, in Sidley Park a Derbyshire stately house in 1809 and 1989. In the past a young girl of great intelligence, Thomasina Coverly is being tutored by Septimus Hodge. Her thinking seems dislocated from ordinary questions of life, and is interested in the theory of motion and the determinism that was prevalent in the scientific discussions of the day (that were being led by Newton's theories of mechanics).
In parallel with this story is a plot involving a group of three academics. Hannah is researching the history of a character named the Sidley Hermit, who died mysteriously at the house. Bernard, a literary critic, has also come to the house in order to research a mysterious period in the life of Byron. He believes that Byron stayed in the house (which he is doing in the earlier time schema) and that he killed the man of the house, a character called Chater in a duel.
In the meantime, the young prodigy, Thomasina, is considering the nature of mathematical reality--sad that the equations that she is learning only form simple mechanical forms, she wishes to find the maths that would be able to represent a flower. Time flows in and out and seems to mix together the early eighteen hundreds and the late nineteen hundreds, as Bernard's theory is disproved by a piece of evidence that Hannah finds.
Stoppard is very much well known for his erudition, and none of his plays rely so heavily on the playwright’s learning as Arcadia. What is, perhaps, his greatest achievement is his ability to make a true and touching drama out of his heavy material. He creates on stage a very novelistic feel for time and place--his split time frames allow him to brilliantly expound the differences and, more importantly, the similarities that occur across the years and that--despite the different areas of knowledge that are important to different eras--certain things, like love, friendship and truth remain very much the same.
It is concrete in the sense that it is the site of history--the thing that most strongly connects the characters in the past with those in the play's present is their surroundings, the house, its history, its physicality. However, it is also a place of respite for all the characters--a veritable Eden in which the pursuits of the mind can be followed away from the difficulties of the world. By taking us out of time in his play, Stoppard allows us to see the world at a remove, and in a startlingly different way.
Witty and urbane, delightfully written, and full of ideas that do not allow its audience to settle but pushes them onto new planes of thought, Arcadia is a wonderful play by accomplished playwright. Its place in the canon of works that will be and should be regularly performed is surely assured.