Saturday, July 01, 2006

Reading. Stoppard.

When I was in high school, the students had one week each winter, around February, I think, after some holiday, where we didn't have classes but instead did projects. You could work on your chosen art discipline (trying different things you didn't have time for during ordinary classes), work on a Habitat for Humanity project, go rock-climbing in Colorado, take cooking classes, stuff like that. For two years in a row I was lucky enough to go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A dozen students and two teachers would drive down in a van and spend three or four days in Ashland. We would read the three plays that were chosen for us to see, lounge around in caf├ęs to discuss them, wander around the town, and generally just hang out. Our program included one Shakespeare work and two other ones; the first year I went we saw King Lear, an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and Arcadia.

The first trip I took to OSF introduced me to Stoppard. For several years my family had held season tickets to Intiman and ACT in Seattle, and I was deeply in love with the theater. But Stoppard was something completely new. Arcadia was about sex and mathematics and poetry, and it was sharply intelligent and incredibly funny, and somehow romantic, with that ending scene of Septimus and Thomasina waltzing around the stage. That year it was unexpectedly cold in Ashland, and as we stepped outside we discovered that it was snowing. I was still trembling from the romanticism of that last scene, and the streets that night were so beautiful I wanted to twirl around in the gently falling snow forever. Even all this time later I can still remember that night, how alive and happy I felt in the cold night air, in the snow, my mind afire with Stoppard's words. Since then Arcadia has been one of my favorite plays, which I have been lucky enough to see twice (in totally different productions), and I can only hope I get the chance to see it again.

I found my copy, from years ago, ten years it has been now, and there are many passages underlined, some merely because they were funny, and some because they sank into my mind and took hold. One scene that has always remained etched on my memory is the part where Thomasina, the young girl, furiously rants about how she hates Cleopatra because "everything is turned to love with her" and her actions (in the name of love) had led to the burning of the library of Alexandria and the lost works of Aeschuylus, Sophocles, Euripides, the poems and plays gone forever. In the margins, I have pencilled in the words "Manuscripts don't burn," from The Master and Margarita, because Septimus, Thomasina's tutor, then goes on to elaborate on the idea that Bulgakov set forth some fifty years before Stoppard (again proving, after all, that manuscripts don't burn, and illustrating Septimus' point).

- can you bear it? (cries Thomasina)
- By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest 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 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 cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew? I have no doubt that the improved steam-driven heat-engine which puts Mr. Noakes into an ecstasy that he and it and the modern age should all coincide, was described on papyrus.*

It sends a shiver up my spine whenever I read these lines, and has for the last decade. I must apologize for bringing up Bulgakov again, but when the different things I am reading, different ideas that spring off the page, coincide like this, intersect from across time and space and language, my mind begins to blow apart. It is the reason above all others why I read.

*Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. Faber and Faber, 1993. p. 38.

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