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“Nowadays the house would be called a stately home”: Pastoral Relocations in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

John Bull


La structure de la pièce de Tom Stoppard favorise les sauts dans le temps, en avant comme en arrière, et procède à un examen de la notion de changement à travers tout le spectre philosophique et artistique, notion que matérialise à la perfection ce que précisément il ne nous est jamais donné de voir : « the landscape outside », ce paysage qui, apprend-on, « has undergone changes ». De manière concomitante, ce que nous voyons tout du long – la pièce dans laquelle l’action se déroule – demeure, elle, inchangée. Au changement et au flux s’opposent continuité et cohérence. Dans cet article, j’examinerai les implications idéologiques de ce paradoxe en lien avec l’utilisation qui est faite par le dramaturge de modèles pastoraux qui remontent à la Renaissance anglaise et pourtant reconfigurent les modèles proposés par le théâtre britannique d’après-guerre, modèles qui, à en croire de nombreux critiques, avaient été abandonnés depuis bien longtemps. Arcadia est une zone que l’on dit libre de toute idéologie et qui, en vérité, est constituée de discours idéologiques sujets à question.

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1In 2010 the UK television network ITV launched the serialised production of Downton Abbey, since acknowledged generally as the most successful British costume drama since 1981’s televisualisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Indeed, such was the immediacy of its success that a second series was begun even before the first had completed its run. Having started its story in the early years of the twentieth century, it has currently arrived at the First World War. Earlier this year it entered the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most critically acclaimed television show of the year”, the first time a British programme has been so honoured. Its depiction of Edwardian country-house living is now being seen in more than 200 countries.

2The image that it offers its viewers, of life upstairs and downstairs, in the world of the land-owner’s family and in that of their servants, may be now only the stuff of impossible fantasy, but despite – or more likely because – of this, it currently has something over 12 million viewers per week in Britain alone, an almost impossible figure to conjure with in these days of multi-channel alternatives. It is a success that looks back nearly forty years to the ITV drama Upstairs Downstairs, successive series of which ran between 1971 and 1975, and traced life upstairs and downstairs, indeed, in the London house of a prosperous family in the years between 1903 and 1930. Then, in 2010, the year that ITV launched Downton Abbey, the BBC reprised Upstairs Downstairs for a further three episodes starting in 1936.

3Why have I started with this snippet of television history, and what exactly does it have to do with my subject apart, that is, from the coincidental fact that Tom Stoppard’s son Ed not only appeared in the 2009 London revival of Arcadia but was also in the 2010 revival of Upstairs Downstairs? A viewing of any episode of either of these series will quickly establish the point. What we see in both instances is a clear distinction being made, in terms of clothing, deportment, etc, between the ruling and the serving classes, between masters and servants. Each inhabits a separate world, umbilically linked the one to the other, and the inhabitants of the one world effectively speak a different language to that of the other. In theatrical terms, this is all somewhat familiar.

4In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale a baby princess Perdita is abandoned on the shores of Bohemia, a victim of the father’s (King Leontes) unfounded conviction that her mother has been unfaithful to him. There she is brought up by humble shepherds but speaks in a suitably courtly blank verse, whilst the shepherds make use of a colloquial dialect. It is a social division to be found in all of Shakespeare’s ‘comedies’, from Much Ado About Nothing to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the latter of which the division is underlined by having the tradesmen attempt to ape their social betters by putting on a dire verse drama, “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”. The fact that Perdita has no memory of how she came to be in Bohemia, or of her royal origins, and thus logically should be speaking the same language as that of her hosts, only serves to reinforce the significance of the distinction.

5The central scenes of The Winter’s Tale are located in the alternative rural world of Bohemia in a way that parallels the use of pastoral or quasi-pastoral retreats in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the course of the pastoral retreat, Perdita, as Queen of the Feast, presents Florizel and a disguised Polixenes with flowers, but refuses to pick carnations and gillyflowers because they are not natural, having been created by man’s efforts as hybrids “which some call nature’s bastards”. Polixines’s response is to lecture her, implicitly paralleling horticultural improvement, crossbreeding the “baser kind” and the “nobler race”, with social improvement, arguing for a synthesis of the two languages and the class distinctions that go with them. However, this does not occur, and the story ends with the division between the rulers and the ruled essentially unchallenged. Language is both the badge of class and its shield.

6The very structure of Shakespeare’s comedies emphasises the supremacy of the courtly characters. It is a tripartite model: the disruption of the social world as it is; the retreat to an alternative world in a learning process for the major characters; and the return to the original world morally bettered. What is immediately apparent is that the most casual consideration of Stoppard’s Arcadia will show us that the playwright has no interest whatever in making use of such a model, disruptively or not. The structure of the play is not straightforwardly chronological for a start: it moves between past and present, linking the two historical periods both in narrative terms and thematically. The link between past and present is made concrete, indeed, by the presence of characters from both periods appearing simultaneously on stage towards the end of the play.

7Furthermore, there is a firm insistence on the continuity, the perpetuation of the status quo in the house. Descendents of the same Coverly family inhabit the house nearly two hundred years later. There is no nouveau-riche arriviste to take over the cherry orchard, as in Chekov’s play, no rogue would-be courtier, such as Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale to threaten social change. There are not even two languages in the house for, unlike in the television programmes that I opened with, although the presence of actual servants is mentioned briefly by Thomasina, and there are brief entrances by the Butler, they otherwise simply never appear. They are invisible and thus bereft of speech. It is almost as if meals cooked themselves, and all nature combined to look after the fortunate inhabitants of Arcadia. I am reminded of, amongst many other such passages, a piece in Ben Jonson’s 1616 poem in praise of the estate where Sir Philip Sidney wrote the Arcadia that gives Stoppard’s play its title. The poem, ‘To Penshurst’ conjures up a magnificent vision of unworked bounty:

The painted partridge lies in every field
And, for thy mess, is willing to be kill’d.
And if the high swoll’n Medway fails thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps, that run into thy net.
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loath, the second draught, or cast to stay,
Officiously, at first, themselves betray.
Bright eels, that emulate them, and leap on land,
Before the fisher, or into his hand. (Barrell and Bull, 151)

8The tone of these lines is not exactly a serious one. Its comic side is probably most readily seen by imagining this as a kind of early surrealist painting, with partridges lining up to be shot – “Me first. No, me first” – and fish jumping on to the plate to save the estate owner the trouble of catching them. Its self-consciously humorous account of the realities of the power of that owner comes in large part because by the beginning of the seventeenth century – almost at the same time that Shakespeare was writing The Winter’s Tale – it was becoming harder and harder to sustain this aristocratic view of the countryside, a point that I will develop a little later.

9At this point, however, we can note a number of connections with Stoppard’s Arcadia. The play actually opens on the subject of food, with a wonderfully extended joke set in motion by Thomasina questioning her tutor: “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” His reply, “Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef” (4) neatly unites the themes of food and sex that will prove so important in the play. What is interesting is that whilst a side of beef must clearly be seen as a part of a conventional agricultural process, involving real farm workers, as must the ham and cabbages promised Thomasina for lunch by the butler, all of the other food references relate to the form of production referenced in Jonson’s poem – that is, they are hunted by the owners, and not reared by the servants. Thomasina stresses the dominance of the activity in response to the sound of the huntsmen’s guns in Scene I:

“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”. (20-21)

10That Septimus should respond sardonically, “A Calendar of slaughter. ‘Even in Arcadia, there am I’” (21), echoes and critiques the Marie-Antoinette-like description of the grounds only just articulated by Lady Croom:

“But Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged – in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, ‘Et in Arcadia ego’”. (19)

11That she then mistranslates the Latin, to locate Arcadia literally at Sidley, only adds to the way in which she presents her park as a landscape quite carefully constructed, not by God but by men, and perfectly safe. The park is a ‘picture’, a creation, and an unthreateningly ‘amiable’ one at that. There are no rugged excesses, only healthily green and gentle slopes, with trees planted so as to offer the picture perspective and space. We can further note that the sheep are not there to provide food and clothing, but as decoration. However, in the midst of all this, the description of the stream as ‘serpentine’ invokes a different Arcadia, that of the Old Testament Garden of Eden, and suggests a further link with the theme of sex.

12The estate is, then, viewed as a place for leisure and recreation, and not for work and production. In the contemporary scenes we learn that Valentine’s calculations rely on the analysis of the game books that have recorded the number of grouse shot each year from even before 1809; and that the presence of the poet Lord Byron, and thus sexual goings on, in that year can be proved by the entry in the game book – “Fourteen pigeon, one hare (Lord B)” (74). Whilst in the nineteenth century ones, Septimus enters with a dead rabbit (91), and at the beginning of the play Thomasina tells us that she has heard about “carnal embrace” because she had “been allowed to finish yesterday’s upstairs’ rabbit pie before I came to my lesson” (4). The rabbits, grouse and hares are, then, not only provided by the upstairs’ owners, but consumed by them. And, in addition they are associated, like appetite, with another basic urge, the sexual drive. The image of hunting with guns is extended by the continual promise of duels with these weapons as a result of the discovery of sexual liaisons: indeed, when Septimus enters with his dead rabbit in scene 6, he is also suitably carrying Lord Byron’s rabbit guns (91).

13Now, all this activity takes place well away from the house, in the land beyond the much discussed ha-ha, a ditch that serves two purposes. It keeps the animals off the landscaped garden, and it creates the illusion of vast ownership as far as the horizon, with no fence to suggest otherwise. But what do we know of the house, of Sidley, home of successive generations of the Coverly family?  Well, it almost shares its name with that of Sir Philip Sidney, the writer of the original Arcadia. But what else?  Stoppard’s opening stage directions read thus: “A room on the garden front of a very large country house in Derbyshire in April 1809. Nowadays, the house would be called a stately home” (3).

14The term ‘a stately home’ has a very particular resonance in England. It not only suggests grandeur accompanied by decorum, but that if offers open access to paying members of the public. The charitable association, the National Trust, makes an excellent job of maintaining them and ensuring their continued existence – a task undertaken also by private families, such as the Devonshires at Chatsworth House in, actually, Derbyshire; and the Earl and Countess of Carnavon at Highclere Castle in, actually, Berkshire, where Downton Abbey was, and is, being filmed. However, the contemporary Sidley is very much not open to the public, and the playwright’s remark serves to further stress not only the continuity of occupation but its economic independence. In the description of the room that follows, the single room where all the play’s action will be located, the central structural device of movement between the past and the present is hinted at quite clearly:

The table, the straight-backed chairs and the only other item of furniture, the architect’s stand or reading stand, would all be collectable pieces now but here, on an uncarpeted wood room floor, they have no more pretension than a schoolroom, which is indeed the main use of this room at this time. . . There is a door in each of the side walls. These are closed, but one of the French windows is open to a bright but sunless morning. (3)

15“Ah... the French window” (23), as Stoppard has Bernard say knowingly on his first entrance in Scene 2, it being a staple of so much English drama of both romance and farce in the earlier part of the twentieth century. The French window has a specific function here, however: it is the point of ‘no entry’ for the audience, opening onto a garden that is hidden from our view, but about which we will learn much. The vision that is conjured up here is one that takes Stoppard to a past that is not only that of the early nineteenth century. In 1967, the playwright Joe Orton talked of such a set for his play What the Butler Saw, which he planned as a kind of assault on his audience:

It’d be a sort of joke putting it on at the Haymarket [Theatre] – Theatre of Perfection... The set... should be beautiful. Nothing extraordinary. A lovely set. When the curtain goes up one should feel that we’re right back in the old theatre of reassurance – roses, French windows, middle-class characters (Orton, ?).

16The point being that what Orton intended offering his audience was something that would offend, rather than reassure. In the 1950s Kenneth Tynan (drama critic of The Observer newspaper) had launched a series of vitriolic attacks on what he saw as the social irrelevance of post second world war drama in Britain. Here, from 1954, is one of his most famous diatribes:

If you seek a tombstone, look about you; survey the peculiar nullity of our drama’s prevalent genre, the Loamshire play.  Its setting is a country house in what used to be called Loamshire but is now, as a heroic tribute to realism, sometimes called Berkshire.  Except when somebody must sneeze, or be murdered, the sun invariably shines.  The inhabitants belong to a social class derived partly from romantic novels and partly from the playwright’s vision of the leisured life he will lead after the play is a success - this being the only effort of imagination he is called upon to make. Joys and sorrows are giggles and whimpers; the crash of denunciation dwindles into “Oh, stuff, Mummy!” and “Oh, really Daddy!”.  And so grim is the continuity of the thing that the foregoing paragraph might have been written at any time during the last thirty years. (Tynan, 83-4)

17In order to understand how it was that Kenneth Tynan could so easily generalise about “the prevalent genre, the Loamshire play”, and then to make connections with Stoppard’s Arcadia, it is necessary firstly to go back to around the time of A Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare’s deployment of the pastoral model as both object of satire and as a vehicle for plot resolution had effectively signalled the end of the potential for a court-dominated version of the strain to be offered seriously. However, a new ‘Gentry’ version of pastoral, centred on the country house, had already been emerging - from Marvell and from Jonson on, in particular - one that moved the emphasis away from the strictly courtly and towards the dreams and aspirations of the new contenders for political supremacy. It was to be a version of this that continued in modified form to dominate just about all earlier twentieth century stage accounts of English rural life. And this conjuring with versions of the country house only served to reinforce the way in which, prior to the emergence of the successive new waves, the English theatre had been hi-jacked by the interests of those audiences for whom the country-house served either as an actual or – more usually – appropriate ideological location for their social status. It offered images of a past vision of England always just over an historical horizon. And whilst its landscaped locations were a version of pastoral, “its subject matter was drawn largely from the environments of an identifiable audience, the drawing-rooms et al. of the upper middle and professional classes.” (Bull 2003, 59)

18Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: his choice of title takes us first to Sidney’s pastoral work and, through that, to Penshurt where Arcadia was written, a country house alliable with that in which his own play is set. It returns us to England and to a model of the country house that allows the playwright to connect the past with the present. The play opens with a tutor, Septimus Hodge teaching his young charge Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house’s owners.

She will turn out to be a mathematical genius, unfortunate enough to be living before the invention of the computer that would allow her to follow through her calculations to prove her thesis . . .  [a thesis that would] both anticipate a mathematical model that allows the future to be constructed from the past, but also one that prefigures chaos theory: translated philosophically they embrace both determinism and free-will. (Bull 2003, 66).

19In the second scene the action takes place in exactly the same room nearly two hundred years later. The movement through time is as important as the unchanged nature of the location. The house is now lived in by the descendents of its 1809 owners, thus paralleling the theme of continuity offered by the room. History has both moved on and has remained unaltered. The link between past and present is reinforced by the activities of the two house guests, two historians: one, Hannah Jarvis, developing a theory of cultural change through the history of the garden, and the other, Bernard Nightingale, desperate to prove that the poet Lord Byron was not only visiting the house at the time of the events of the first scene, but that he had been involved in sexual shenanigans. The link is further reinforced by the fact that the movement between past and present is maintained until the final scene, the characters from both time zones occupy the room together. This merger is accentuated by the organisation of a fancy dress party in the modern period, which requires the twentieth century figures to be dressed in turn of the nineteenth century costumes, and by the uncertainty about the appearance of the fifteen year old boy. Is he Augustus Coverly from the past or Gus Coverly from the present? Stoppard has prepared for the confusion by his early pronouncement: “Gus doesn’t speak. He never speaks. Perhaps he cannot speak.” (25), and thus an audience does not have the benefit of noting the register of language to date him. Furthermore, Stoppard calls for the desired confusion in a stage direction: “Gus appears in the doorway. It takes a moment to realise that he is not Lord Augustus; perhaps not until Hannah sees him” (131).It is the most extreme example of the paralleling of characters from the past and present, and one that causes more than just a narrative merger.

20However, if Stoppard is at pains to stress the continuity of life within the house, the world outside of the French Windows is very different. Sidley Park has been through a series of changes, dating from before the play opens and continuing through the intervening period until the present. It was not always the Arcadian vision conjured with by Lady Croom in the passage quoted earlier, as Hannah is anxious to point out to Bernard:

English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look – Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Salvator Rosa. It’s the Gothic novel expressed in landscape. (36)

21The Richard Noakes she refers to is the landscaper employed by Lady Croom’s husband to ‘Gothicise’ the park. He had earlier been described thus by Septimus: “He puts himself forward as a gentleman, a philosopher of the picturesque, a visionary who can move mountains and cause lakes, but in the scheme of the garden he is as the serpent” (8). As we have seen earlier, Lady Croom will also evoke the image of the serpent to describe her stream, but the full significance of the creature in the garden will only emerge properly a little later. The symbolical opening of the ‘meaning’ of change in the garden in terms of Biblical mythology is in contrast to Hannah’s attempts to read the changes in cultural and philosophical terms:

There’s an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep. Paradise in the age of reason. By 1760 everything had gone – the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes – the whole sublime geometry was ploughed under by Capability Brown. The grass went from the doorstep to the horizon and the best box hedge in Derbyshire was dug up for the ha-ha so that the fools could pretend they were living in God’s countryside. And then Richard Noakes came in to bring God up to date. By the time he’d finished it looked like this (the sketch book). The decline from thinking to feeling, you see. (39)

22The theme of change, of mutability associated with the park is in stark contrast to that associated with the house, of continuity and of stability. Her use of ‘Paradise’ and ‘God’s countryside’ serves to underline the theme of mutability, for Stoppard has her unwittingly conjuring up the ultimately most mutable garden in Western mythology, that of Eden itself. Stoppard’s intention in contrasting these two models is both serious and, as always, playful. He is not attempting to provide answers but, rather to engage his audience in the discourse. The connection between the house and garden can now be further considered by returning to the room on stage. It is, in the first scene, a schoolroom and in its twentieth century embodiment a study, in both instances with an adjoining library. It is a room devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, but it is always a knowledge that is to be understood in more than one way, and which thus links house and garden.

23Stoppard underlines the connection in a characteristically witty passage in Scene V. Accused by Hannah of seducing Chloe, the eighteen year old daughter of the house, Bernard responds indignantly:

Seduced her? Every time I turned round she was up a library ladder. In the end I gave in. That reminds me – I spotted something between her legs that made me think of you. (He instantly receives a sharp stinging slap on the face but [...] is already producing from his pocket a small book [...]) (87)

24The book contains evidence that will assist Hannah in her pursuit of intellectual knowledge, but the slap is a result of her assumption that Bernard was in pursuit of sexual knowledge, something that she constantly evades. There is a deliberate irony in Hannah’s numb response to the proffered book, “The world is going to hell in a handcart” (87). So, there is a knowledge that is of the house and a potentially dangerous knowledge associated with the garden, and Stoppard has already made the connection explicit. At the end of the second scene, and at the end of the twentieth century, the unspeaking and shy Gus offers Hannah a token of his love, a newly picked apple from the garden. The apple, associated by both Hannah and Gus as a symbol of love, remains on the table as the third scene takes us back to the nineteenth century. It is picked up by Septimus and a slice cut and offered to, not his tutee, the besotted Thomasina, but the ever-present tortoise, in what amounts to either a sexual tease or a reminder of the true nature of their relationship.

25The apple, coupled with the earlier references to the serpent in the garden, take us obviously enough into Genesis and the fruit of the tree of knowledge. If the activity in the garden – and a lot of it in the nineteenth century is reportedly sexual – suggests that the pursuit of knowledge, far from being the point of human life, then it can actually be constructed as something that introduces the notion of disintegration, of a chaotic development of the model. In this context,

the tutor’s casual reference to the Garden of Eden under threat from a Satan who is seen as a modern landscaper is an early reminder that the chosen location for the play will carry a large ideological pay-load: for it suggests a parallel threat to the continuity of a vision of England in which the country house is seen as the central organising point both culturally and politically.” (Bull, 66)

26Now, this tension clearly relates to the programme that Thomasina attempts to contrast in the nineteenth century, one that – as I have argued -incorporates both free will and determinism. In the twentieth century Valentine is intent on constructing a determinist model, by reading backwards through history, via the game birds, to construct the past. His exasperation at the failure of the project he puts down to the mathematical problems involved. He is countered by Chloe, now possessed of sexual knowledge directly:

Chloe: No, it’s all because of sex.
Valentine: Really?
Chloe: That’s what I think. The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be part of the plan.
Valentine: Ah. The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden. Yes. (99-100)

27“The “apple in the garden” (present in material form on the desk) is both Newton’s and that of the Garden of Eden, the original pastoral location in Christian mythology. The link between the original Garden and the unseen and changing one of Sidley Park allows Stoppard to establish a continuity that both constructs the country-house as an abiding centre of social organisation . . . and allows for the exercise of individual freewill and non-determinism through the always available decision to eat of the fruit of the tree that is both that of knowledge and Eros” (Bull 70-71).

28Now all of this leaves out of account something that I have only mentioned casually as yet. The play is not designed as an ideological construct, even though its construction of the country-house as an enduring image of a very particular construction of Englishness locates it, in class and in other terms, very much in what we can still call a non-revolutionary analysis of history. It is therefore, perforce, possessed of a dominant ideological strain. However, it is also a very funny play, its wit and its humour serving to question the very ideological basis on which the play and, indeed, Sidley itself, is constructed. The play contains both a certainty – a belief in the importance and the fact of continuity and tradition – and an uncertainty about that certainty. This ambiguity is central to Arcadia. Like Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, like Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ quoted earlier, although we are never in any doubt about which side of the class divide the author finds himself, the works raise questions, create discourses, that cannot historically be resolved.  Even as the grandeur and the continuity of the model is being celebrated, it is also being sent up, it is being satirised. To misappropriate Septimus’s words: “Even in Arcadia, there are we – but where are we, and what is it?”

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BARRELL, John and BULL, John. The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse, London, Allen Lane, 1974.

BULL, John. Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in Contemporary Mainstream Theatre, London, Macmillan, 1994: in particular, “Tom Stoppard: Open to the Public”, 192-206.

BULL, John. “Tom Stoppard and Politics”, in (ed.) KELLY, Katherine E, The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard, Cambridge, CUP, 2001, 136-153.

BULL, John. “From Illyria to Arcadia: Uses of Pastoral in Modern English Theater”, in TriQuarterly, Issue 116, Summer 2003, 57-72.

ORTON, Joe. The Diaries ??

STOPPARD, Tom. Arcadia, London, Faber and Faber, 2009 (reprinted with revisions).

TYNAN, Kenneth. Curtains, London, Longman, 1964.

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John Bull, « “Nowadays the house would be called a stately home”: Pastoral Relocations in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 13 | 2011, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2011, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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John Bull

Professor. University of Reading

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