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The problem of expertise in Stoppard’s Arcadia

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The play “Arcadia”1 by Tom Stoppard links entropy and chaos theory, the history of English landscape gardens, romantic literature and idiocies of academia. I’ve always thought of it as Stoppard’s most successful “clever” play, the one that best combines the disparate material he is bringing together into a coherent whole. “Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead”2, the more widely known play, largely through its movie adaptation3, feels more straightforward, more accessible, although I don’t doubt that many will feel that’s because I’m missing its depths.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the Theatre Royal Brighton/English Touring Theatre production that played at the Theatre Royal in Bath in 20154 the part of Thomasina was played by Dakota Blue Richards, Septimus by Wilf Scolding, Bernard by Robert Cavanah, Hannah by Flora Montgomery and Valentine by Ed McArthur. To be up front I found the production disappointing, probably not helped by our seats up in the gods. Richards and Scolding were excellent as tutor and tutee, each learning from the other but I found Cavanah and Montgomery’s competitive academics to both be thin, even shrill. The caricature in the parts of Bernard and Hannah is easy, making their motivations human – while also ensuring that their verbal sparring is intelligible – a greater challenge where I felt that they fell short.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 And it was in that execution of dialogue that the production seemed to fall flat. Arcadia depends on dialogue and ideas that run through two time periods, on believing that we understand the jokes shared between characters, but above all on the audience connecting the threads so that all the pieces fall into place. Despite a constant stream of references that will only make sense to those familar with thermodynamics, or landscape history or romantic poetry the play itself is self contained. All the clues that are needed to knit the many threads together can be found in the script. But the delivery is critical. The timing crucial. Every word needs to be pointed and natural and timed perfectly or the connections are lost. The responsibility lies with the audience to hold those threads and weave them together, but they depend on a faultless ensemble to make this work.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But is it fair to expect an audience to hold in their heads a comment from Act 1 that is only answered in passing an hour or more later in Act 2? How much can the playwright expect the audience to hold? Certainly the audience in Bath seemed to struggle. An audience member who knows enough about thermodynamics and romantic poets and English landscape gardening has an advantage over one who does not. Simply that there is less that needs to be held onto to follow the threads. Experts have a distinct advantage in parsing the play.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It was Michael Nielsen who most clearly articulated the idea that the most valuable resource we have in the research enterprise (or in many places) is the attention of experts5.  And those who have internalized an understanding of an area to the extent that problem solving is intuitive are the most valuable. But we at the same time value the serendipitous, the sense of being open to the surprising insight. Valentine, the PhD scholar working on understanding population dynamics of grouse in the modern half of the story is unable to see that Thomasina had recognized the path to modern thermodynamics years earlier than thought. His character is painted as limited in that respect until he can see it. The modern academics are similarly painted as only open to the surprises they are seeking. Thomasina’s tutor, Septimus by contrast is open to idea that his 16 year old charge is capable of such insight.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 If fortune favours a prepared mind, then that mind is expensive and time consuming to prepare. So we protect them, and lock them up inside institutions so as to ensure only the relevant demands are made on their time. But if the provocations, the serendipities, come from outside established grounds then, to invert the question I posed of the playwright, what can we reasonably expect of the expert in dedicating time to being open? Or is there a level beyond mastery in Dreyfus’ hierarchy of skill acquisition6, where the expert cannot just examine their own practice, but simultaneously be open to outside influence. Does it need to be “or” or can it be “and”? Can we not just ride a bike without thinking about it, but ride a bike automatically while thinking about how we do it?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 What we may reasonably expect of the playwright in guiding us, what they may reasonably expect of their audience; what we may reasonably expect of the expert and what they may expect of us as we approach them, are connected by a sense of the contract we implicitly form, the audience with the playwright, publics with the expert. Different pieces of theatre require differing levels of commitment from the audience, with expectations set by forms, venues, even ticket prices. It is plausible to argue that commodification of theatre into mass market entertainment necessarily lowers that level of commitment as it must work for a larger audience. It might conversely be argued that the commitment required to truly understand American Football or rugby (or cricket!) is as great as that required to engage with a Stoppard or a Shostakovich.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In the realm of the academic expert these questions cut to the heart of what the research establishment is for. And are we delivering on that. Stoppard answers this question with three self-obsessed roles; one hardened by the toxic combination of imposter syndrome and arrogance that many in academia will recognise; one partway through that process, perhaps redeemable, perhaps not liking where she sees herself heading, but nonetheless ready to both rise to the bait and to patronise the third; the young academic in formation. Yet it is Valentine, the PhD student who when asked “And then what” gives the answer that speaks most directly to modern academic sensibilities, “I publish”. There is no explicit stage direction but, given this is said to Hannah, the middle of our three academics the line clearly needs to be delivered with the sense of “well d’uh…”.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Yet Stoppard makes his academics figures of fun with their obsessions with prestige rather than engagement. How is this to be reconciled with his own demands on the audience? In truth the there is a deeper message. The puzzle for the modern protagonists can only be solved by bringing their differing expertise together. Bernard uncovers the trail and knows the problem is of interest, but it is Hannah’s expertise on the garden and its plants that reveals that Bernard is only partly right. It is Valentine who has the evidence that Byron visited Sidley House, but Hannah who pushes him to understand the depth of Thomasina’s work. Hannah in turn needs Valentine to uncover the identity of the hermit and what it was he was doing.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 On the earlier timeline it is Thomasina who has the insight, but even her genius is limited. She laments her inability to fully work out the implications saying “I cannot. I do not know the mathematics”. It is made clear to us that her tutor does “Let [the Germans] have the waltz they cannot have the calculus.” making his working through of Thomasina’s ideas plausible. Stoppard throughout presents with exactly the serendipitous connections (and misconnections) that need an open mind to surface, identify and integrate into an expert model. It is the arrogance and lack of confidence of the modern characters that prevents them working together to solve the puzzle much quicker (albeit with less drama). By contrast the openness of Cambridge educated Septimus to the possibility that Thomasina’s insight is greater than his provides many of the most sympathetic moments in the play.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Of course Stoppard is cheating. He has a static construct in which to lay his threads, ready to catch the prepared mind of the audience. The answer is known and the final curtain set. He is free to plot his jokes and asides throughout. His real genius is in setting these up so that as long as you know something of gardens, or thermodynamics, or academic life, or Byron, or chaos theory, or shooting, or the English aristocracy, you will spot some of them. You need not be an expert in all of them, but knowing one will enrich the experience. Of course the challenge for the players is to be aware of all of these threads as well as those that make up the surface narrative. In Bath, my implicit stage direction above was missing, many of the threads seemingly dropped.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In the end Stoppard does make serious demands, and repays repeated engagement with the text. But those demands are not of expertise. If the answer he poses to my question is that experts will gain more by working together and being open to each others expertise, what he demands of the audience is simply to be open and attentive. In the end perhaps that is the answer to the question of the reasonable expectations of expertise in the academy. Not to be prescriptive about when and how an expert focuses, or opens up, or whether they need to achieve a level of mastery that allows them to do both, but simply to be attentive. To continuously absorb, remember, compare and contrast. To value mastery as a tool, but not as the answer in its own right.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 That is the mistake that the modern characters make in the play. In the best productions you understand both how Bernard, Hannah and Valentine have arrived where they are, but also that they don’t very much like what they see in the mirror. That they, like many academics, are constantly seeking an escape from the pursuit of prestige and publication that they have locked themselves into. That they have been trapped into a cycle where they are required to demonstrate mastery but not necessarily apply it, and certainly not build on it. The aim for all three is publication, not understanding.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Breaking out of these cycles is hard. But in the end if Stoppard is calling us to pay attention, to be engaged enough to not just see the threads, but to hold them and weave them together, that might be enough to make a start.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Notes:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Originally published as “The problem of expertise: The Brighton/English Touring Theatre production of Stoppard’s Arcadia” at Science in the Open on 22 February 2015.

  1. 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  2. Stoppard, T (1994), Arcadia, London, Faber and Faber
  3. Stoppard, T (1967), Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, New York, New York, Grove Press
  4. Stoppard, T (Writer, Director). (1990), Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead (Motion Picture), United States: Brandenburg
  5. Arcadia. By Tom Stoppard. Dir Blanche McIntyre, Theatre Royal, Bath, 14 February 2015. Performance
  6. Nielsen, M (2012), Reinventing Discovery: the new era of networked science, Princeton, Princeton University Press
  7. Dreyfus, SE, Dreyfus, HL (1980). A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition. Washington, DC, Storming Media available
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