Friday, 13 May 2011


Arcadia is a play by English playwright Tom Stoppard. It is a tonic and a puzzle, words that could be applied to the new administration emerging in Northern Ireland. Arcadia is also the idyllic Greek district ruled by the mythological King Arca, who showed his people how to weave, grow corn and make bread, tasks facing the kings (and a small number of queens), Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), taking power by appointing themselves to various ministries.

Stoppard stands on the shoulders of Farquhar, Wilde, Ayckbourn and Frayn. He tonics us with Lady Croom: 'I have had the experience of being betrayed before the ink was dry, but to be betrayed before the pen was dipped, and with the village noticeboard, what am I to think of such a performance.' He puzzles us with Septimus Hodge: '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 long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing is lost to it.'

There is nothing outside the new administration. Voters, even allowing for the relatively low turnout, overwhelmingly chose the two parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, who run the coalition government in Northern Ireland, by sharing or carving up, depending on your political view. Other parties declined in votes or flattered themselves by taking votes off each other. 

The procession is indeed long and new life is breathed into it as power is disbursed. What was let fall by the last administration is picked up: the economic mess is faced by favouring international capital via preferential corporate tax arrangements; fiscal problems are addressed by cutting public services and capping social welfare, thereby underusing resources and taking money out of the economy; coping with the legacy of the violent past is airbrushed, photoshopped and talked to a standstill. The ink dries on agreements and new pens are dipped in readiness for signing new deals.

Citizens are tonicced and puzzled, but, in the main, pleased that the state military presence is thoroughly lessened and paramilitary violence is intermittent and small-scale. But herein lies a  paradox and Lady Croom warns us: 'Do not dabble in paradox..... it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit.'

Can Arcadia be enjoyed by governing - weaving, growing corn and making bread, countless other tasks - in this way?

The march is long and looking both in front and behind great aeons of time present, hence a tortoise on stage in Stoppard's play Arcadia. Named variously as Plautus and Lightning, it is the cleverest clock device in theatre. Taking the long view then, the new administration may perhaps be the route to building Arcadia, yet one of the puzzles not faced by Stoppard is how to reconcile the differing experiences and needs of the various people on the march, linked by an essential humanity, yes, but divided by, amongst other things, social class. His dazzling and wonderful play is set among aristocrats, Regency and modern, landed gentry and academics, who gently tolerate, but don't trust, the rest. Chloe says they're running: 'A dance for the district, our annual dressing up and general drunkenness. The wrinklies won't have it in the house, there was a teapot we once had to bag back from Christie's in the nick of time, so anything that can be destroyed, stolen or vomited on has been tactfully removed.'  

Arcadia will not be enjoyed by the tactful removal of resources or prohibiting entry to certain of the long marchers. There is more than a paradox here. There is a political and social puzzle. One for the new administration to unravel. As Stoppard says in his great play: 'It's the wanting to know that makes us matter'


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