Begun in 1991, worked on through 1992 and staged in 1993, Arcadia is a mid-life play. It is written at a time of looking back and looking forward, just as the play looks back and forward. The parallel lines spoken by Septimus and Valentine in the last act hold in one mental space the moment in which we still have time to act, and the prospect that time will in the end run out, for us individually as well as for the universe: “we have time”/ “there’s no time left.” The play is full of anxiety and sadness about time. But it is also a comedy of time, and timings, and plays with time in enchantingly light and suspenseful ways.
Arcadia is a truly original play, and seduced its audiences and readers by being so new and ingenious. The thrill of discovering revolutionary ideas, for the scientists, poets, historians, landscape gardeners and geniuses who inhabit the play, mirrors the ebullient inventiveness of the thing itself.
Time had always been on his mind. It goes right back to his experiments of the 1960s, under the influence of Eliot, with the inexorable ticking taxi meter that measures out Dominic Boot’s day, or Gladys the speaking clock made dizzy by the infinity of time (“Silence is the sound of time passing”), or the early version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Court of King Lear, ending with Hamlet’s soliloquy: “I have time . . . it will be night soon . . . I have a lot of time.” Out of that came their play, which they spend killing time, stuck in limbo, not knowing their fate, while scenes from Hamlet, in another time zone, keep rushing in on them at fast-forward speed.