Tom Stoppard and "Postmodern Science": Normalizing Radical Epistemologies in Hapgood and Arcadia


Daniel Jernigan


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In two of his more recent plays, Tom Stoppard takes contemporary science as his subject matter. In Hapgood (1988), he draws an analogy between the theory of quantum mechanics and international espionage, while in Arcadia (1993) he uses chaos theory to explain the difficulty that literary biographers confront when recovering the past.1 Although these works are not as theatrically experimental as Stoppard’s earlier work, they nonetheless engage the concerns of the postmodern era in their adoption of theoretical science. In his The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard helps to elucidate such an engagement, especially in his explanation of how quantum mechanics rejects any hope of formulating a universal scientific narrative of reality: “The modalization of the [quantum] scientist’s statement reflects the fact that the effective, singular (the token) that nature will produce is unpredictable. All that can be calculated is the probability that the statement will say one thing rather than another.”2 In this and similar assertions, Lyotard recognizes both quantum mechanics and especially chaos theory as the postmodern theories par excellence, given their radical incredulity over the possibility of achieving a grand metanarrative description of the universe.


1Tom Stoppard, Hapgood (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), and Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (London: Faber and Faber, 1993); citations to these plays are cited by page number(s) in parenthesis in my text. I should mention a recent article that appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2001). In “Science in Hapgood and Arcadia,” Paul Edwards tracks the different reception that the two plays received (Hapgood negative and Arcadia positive). That my discussion diverges significantly from Edwards’s is made explicit in the fact that after limited discussion of Hapgood, Edwards explains that “There is not room here to explore the remaining intricacies.… What must be said, however, is that working these intricacies out does not—as it ideally should—take us deeper into the heart of the mysteries of quantum physics, even by analogy” (173). Edwards instead focuses on the way in which Stoppard “transposes it [quantum mechanics] to human psychology and places his characters in situations where choices are or have been made and identities fixed by them” (175). In Arcadia as well Edwards focuses more on the way in which chaos theory serves as an analogy to the complexity that arises out of human emotions than on the epistemological and ontological implications of the play.

2 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 57.

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