One of my classes this semester is a playwriting course, so I turned to Stoppard to give me some inspiration and guidance in the process of creation. I’ve not seen much Stoppard performed–only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Rough Crossing–but I liked both of those very much. A classmate recommended this play, and it was in my AlexLit recommendation list as well.
After reading it, I am not surprised. The basic plot is similar in many ways to A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I waxed effusive about in the early 1990s. In 1809 in a country house in Derbyshire, Septimus Hodge is tutoring a young woman named Thomasina. In the modern day, some of Hodge’s letters and effects are being studied by some academics, one of whom is determined that Lord Byron was present and is responsible for two scurrilous reviews in the Picadilly Review. The academic, of course, hopes to make his career on this.
Stoppard and Byatt part ways, though, in the meaning that they attach to the machinations of academics trying to discover the “truth” of the past. Byatt’s entire book was a study of the word “possess,” and what it meant both for her fictitious poets and the modern day literary detectives. Stoppard, however, is exploring a difference in temperament between the times, but how sex is and has always been a disruptive force. It’s a wry commentary on human nature.
[Finished November 1998]