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THEATRE / A little place in the country: There's more to Tom Stoppard's Arcadia than meets the eye, but then Arcadias have always been tricky places. Kevin Jackson offers a guided tour, complete with nymphs, shepherds and skulls

TOM STOPPARD'S Arcadia, few theatre-goers will have been surprised to learn, browses freely in many and various fields: algorithms, the laws of thermodynamics, biography, literary sleuthing and Romanticism. It has curiously little to say, however, on the topic of Arcadias, save at one point in its first act where Lady Croom - a product of the same gene pool that spawned Lady Bracknell - is rebuking the landscape gardener who wishes to convert her estate to the fashionable (we are in the early 19th century) picturesque Gothic style.

'Sidley Park,' says Lady Croom, 'is already a picture, and a most amiable picture, too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged - in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, 'Et In Arcadia ego]' 'Here I am in Arcadia'. '

At which point her daughter Thomasina remarks 'Yes, Mama, if you would have it so', so that Lady Croom then demands 'Is she correcting my taste or my translation?' Both, probably, since this line - not to mention the subsequent action of Stoppard's play - will have greater resonance for those who have read or heard of the arguments in Erwin Panofsky's magisterial essay 'Et in Arcadia ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition' (1951).

Poussin is almost certainly the painter Lady Croom has in mind, and, as her brilliant daughter appears to know, that Latin tag (said to have been devised by Pope Clement IX in the early 1620s) ought properly to be translated 'Even in Arcadia, I, Death, hold sway'. This meaning was plain in Guercino's early painting of the theme, in which swains encounter a skull, but became softened in Poussin's two more famous treatments. In his Et in Arcadia ego of 1630 or so, the skull has almost been hidden from view, while in the version he painted several years later it has disappeared entirely, so permitting the common mistranslation 'I, too, was born / lived in Arcady.' Quite a bit closer, that is, to Lady Croom's own sentiments.

The elaborate maze that lies behind this one little joke is due not only to Stoppard's well-known liking for boxes within boxes, but to the complex nature of the Arcadian ideal itself. Arcadias are tricky places - far trickier than they seem, or than most dictionary definitions will allow. Take the entry consulted by an elderly character in Jim Crace's recent novel Arcadia, who has been baffled by the name of a proposed municipal development: 'Arcadia - a rustic paradise,' he read. 'Arcadian - of pastoral simplicity. Arcade - a covered row of shops.' Well, in the words of a character created by Evelyn Waugh (who himself chose to entitle the opening section of Brideshead Revisited 'Et in Arcadia ego') - up to a point.

What such brisk summaries gloss over is any sense that Arcadias are phenomena not of nature but of art; that the vales of Arcady have long been echoing with the noise of argument, criticism, revisions and rebuke; or that Arcadias come in many forms, from the naive to the sardonic. Panofsky, for example, argues that Guercino's Et in Arcadia ego is a Christian moral drama of confrontation with death, but that Poussin modifies this drama into something more contemplative and elegaic.

Panofsky's arguments may seem of rather specialised interest, and yet, as Jim Crace maintains, 'the Virgilian notion that the countryside is the home of pastoral simplicity and happiness is something that continues to haunt us'. Any townies who nowadays decided to follow the example of the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent at the Medici Villa in Fiesole by trooping off into the Cotswolds dressed as Arcadian shepherds would probably be locked up; but the state of Peter Mayle's bank balance is eloquent proof that urban yearning for Arcadia remains undiminished.

The yearning can take odd forms, and, some would say, pernicious ones. One of the things that prompted Crace to write his own Arcadia was a distaste for what he regards as a misguided Arcadian ideal in present-day town planning. 'The starting point for the book was my irritation at the refusal of town planners to recognise that what cities are good at is streets and crowds. Now, if you think they're sinful, dirty places, then it's obvious that what you have to do is pretend they're something else, which is why town planners try to create the illusion that a city centre is really a village green fete or a gymkhana or a marquee - they're trying to import the virtues of the countryside into the town, and my thesis is that they are destroying the city.'

In support of his views, Crace cites such studies as Jane Jacobs' The Life and Death of the Great American Cities, and stresses that his quarrel with the Arcadian sentiment is not so much with its idealised view of the landscape - 'though many of the things which help make country living Arcadian today, like electricity and piped gas, are the gifts of the city' - as with its disdain for what the town can do: 'I wanted to argue that virtues flourish in the city as well as sins, virtues such as those of organised labour and the dignity of the industrial work- place, the achievements of hospitals and laboratories.'

With different shades of emphasis, related arguments about the illusory nature of Arcadias have become staples of modern criticism. To cite just one influential example from recent years: John Barrell's study The Dark Side of the Landscape contended that the bucolic paintings of Constable and other artists dear to the imagination of the English achieved their Arcadian qualities through a careful exclusion of the realities of work and ownership that shaped the national landscape, and of the chronic poverty which was its most consistent feature. Stuart Hall and other cultural analysts are now rubbing in similar points in lecture halls and on BBC 2 after The Late Show goes off the air. Though lines of approach may differ, the general chorus is clear as a curfew bell: Eat lead, Ambridge]

Indeed, such is the drive towards demystification these days that scholarly reference books are often at pains to show that the real Arcadia, a mountainous region of the Peloponnese, is and always has been a pretty harsh and forbidding terrain - so much so that when Theocritus first started singing its praises he was obliged to edit in footage, so to speak, from far more picturesque regions in southern Italy and Sicily. It might well seem as if there were no future for Arcadias, especially since they are so often shot through with nostalgia for personal and cultural pasts - childhood, the Garden of Eden, the Golden Age.

It remains possible, however, to accept many of the arguments about the silliness of the Arcadian ideal and still admire works of art conceived in the Arcadian tradition. In one of the most strange and brilliant books ever written on the subject, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), William Empson suggested that pastoral, though 'felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor', would appear in some form or other in any society - it represented, he thought, something 'permanent and not dependent on a system of class exploitation'. (Which, to be sure, may not settle the question for good and all, but should give the anti-Arcadian school something tough to chew on.)

Moreover, it would be an absurd libel on the pastoral tradition to suggest that the likes of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, Milton's Lycidas, Bach's Peasant Cantata or Debussy's L'Apres-midi d'un faune can simply be written off as sugary fantasies. On the contrary: most of the major works in this school - Sidney's revised Arcadia, As You Like It and so on - encompass labour and death and the folly of pastoral conceits as readily as nymphs and shepherds: 'Ay, now I am in Arden; the more fool I'

Far from being dream states, then, Arcadias have always been among the most self-critical of artistic creations; and in this regard, Tom Stoppard's nod to Poussin is simply the latest move in a game with art's perspectives on nature that began with Virgil's Eclogues, if not before. And the most self-conscious of all such works must surely be the visual commentary Footnotes to an Essay (1977) by the artist and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay - the essay in question being Panofsky's 'Et in Arcadia ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition'.

Bristling as it is with allusions to the pictorial and literary history of Arcadias, Finlay's work is a salutary reminder of just how much has gone on in Milton's 'famous Arcady', and an ideal mental corrective the next time you hear someone swooning over the joys of Agas, green wellies and A Year in Provence.

Arcadian pieces by Finlay are on show at the Tate Gallery (071-821 1313).

(Photograph omitted)