Inquest - Index   |  chapter 13   |  chapter 15

Chapter 14

School obligations remain for the kids, - so Tancred busies himself with orbits -
while Annabelle undoes Hapgood


       School obligations remained for the kids: rarely much -- at least of an intellectual -- challenge, they were nevertheless time-taking. Full school days were followed by the demands of home-work, and though their teachers tried their best to stimulate and challenge all the little pupil-minds with the exercises they set for them much of this proved to be little better than tedious rote work. Still, it passed for an education -- and was preferable to what probably ninety-nine percent of the city's school-aged children had to deal with.
       With summer approaching, and its promise of release and new adventure, school and its attendant burdens were more easily endured. And as the semester drew to a close the opportunity for neatly tying together the previous months' studies, in final exams and term papers, held particular appeal for both Annabelle and Tancred. The tests weren't much to worry about -- they both knew what they had to know, and didn't need to waste much time refreshing their memories. (Time was allotted for this sort of studying, which they appreciated -- since they could put it to much better use.) Term projects and final reports and the like, on the other hand, offered real promise, allowing them -- in at least one class or two -- to showcase their ambitions.
       Both Annabelle and Tancred largely preferred to be left to their own devices, but the school structure didn't allow for much of that. Subjects -- and expectations -- were exactly set, with only the slightest give or take. Both kids had learnt how to blend in, going with the flow and not jumping too far ahead or off track. They had learnt how to excel in the accepted manner, understanding that any other brought more grief (from annoyed teachers and classmates) than advantage. Still, their intellectual curiosity and reach could not always be kept in check -- but fortunately there was always a teacher or two that would allow them to let loose in at least one school project.
       Since the fall, Congo-obsessed Annabelle had been lobbying for support for a grander, multi-credit term project on a Congo-related subject. She showed great flexibility, proposing everything from the obvious (a current events or history survey of the Congo over the past 1/5/10/40 years) to something more literary (working title: 'The Congo in Literature: from Joseph Conrad to the present') to considering the environmental impact of the political and economic situation in the Congo in postcolonial times. My favourite was her effort to make sense out of the mass of e-mails from Mobuto-family members (and other similarly situated dubious African characters) that constantly clogged our e-mail-box and which promised fabulous money making opportunities and the like; she dutifully responded to many of these (under our very watchful eyes) but found little except additional layers of scam.
       Annabelle's teachers weren't very supportive of this Central African pre-occupation (and never allowed it to blossom into any fuller sort of occupation, at least not on school time). The Congo wasn't of much geopolitical interest in the current climate -- and I suspect a number of her teachers couldn't even find the Congo on a map. Instead, winning entries in the current events category focussed entirely elsewhere: projects such as 'Islam beyond the Arab World', 'The History of Terrorism', and 'Give me Liberty or Give me Death: Reassessing the Choices' were the types of projects that Annabelle's classmates had success with. As for the Congo from a literary or scientific perspective, that was even less enthusiastically greeted.
       Tancred, a few grades back, where even less was expected from students, couldn't plan so far ahead, or so grandly: the teachers kept him and his imagination on a tighter leash. For most of the school year he didn't have any such thing to even try to focus on, and so he followed Annabelle's efforts, adding his own suggestions (for generally ever-more far-fetched Congo-associated topics). For a while he was pushing for one project in particular (tentatively and not entirely satisfactorily titled: 'Blacktop Degradation in Tropical Climates: Where have all the roads gone ? and the effects on the Zaïrean economy and political (in)stability'), hoping it would give him an excuse (in the name of science) to experiment with microwaving asphalt and degrading simulated roads -- but it proved to be ... impractical.
       Annabelle didn't give up easily, but the school programme -- five or six different subjects a day -- didn't allow for any single intellectual passions to overwhelm everything else. No matter how much the Keats' poems grabbed them in the morning, the demands of trigonometry the next period or the Russian revolution in the afternoon saw to it that the little minds couldn't get too fixated on them (or anything). Without in-school support her Congo-dreams were left for rainy days at home.

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       Tancred wasn't given much opportunity to shine, even with year-end projects. In his classes term papers were limited in scope and size -- ten page/three thousand word limits cramping, as he said, his style. Still, a science teacher was amused by the flights and demands of his fancy and expressed some willingness to put up with a bit more than was expected.
       Tancred settled on revolutionary paths. He made a presentation, and wrote a more elaborate text explaining: 'The case for scale-representation of orbits'.
       From the first time concepts like the solar system or the atom were explained in his science classes, Tancred had been tremendously annoyed by the fact that the depictions of these planetary and atomic orbits were never drawn to scale. Teachers would draw crude circles on the blackboard, and textbooks offered more colourful but hardly more accurate pictures. And then there were the models students were asked to create ! Crude yellow sun-balls, tightly ringed by nine planets -- models which always won great praise from teachers (with gold stars for those who added the earth-moon, or the Saturn-rings). Or styrofoam balls meant to double as atoms !
       Tancred couldn't believe any of this was allowed. A few years ago he had cried in immense frustration when he had been assigned to build a scale hydrogen atom, unable to find a small enough electron, or fasten it sufficiently far from the proton. He always complained to his teachers, but they weren't willing to pay much attention -- conveying the general idea (orbiting objects) was more important to them than the specifics (the immense distances involved). Even textbooks did a bad job of suggesting the true distances involved, especially relative to the size of the objects -- be they planets or atoms -- so his teachers argued that little more should (or could) be expected of them. One, willing at least to argue the point, had also pointed out that it was impractical: scale diagrams and models took up far too much space.
       Tancred argued that conveying scale was far more important than conveying the concept of orbits. Orbits were simple stuff, after all: an object circles around another; any and every idiot can grasp that idea. Even an elliptical orbit is fairly easy to explain, or multiple orbits. But scale -- how truly far the earth is even just from the sun, compared to their respective sizes, for example -- is a much more complex thing. Or rather: it's simple to convey, too, but since no one bothers to do so everyone has the wrong sense of scale, on the atomic and planetary and galactic and almost every other levels.
       Tancred had some difficulty in moving from the simple injustice of it -- truth and fact being misrepresented to helpless young children (and adults, too) -- to making a case for actual damage, but ultimately he did make some good points. Enough, at least, to get his teacher to mark down one of Tancred's classmate's less ambitious projects, a fancy solar-system-model that looked lovely but wasn't anywhere near close to scale .....
       For his troubles Tancred got some satisfaction, a good grade, as well as some threats from the aggrieved classmate: about as much as could be expected. His teacher was just relieved that Tancred had focussed largely on planetary- (rather than atomic-) level scale, and not looked too much into representations of quantum orbits and jumps .....

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       Annabelle pursued the usual variety of interests, and finally found a project that allowed her to vent some pent-up aggravation.
       We'd gone to see a production Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in the fall, and ever since then Annabelle had been hooked. A Christmas wish (fulfilled) was the hideous fat, orange Faber volumes of his collected works, which kept her busy and entertained for a good while.
       Arcadia was a particular favourite, with Annabelle liking to picture herself as Thomasina, tragic end and all. We had to play the scenes out at home to humour her, but between the four of us never got it entirely right: irremediable bad casting doomed the enterprise. But the staging-bug -- the idea of taking these written words and putting them in actors' mouths and allowing them to come alive in this way -- had bit her, and a few months ago she tried to try her hand at it school too. Her English teacher nixed any Arcadian ambitions (too risqué, apparently; I would have argued on Annabelle's behalf if she had asked me to, but she didn't), but allowed her to organise the performance of a Hapgood-scene.
       Soraya and I were entertained, but with the actors looking quite as confused as the audience it was not what could be called a success. Annabelle wept furiously in a rare defeat. She could have blamed the kiddie-actors, but professionally took all the blame as the director who had been unable to elicit the necessary performances.
       Soraya tried to convince her: "All acting is failure", telling her she couldn't recall seeing a better than merely competent performance of any play in decades, but Annabelle still believed in some sort of theatre-magic and wasn't to be consoled. I wanted to tell her that Hapgood is barely comprehensible seen in its entirety and that one could hardly expect anyone understand just a bit of it, but Annabelle would have never stood for that: 'Each Stoppard-scene stands on its own !' she'd insist, or even: 'and towers over all others !' As far as Stoppard went she often displayed, somewhat out of character, the occasionally ugly and not entirely rational atical side of the fan.
       Annabelle did find another explanation: "We used the Broadway edition of the text," she cried to us one evening, her tone mixing exasperation and the small thrill of being able to place blame. Not that we understood what she meant. "The bowdlerized version," she explained further.
       Yes, it was the now standard edition, but it turned out that between the 1988 London première and the first New York production in 1994, Stoppard had revised his text, making considerable changes. The second published version was now the one accepted one, but Annabelle seemed certain that much had been lost along the way. It was this she convinced her English teacher would make an appropriate end-of-year project: a comparison of the two texts and an analysis of the alterations.
       The side-by-side comparison of cuts and changes was surprisingly long. Stoppard is apparently known for continuing to work on his texts but this one seemed to have been worked over more than most -- or, as Annabelle would have it, -- to have suffered most.
       "He said," Annabelle told us, "in some interview, when the first version wasn't a smash hit: It's not the physics that's the problem, it's the story, the plot, the narrative, the mechanism, the twins, all that -- and he was right. But then -- but then ! -- he goes off and on to change just that, or mainly that, sucking the science right out of it."
       She read out (repeatedly) in mock (or perhaps real) horror a whole litany of simplifications and cuts -- and she did seem to have some points. The cuts and changes didn't make the physics any easier to understand, they merely shifted attention from it, by making it seem less significant -- to the detriment of the play as a whole. And it didn't stop at cutting back on quantum exposition. Even 'philosophical' concepts such as "objective reality" were replaced by the simplistic (but somehow more comprehensible ?) "what's what". And Annabelle positively shook with anger and dismay that something like Kerner's explanation that: "A prime is a number which cannot be divided except by itself" wound up as: "A prime is a number which won't divide nicely"
       Names, too, were cut, as if invocation of the famous and semi-famous could only confuse a scientifically illiterate audience. And perhaps not just scientifically: "Even Nabokov !" Annabelle told us. (In the original there is an exchange between Hapgood and Kerner in which spy-story reading Kerner doesn't recognize the name; this part of the exchange was removed in the revised version.)
       What bothered Annabelle most was the simple loss -- a good (to her mind: better) text and version replaced by a dumbed-down new one. The old text could still be found in used-bookstores, but few readers (or play-goers) were likely aware of the difference. Especially disappointing to Annabelle was also that even scholars didn't make much of the changes, at best at least mentioning them but not considering them of any particular significance. A small excerpt from her paper suggests how strong her feelings were, and how seriously she took the matter:

       Stoppard-studies fail to focus on the damage done to Hapgood as it was revised between 1988 and 1994, with scholars perhaps lulled into a false sense that the text must have been improved by what changes were made because the earlier version was a (relative) failure in London in 1988, while the revised New York script was played with considerable success in 1994 [1].
       Few authors even focus on the existence of two separate editions. Even in discussing the first production of the play Ira Nadel relies largely (and quotes mainly) from the revised edition, and only acknowledges the substantive differences between the texts in an endnote (without, even there, considering the implications of these differences):
Unless otherwise noted, this edition will be used. It differs from the 1988 first edition, which more fully explains the physics in the play. [2]
       Paul Edwards relegates all mention of even the existence of two separate versions of the play to his endnotes -- though he does, admittedly, note where the greatest changes have been made (and immediately tries to rationalize them):
The other, more significant revisions considerably reduce the scientific details of Kerner's expositions of physics. Perhaps Stoppard has realized that the physics was more important as an inspiration than as an actual ingredient in the play. [3]
       As I will show, this assessment is completely incorrect, and the physics was equally important as an actual "ingredient" in the play. [4]
       Fleming's language in describing the science in the 1994 version -- "The physics, particularly in the New York version, is explained in a fairly clear and concise manner" [5] -- is, at best misleading: the clarity and concision of the 1994 text is, in fact, the watered down and simplified remnants of science (and of far less use than the more in-depth considerations of the science in the original). Fleming does explain some of what has been done to the text, yet believes:
While still maintaining the play's complexity and intelligence, this "Broadway Edition" script makes the play easier to follow. This text, with the possible reincorporation of some of the lines from the London version, is recommended as the one to use for a production of Hapgood. [6]
       Whether he sincerely believes this, or whether he has been convinced by the 'success' of the Broadway edition over the original London text, Fleming is wrong in so wholeheartedly endorsing the newer version, refusing (like the others) to truly consider what has been lost.
       Among the few who appear to have recognized the devastation wreaked on the text -- because the play in its entirety is impoverished by the scientific simplifications -- is M.A.Orthofer, who wrote:
Yet while the science was the greatest strength of the play, it was this aspect that was most radically revised. (...) The most noticeable changes and cuts are in regard to the science, which is presented in a grossly simplified manner. (...) The passion science can arouse is no longer as convincing in the 1994 version. Science itself still plays a significant role, yet comes across as diminished. [7]
       In addition, he also provides a few examples, clearly supporting this position. My paper -- citing all the examples -- will show the position is incontrovertible. [8]

N o t e s

   [1]: As Ira Nadel wrote: "Most critics hated the London production, Stoppard receiving the worst reviews of his career" (Ira Nadel, Tom Stoppard: A Life (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 377.), and as John Fleming noted: "The London production of Hapgood was Stoppard's first relative failure -- no Best Play Awards and a struggling six-month West End run" (John Fleming, Stoppard's Theatre (Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 2001), 176.). The New York production had a run that was extended several times, and attracted considerably more positive critical notice -- but as Fleming points out (288, n. 11): "Ironically, the London production was considered a relative failure, but based on length of run and size of theatre, probably more tickets were sold for that production than for the New York one."

   [2]: Nadel, 573 (n. 41).

   [3]: Paul Edwards, "Science in Hapgood and Arcadia", The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard, ed K.E.Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 183 (n.4).

    [4]: [Annabelle does go on to (try to) demonstrate this -- at great length -- in the essay that follows, the text of which is not included here.]

   [5]: Fleming, 177.

   [6]: Fleming, 179.

   [7]: M.A.Orthofer, "The scientist on the stage: a survey", Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2002, 27, 3, 180.

    [8]: See note [4].

       Annabelle received an excellent grade (as Annabelle invariably did) -- presumably largely (as so often) by simply overwhelming her teacher. But between the careful comparison of texts and the analysis of her results she came up with a solid piece of work. Her arguments were still too emotional, her sense of outrage practically dripping from each page, but the foundations were rational enough -- entirely so, even. A sober tone and she could have published it in a theatre-quarterly.

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