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Module Three

Does scene one prepare the audience for the rest of the play?

The tone is certainly set. The audience sees a simply furnished period room, and a young girl with her tutor—yet Thomasina’s very first remark (‘What is carnal embrace?’) is so surprising, and Septimus’ reply so absurd and witty, that we immediately know that conventional expectations must be discarded at once. This play will be amusing, and will demand quite a lot of its audience.

The intelligence of both characters is readily displayed. Thomasina’s remark about the sin of Onan shows her to be a very quick-witted child! We also learn that she is investigating mathematics at an improbably advanced level, and that she is capable of remarkable insights. Septimus is a more conventional scholar, a little too pleased with himself at times (his ‘definition’ of ‘carnal embrace’ is clever, but not really an appropriate joke at his pupil’s expense, just as his use of the Latin translation of Shakespeare for Thomasina’s lesson in scene three is not really fair), but very witty and self-confident. (He has no difficulty whatsoever in dealing with the rather cumbersome Chater.) The two of them have a delightful relationship with considerable mutual respect and liking. Septimus really listens to Thomasina’s ideas; Thomasina rescues Septimus from the mire of his own confusion by her artless mention of ‘carnal embrace’ to her mother.

The themes of the play are all introduced in this scene, sometimes very subtly. Byron, whose off-stage presence is important in some way to all the characters we see, is mentioned only as Septimus’ friend, out shooting—later we will discover that his presence at Croom Park is confirmed by an entry in the game book. Casual mentions of grouse prefigure the importance of the game records to Valentine.

The theme of mathematics is introduced early on, as we find Thomasina working on Fermat’s last theorem. She suggests the possibility of comprehending the universe in a formula, in an interchange later echoed by Chloe and Valentine’s discussion of why Newton’s laws cannot actually predict the future. Thomasina also demonstrates her instinctive understanding of entropy when she uses her rice pudding example to show that ‘you cannot stir things apart’. Later, she will point out that Mr Noakes’ engine must necessarily waste energy, and Valentine will recognise her genius from nearly two hundred years in the future.

Landscape gardening is introduced rather more straightforwardly, with Mr Noakes and his plans for the redesign, and Lady Croom’s nicely expressed horror. The change from artificially imposed orderliness to imposed disorder will be deprecated by Hannah, and it resonates with the mathematical theme: comprehensible, tidy Newtonian laws will be superseded by the new beginning of chaos theory which so excites Valentine. The sketch book produced by Mr Noakes will be important to Hannah’s work.

As Chloe will later point out, sex is a complicating factor in the grand equation, and the idea of people misbehaving with other people, and being in love with the wrong people, is well set up in this first scene. Initially we learn of Septimus’ ‘carnal embrace’ with Mrs Chater, whose promiscuity will have various repercussions in the plot—the existence of the Chaters’ notes, the apparent duel, and various references to carnal embraces in later scenes. It also gives Thomasina the young girl a chance to be revolted by the whole idea, and to say “when I am grown to practise it myself I shall never do so without thinking of you”, which prefigures Thomasina the young woman being in love with Septimus and eager for his kisses. We also have a strong hint that Septimus is in love with Lady Croom, a passion which will later be gratified.

Literary criticism, as practised by Septimus, is another thread which will reoccur in later scenes. The world of poetry and literary criticism is of course one which Bernard and Hannah also inhabit, and Septimus’ reviews are vitally important to Bernard’s theories.

Then there is the careful planting of clues which will be important to later scenes. The first letter from Chater, the note from Mrs Chater, and Chater’s inscription in Septimus’ copy of ‘The Couch of Eros’ will lead the audience to believe, in scene two, that Bernard has got completely the wrong end of the stick. There is Thomasina’s imaginative sketch of the hermit, which Hannah will mistake for proof (although Thomasina will later draw a picture which confirms Hannah’s instinctive belief that Septimus becomes the Sidley hermit). This evidence, some of it misleading, ties in with the way truths can be lost: lack of evidence, or misinterpretation of evidence, will be almost painfully important to the modern characters.

However, not everything is introduced in this scene. Most obviously, there is no hint that scene two will take place more than a century later. Several of the references are only really clear in retrospect (such as Septimus’ nameless friend, the importance of the letters in the book, and the delicate prefiguring of Thomasina’s love for Septimus), and it is impossible to tell which ideas will become important.

Although the play is so tightly constructed that the first scene contains an abundance of references to subsequent thoughts, themes and events, I do not believe it altogether ‘prepares’ the audience for what is to come.


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