Carey Mulligan Back Onstage

photo by Simon Annand, from "The Half"

Brits call it “the half”: that 30-minute stretch before curtain when actors prep for a show. This ritual is the subject of Simon Annand’s photography anthology (“The Half”) documenting the makeup, cigarettes, and shabby glamor of British backstage life.

Annand’s book is a kind of theater-snob’s US Weekly, an artfully shot black and white collection of vulnerable, beautiful stage celebrities. Flitting through the pages is like binging on fine, dark chocolate: it’s glorious.

In the above photo Carey Mulligan preps for a 2007 performance “The Seagull” at the Royal Court. (The photo’s wonderful schism between décor and costume is typical of “The Half.”)

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Arcadia, Redux

A particular passage struck me on a return visit to “Arcadia.” When a pupil mourns the ancient Library of Alexandria (“Can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! … How can we sleep for grief?”), her tutor gives this response:

“We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.” In other words, we move through life picking up the leftovers of those before us, struggling to carry our meager arms’ worth, but always dropping bits for those to come. This, the living dialogue between past and present, is “Arcadia’s” most vibrant and moving theme. (It’s also fodder for the time-split poster.)

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“Arcadia” and the Grid

Todd Heisler/

A recent Times article commemorated the 200th birthday of “The Grid:” that hard-knuckled, 90-degree matrix that set New York’s streets in unsurprising, rectangulinear order. Excepting some of downtown’s eccentricities, the feature tells us, the grid “gave developers and, later, tourists order, access and predictability.”

How very Newtonian, Tom Stoppard might say. His “Arcadia,” a revival of which just opened on Broadway, explores similar ideas of order and chaos, predictability and chance by alternating between two periods, ultimately tracking physics’ and philosophy’s journey from optimism (in 1809) to a more complicated, less organized universe (in 2011).

The New York Grid could be said to represent classicism, or 1809 “Arcadia:” It’s reasoned, clear, and lucid. It’s the ordered cosmos Thomasina, “Arcadia’s” brilliant, young heroine, is taught to see. Whether it’s Fermat’s last theorem, advanced algebra, or any of the other brain-cramping topics her tutor brings up, order is the final, reachable goal. Surprise is tamed by logic and structure.

New York’s city commissioners, working a mere two years after the fictional Thomasina, operated under similarly classically based, optimistic principles. Sam Roberts (author of the Times article) writes, “The urban grid goes back beyond Hippodamus of Miletus, the Greek urban planner, who, like the street commissioners, viewed the matrix as a manifestation of ‘the rationality of civilized life.’” City structure could manufacture personal integrity, officials believed.

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