Chloë, Valentine and Gus lounge around the table, wearing Regency period clothing (ie, from the early 19th century, the time of Thomasina and Septimus). A pot of dwarf dahlias sits on the table. Chloë reads the title of Bernard’s paper. “Even in Arcadia—Sex, Literature and Death at Sidley Park.” She talks to Valentine about whether it’s possible to use math to predict the future. Valentine points out that Newton’s laws can’t adequately predict the future. Chloë thinks that the force Newton left out is sex.
The title of Bernard’s paper neatly ties together several major themes while referencing the Latin line about death in Arcadia. (It’s also worth noting that orgasm was sometimes called the “little death”). Chloë, too, links together some of the play’s threads, making a new, more emotional theory about how to predict the future, and suggesting that love is a force of nature.
Hannah enters, noting the group’s unusual outfits. Bernard’s theory about Byron has even made the tabloids, but she still thinks it’s silly. Chloë and Gus exit. Valentine hopes that Chloë isn’t too blinded by her feelings for Bernard. Hannah and Valentine banter about how Bernard’s theory may be wrong, and then Valentine propositions Hannah, in a teasing way.
Valentine’s actions here demonstrate that all his joking about Hannah being his fiancée isn’t completely silly. He’s genuinely attracted to her, though she remains the only character in the play who seems unmoved by love.
Valentine continues work on his grouse project. Hannah in a stirring monologue about the necessity of the search for knowledge, encourages him not to give up on his project. “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.” She doesn’t want to believe in an afterlife, because that lessens the meaningfulness of the struggle for knowledge on earth.
Here, Hannah combines both Enlightenment and Romantic views. She believes in the rational search for knowledge, but also doesn’t believe that total, perfect knowledge is possible.
Hannah looks at Valentine’s work. He shows her how he’s iterated Thomasina’s equation millions of times, producing a beautiful fractal-like pattern. He says this work, “the Coverly set,” is publishable, and that Thomasina would have been famous for it if she’d understood what she achieved. Because she’s not famous, Valentine apparently still believes that Thomasina stumbled upon the math accidentally, and didn’t really know what it meant. Hannah reveals that Thomasina died in a fire before she had time to put her work out in the world, the night before her 17th birthday.
Hannah reveals a crucial piece of information that suddenly explains one of the play’s central mysteries: how did Septimus end up as the crazy old hermit? Thomasina dies while still a child, in a tragic real-world and accidental demonstration of her revelation that time only goes one direction, and everything tends to go from order to disorder.
As Hannah and Valentine continue, silently, to do work at the table, the two time periods begin to overlap, though the characters, separated by 200 years, don’t interact. Augustus, Thomasina’s brother, who’s played by the same actor as Gus, enters the room, chased by 16-year-old Thomasina. Septimus makes them settle down for the drawing lesson, at the same table where Hannah and Valentine sit.
Last time we saw these characters, Thomasina was 13—three years have passed. Septimus’s presence shows that Lady Croom didn’t banish him from the house after his love confession. The modern and historical scenes parallel thematically as all the characters are studying.
Thomasina reviews her math notebook. Septimus didn’t give her a grade for what she calls her “rabbit equation.” She explains that it’s an iteration—“It eats its own progeny.” Septimus looks back at the book. Hannah and Valentine talk about whether the math demonstrates the end of the world, while Septimus begins to understand Thomasina’s equation. Valentine explains the second law of thermodynamics to Hannah. Tea only cools down, and never heats up by itself. The point, Valentine explains, is that certain processes only move in one direction. Valentine thinks that Septimus and Thomasina didn’t understand this major idea. Hannah quotes some lines from Byron that describe an apocalyptic vision.
This complex scene shows how current and past concerns echo one another, which links to Septimus’s monologue, in Scene 3, about how lost discoveries will be made again in the future. Valentine, meanwhile, connects a sense of death to the truths of post-Newtonian physics. The universe is headed towards chaos, towards death, just as Thomasina is. Septimus and Thomasina, however, are still optimistic about their discoveries, unaware of the implications of doom.
Thomasina asks Septimus if she’ll marry Byron. He’s doubtful. Augustus, bored with the lesson, leaves in a huff. Thomasina brings up a kiss she shared with Septimus in the hermitage yesterday. She wants to learn how to waltz. Septimus shows Thomasina a prize-winning essay in which a French scientist explains that something about heat contradicts Newton.
The play suggests that the French essay describes something related to the same thermodynamic tendencies that Thomasina noted in her rice pudding. This highlights again how cutting-edge her ideas were and how tragic her death.
Chloë and Lady Croom both enter, Chloë in search of Gus, and Lady Croom in search of Noakes. A steam pump and a piano make noise off stage—the pump pertains to Noakes, and the piano to Gus. Lady Croom complains about the pump noise to Thomasina, while Chloë and Valentine exit to have their photo taken (they’re still wearing Regency-period clothing). Lady Croom touches the pot of dahlias, while Hannah reads from Lady Croom’s garden books, which function as journals. The journal mentions Chater’s death by monkey bite. The dahlia he described had never been in England before.
The pot of dahlias on the table, coupled with Hannah’s reading of the garden book, demonstrates that Chater has by this time died in Martinique, but the dahlia he discovered has arrived in England. The steam engine that bothers Lady Croom represents the dawning of a new era of industry and mechanical reproduction . Romanticism’s focus on the wild and emotional is already giving way to machines.
Thomasina finishes with the French essay, which discusses a flaw in Newton’s theories. Determinism, the idea that the future is predictable and locked in, is not true. Thomasina is excited about her own theorizing about the forms in nature. Lady Croom shifts the conversation. Thomasina is just a week away from turning 17, and she wants to marry Byron. Septimus and Lady Croom gossip about Byron and Caroline Lamb.
There are now several theories about the future. Newton’s idea was that everything is predetermined, but that’s wrong. Valentine, and modern science, think the future will end in disorder and entropy. Thomasina is beginning to understand Valentine’s side.
Noakes enters, and Lady Croom airs her grievances about the noisy steam pump. She also complains about the hermitage, and wonders who might live there. Septimus mysteriously asks whether the hermitage might fit a piano. Thomasina mentions that the steam pump cannot ever work efficiently, because of the same forces of heat involved with her understanding of the second law of thermodynamics. Thomasina draws Septimus with his tortoise, Plautus. She exits to prepare for the dinner with a count that will take place that evening.
Thomasina shows her flexible understanding of the world by bringing her theory of heat to bear on a totally new object, the steam pump. She understands how technological progress is limited by physics, whereas Lady Croom merely objects to the pump because of its ugly noise. The hermitage also doesn’t fit Lady Croom’s Classical ideas of beauty.
Augustus enters, meekly asking if Septimus will explain some “carnal things” to him. They leave to take a walk, Augustus carrying Thomasina’s drawing, as Bernard, Valentine, and Hannah enter. Hannah carries the garden book of Lady Croom. Bernard is in a fury about something, raving that he’s been “fucked by a dahlia.” Hannah reads a passage from the garden book, which clearly connects the botanist Chater, who died after describing a dahlia in Martinique, to the Ezra Chater of “The Couch of Eros.” This revelation disproves Bernard’s entire theory about Chater’s death in a duel with Byron.
Augustus’s request to Septimus recalls the book’s beginning. In Arcadia, one perpetual topic of education is sex. Bernard’s raving amusingly reflects this. Of course he frames his disgrace in terms of sexual subjugation. The dahlia may be a sexual conqueror, but it is also a symbol of the natural world, and therefore linked to the grouse and to Thomasina.
Bernard scrabbles to think if any of his claims are true. He still thinks the Piccadilly reviews were Byron’s (though we know them to be Septimus’s), but the exciting part of his discovery is gutted. Bernard rather unfairly asks Hannah why she didn’t stop him. He wonders how long he has before another scholar points out his flaw, and Hannah indicates that she’ll publish a letter right away. Chloë and Valentine quickly give Bernard a Regency costume for the photograph of the family that will appear in the newspaper, and they all exit.
In tortoise-and-hare fashion, cautious Hannah has the greatest victory merely by waiting for Bernard to trip over his own feet. Now she’ll have the satisfaction of publicly pointing out his mistake. Despite his bluster and disappointment, Bernard accepts his future like a true scholar.
The lighting changes to evening. Septimus enters carrying a lamp, and Thomasina enters carrying a candle. Thomasina blows out the candle, exclaims that she’ll be 17 tomorrow, and kisses Septimus. She begs Septimus to teach her how to waltz. He reads one of her essays.
Throughout the play, Septimus has never truly appreciated the groundbreaking nature of Thomasina’s work. Here, his late-night study of her essay shows his growing awareness.
Hannah and Valentine enter. Valentine goes to the table to find Thomasina’s diagram. Septimus also finds Thomasina’s diagram. Valentine realizes that the diagram shows heat exchange, and Septimus summarizes his takeaway from Thomasina’s essay: “We are all doomed.” Valentine finally understands what Thomasina was getting at, namely that some processes only go in one direction. This goes against Newton, Septimus realizes. Septimus now offers to dance with Thomasina.
Septimus only consents to dance with Thomasina once he understands the true genius of her work. Now he can see her as an equal, or even his superior. But we know from Hannah’s disclosure earlier in the scene that Thomasina died in a fire the night before her seventeenth birthday. These are her last hours, just as she and Septimus begin to realize that their love as scholar/tutor has become a romantic love between equals.
Bernard enters, removing his costume and planning to leave. Septimus and Thomasina dance slowly and kiss. Chloë enters angrily. Her mother discovered her and Bernard carrying on in the hermitage. Bernard apologizes to everyone, but tells Chloë, “It was wonderful.” Chloë and Valentine exit. Bernard gives his best wishes to Hannah for her book. She says she thinks she knows who the hermit is, but she can’t prove it. Bernard encourages her to publish. He exits.
Despite his love of Romantic poetry, Bernard isn’t a true romantic like Septimus, and clearly doesn’t have lingering feelings for Chloë. Still, his compliment that it was “wonderful” seems sincere. Though he often functions as an antagonist, Bernard is a good person deep down.
Septimus and Thomasina continue to waltz. Then Septimus lights her candle and tells her, “Be careful with the flame.” She wants him to come visit her in the night, but he won’t agree to. Meanwhile, Gus enters, and hands Hannah a portfolio containing Thomasina’s drawing, labeled “Septimus holding Plautus,” the tortoise. Hannah thanks Gus, and Gus bows to invite her to dance. She rejects, then accepts his offer. The two of them begin to dance, alongside Thomasina and Septimus.
Gus gives Hannah the crucial information she needs to link the tortoise-owning hermit to the tutor. After a whole play of rejecting men’s offers, she finally gives in to a bit of romance. For Hannah, as for Septimus and Thomasina, intellectual pursuits and love go hand in hand.