Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
"Ros: What is your line?
Player: Tragedy, sir. Deaths and disclosures, universal and particular, denouements both unexpected and inexorable, transvestite melodrama on all levels including the suggestive. We transport you into a world of intrigue and illusion . . .clowns, if you like, murderers--we can do you ghosts and battles, on the skirmish level, heroes, villains, tormented lovers--set pieces in the poetic vein; we can do you rapiers or rape or both, by all means, faithless wives and ravished virgins--flagrante delicto at a price, but that comes under realism for which there are special terms. Getting warm, am I?" (p 23)
Tom Stoppard has been writing plays for more than a half century. Some that I have had the opportunity to read or see in performance include Arcadia, Travesties, The Invention of Love, Night and Day, and his great trilogy The Coast of Utopia. But before all of these he burst onto the world theater scene with a dramatic masterpiece titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Both a tragicomedy and a parody of sorts, it focuses on the two courtiers, Ros & Guil (for short), whose existence we owe to William Shakespeare and his tragedy Hamlet. Stoppard's play exists behind the scenes of Shakespeare's play as we follow the two courtiers on their predicted way to death.
As the play opens we meet Ros and Guil in "a place without any visible character". Guil is tossing coins and Ros is calling heads, which is unusual only in that the coin keeps coming up heads and apparently has been for some time. This leads them to a brief discussion of the law averages and the law of diminishing returns. One wonders, they wonder, about the nature of reality and time. Has it "stopped dead"? Can they remember what just happened not too long ago. Guil asks:
"'What is the fist thing after all the things you've forgotten?'
Ros: Oh I see. (Pause.) I've forgotten the question.
Guil: Are you happy?
Guil: Content? At ease?
Ros: I suppose so." (p 16-17)
Guil speculates that they must be operating under supernatural forces and proceeds to provide a lengthy scientific commentary that is as much designed to ward off fear as it is to convince Ros of Guil's point. But instead of reassuring Ros it leads into a discussion of death and what it is like to be dead. Guil's reassurance to Ros: "But you are not dead." is lost among their speculations. Their tenuous connection with reality is quickly established and with the imminent entrance of a group of theatrical players, "The Tragedians", this theme will be expanded through metaphor and wordplay to the point that the whole play appears as a dream, or more likely a nightmare ending in death.
The nature of their existence as characters reminds one of Godot's Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, the absurdity of their condition and even some of their dialogue demands such comparison. Stoppard’s play goes beyond the hopelessness of Vladimir and Estragon’s absurd condition and provides much more comic entertainment. The two are shown whiling away their time on the fringes of the “major play”, whose echoes they are eager to absorb but whose significance remains enigmatic. Hence, despite all their efforts to “act”, when the crucial moment comes and it rests upon them to warn Hamlet, they fail. They thus fall short of having the text “rewritten” in their favor, and prepare their own untimely, yet (inter)textually predestined, deaths.
The theme of appearance versus reality is sustained by a profound metadramatic discussion on art versus real life. This begins with the entrance of the Tragedians and their playful invitation for Ros and Guil to be not only spectators but, if they are willing to pay a slightly higher price, participants in the performance of a tragedy--performed for their sole benefit. While they do not join the players the question of appearance versus reality which was suggested even earlier continues to vex the two courtiers. Throughout the play their are comic moments, usually redounding from word play. One moment was reminiscent of an Abbot and Costello routine with Ros and Guil going back and forth with confusion over "what" and "why" (p 68).
The play’s enormous theatricality is afforded by the playful handling of Hamlet as well as the abundant use of (comic) reasoning. We even find Guil mimicking Hamlet with the comment, "Words, words. They're all we have to go on."(p 41) But one wonders what value the words are when the existence of the characters is as fragile as it seems in this play. By foregrounding epistemological uncertainty as ethically relevant, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead announces one of the abiding preoccupations of Stoppard's own future writing. It also entertains the happy reader with a delightfully intellectually stimulating play.
View all my reviews