Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
I first read this play either at school or at university - at any event, so long ago that I can no longer remember when - and it made me a fan of Tom Stoppards work. Since that time Ive seen productions of a number of his plays, including Arcadia (one of all time favourite pieces of theatre), Travesties and Rock n Roll. However, until last night Id not seen a production of this play, which kickstarted Stoppards career as a playwright when it was staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is described as an absurdist, existentialist tragi-comedy. It focuses on two minor characters from Hamlet who wait in the wings as Shakespeares tragedy is played out around them, confused and confounded by what is happening, uncertain of their identities, unable to rely on their memories. While Stoppard has Ros and Gil (or is it Gil and Ros?) engage in deep discussions about the meaning of life and death, the conflict between art and reality and the randomness of fate, they completely miss the signficance to their own situation of the philosophical concepts involved in their discussions. They have no existence independent of each other and no existence outside Hamlet - and no understanding of what that means.
Two aspects of the play really stand out for me. One is its metatheatricality. The whole play is a piece of metatheatre given that the the central characters are characters in Hamlet and the action takes place within and around a performance of Hamlet. However, there are also conscious echoes of Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot, discussions by the characters of theatrical performance and theory, repeated role-playing by Ros and Gil, and more than one variation of Hamlets play-within-a-play. The effect is a complex and layered exposition of theatrical artifice.
The other aspect of the play that I particularly love is the language. Stoppards wordplay is dazzlingly witty and inventive, while demonstrating how language can be used to confound and obfuscate reality and truth.
The Sydney Theatre Company production of the play I saw last night was brilliant, with wonderful performances, sensational set and costumes and great direction. I laughed until I cried. That has to indicate a great night at the theatre.
Crash Course: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Summary
Wearing Elizabethan costumes on a blank stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins , all of which land 'heads. They realize they can't remember a past before tossing coins and have only vague recollection of being called by royal summons. The Tragedians march onstage lead by the Player , who sees Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a potential audience and tries to entice them into buying a performance with the chance to sodomize the lowliest tragedian, Alfred. Guildenstern is appalled but the Player maintains that people only go to the theater for crude entertainment full of "blood, love, and rhetoric" and mostly blood. The Player accepts and loses two futile bets to Guildenstern and agrees to pay with a play. Rosencrantz extracts a coin from under the Player's foot, sees it fell on tails, and, suddenly, the lighting shifts the scene to Elsinore Castle. A disheveled Hamlet and Ophelia run on stage for a brief, mute appearance.
The play opens as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spinning coins in an indistinct landscape. As the coin is called "heads" or "tails," the winner places the coin in his sack. The coin has landed on heads over seventy-six times in a row, and Rosencrantz has won every time. Guildenstern, the more philosophical and probing of the two, is not angry at his loss, but is rather trying to hide his discomfort at the improbability of the situation. Rosencrantz is not unsettled by the events, and simply believes he has set a new record. Guildenstern proceeds to muse upon possible explanations for why the laws of probability seem to have been suspended in this coin toss game.
How It All Goes Down
Act I opens with Rosencrantz Ros flipping a coin that has landed heads up over ninety times in a row. Ros and Guildenstern Guil are betting on the flip of the coin., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander through a featureless wilderness, flipping coins, which keep coming up heads.