“We keep to our usual stuff, more or less, only inside out. We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.” – The Player
In Act 5 of Hamlet, after all the blood has been spilled and the play’s major characters lie scattered on the stage, an ambassador from England makes the announcement that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”. These two characters are killed offstage with no fanfare, after an absence of at least 5 scenes; a curious choice for a play that famously ends with mass onstage murder. An anticlimactic end to two of the most interesting characters in a play full of interesting characters: they are philosophical yet comedic; confident yet powerless; once inseparable friends turned opportunistic traitors. This unsatisfying ending has become a sore spot for many writers and critics over the years, but no reaction has been as inspired as the three-act masterpiece that is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
At its simplest, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is about what the titular characters get up to behind the scenes of Hamlet. Much of the action of the play involves witnessing Ros and Guil being comedically battered backwards and forwards between their scenes in Hamlet; often stopping to puzzle in between at the curious circumstances they have found themselves in. Delving in a bit deeper though, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a tragicomic meditation on fate, as we witness the two bumbling yet charming characters attempt to decipher the inexplicable world in which they exist, and avoid the slowly dawning realization that their story can end with nothing but death. They live half-lives; struggling to remember their own names or even why they are there, but compelled to keep moving forward by something indefinable and beyond their control.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is often compared to Waiting for Godot, and for understandable reasons: both plays focus on two characters who seemingly exist only to keep each other company; trapped in a nonsensical world and relying upon repetitive dialogue and complex wordplay. These plays are also regularly grouped together under the title of “Theatre of the Absurd”: a theatrical genre that was discussed briefly a few articles ago. What makes this play so intriguing is not its similarities to Waiting for Godot, but rather the way it uses these similarities as the starting point for something new. Where Waiting for Godot is concerned with the micro – the individual human reactions of two men faced with a seemingly meaningless existence – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is concerned with the macro – the dauntingly complex philosophies and sciences that attempt to explain our individual human reactions when faced with a seemingly meaningless existence. Stoppard comically and confidently toys with probability, meta-theatre, and Aristotelian logic; showing an extensive, multi-disciplinary knowledge that would go on to define not only his later works, but also the works of Postmodern Novelists such as David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. Indeed, where Waiting for Godot is one of the final important texts of the modern era, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead signals the theatre’s first few steps into postmodernism. Stoppard’s play is an exercise in bold intertextuality, taking immense pleasure in deconstructing a classic text and ironically commenting upon some of its more illogical plot points. More than that though, it is a study in metatheatre: analysing the narratives we choose to tell and effect that choice has on the storytellers themselves; perfectly encapsulated by the bawdy and desperate players, who exist only for the approval of their audience.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966, and already the theatrical landscape was vastly different from the one that had greeted Samuel Beckett with confusion 13 years earlier. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead may not have had the genre defining impact of Waiting for Godot, but it represents the end of an era and the beginning of something new. It represents the moment when the entropic worlds of the Theatre of the Absurd ceased to be of shock value to audience sensibilities, and hints the direction that theatre would continue in for the next few decades. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is epic in its composition; taking the techniques of the Absurdists and adapting them to something radically new; presenting Elizabethan characters rapidly monologuing about their anachronistic knowledge of probability; moving from vaudevillian comedy, to complex wordplay, to existential grief, to Shakespearean re-enactment all within moments of one another. It may fit the definition of Absurd Theatre, but it does not limit itself to that definition. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead represents the moment that contemporary playwriting became too complex to define with simple genre terms; a direction that we have continued in ever since.