Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead

By William Shakespeare
June 1 1995
directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, having forgotten their summons to Hamlet's castle at Elsinore, are passing the time tossing coins and musing over a continuous and seemingly impossible run of heads over tails. As they remember their task, they are approached by a band of tragedians led by the Player, who offers them a "private" performance with Alfred, a boy actor. After some wagering with the Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern request a play but are quickly transported to Elsinore before it begins.

Date Time
Thursday June 1 12:00 am

Tom Stoppard's Tony award-winning comedy places two of Hamlet's most intriguing characters in the limelight. This irreverent look at what happened behind the scenes in Shakespeare's play provides an existential view of the human condition through the amusing adventures of Hamlet's college chums.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, having forgotten their summons to Hamlet's castle at Elsinore, are passing the time tossing coins and musing over a continuous and seemingly impossible run of heads over tails. As they remember their task, they are approached by a band of tragedians led by the Player, who offers them a "private" performance with Alfred, a boy actor. After some wagering with the Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern request a play but are quickly transported to Elsinore before it begins.

The origin of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead dates to late in 1963 when Stoppard's agent suggested that he write a comedy about what might happen if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern went to England and encountered a raving mad King Lear at Dover. The original version, written in 1964, was a one- act verse farce which Stoppard admits was a failure. Stoppard reworked the play by returning to the framework of Hamlet, and in 1965 a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company heard about the play, requested the first two acts and commissioned a third. The RSC's twelve-month option on the play expired, so the play was presented by Oxford students as part of the "fringe" of the Edinburgh Festival in August of 1966. Ronald Bryden's review for The Observer called it "the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden's . . . [e]rudite comedy, punning, far-fetched, leaping from depth to dizziness." Because of this glowing review, the National Theatre bought the rights to the play and in April of 1967, the play was presented in a revised version at the Old Vic Theatre. Including radio plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was the eleventh play that Stoppard had written but the first to gain great success, acclaim, and a wide audience. For the CSF production, director Gavin Cameron-Webb takes his cue from the study of quantum mechanics, a favorite subject for Stoppard. In this approach to physics, the idea of cause and effect is mitigated, things merely "happen." This negates the basis for what we consider to be "natural laws" but also gives rise to infinite possibilities and highlights Stoppard's sense of play. These qualities are realized in this production by violating natural laws on stage. Probability is the first to fall (the coin toss) followed by others, such as time and gravity. In this production, what goes up might not come down. In addition, this production has a symbiotic relationship with the CSF outdoor production of Hamlet. The setting is a warped reflection of the Hamlet set and the actors who portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reprise their roles, this time at center stage. These crossovers add an exciting extra dimension for audiences who attend both productions. For them, this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is truly a play within a play within a play. At the castle they are greeted by Claudius and Gertrude who tell them of Hamlet's "transformation" and their wish that the two attend him and find the cause. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game of questions with each other to prepare for the task but when they encounter Hamlet they become frustrated by his answers. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looking on, Hamlet commands the Player to perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago, "to catch the conscience of the King." Gertrude enters and questions them about their conversation with Hamlet and they report his interest in the players. Claudius tells them to encourage him in that pursuit. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the tragedian's dress rehearsal for the dumbshow from The Murder of Gonzago. The play now includes two spies who are executed in the final scene. Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Polonius has been slain by Hamlet. He orders them to bring Hamlet and the body of Polonius to the chapel. They encounter Hamlet but he escapes, dragging the dead body with him. When Hamlet is found again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ordered by Claudius to accompany him on a ship bound for England and to deliver a letter to the English king. On board, they discover the letter orders Hamlet's death. When pirates attack the ship, Hamlet escapes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that Claudius' letter has been switched by Hamlet. The letter that should have brought them favor now orders their deaths. As they contemplate their situation, the action switches to Denmark where an ambassador brings the news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

The Problem of Genre:
The Other Side of the Coin 
by Charlie Mitchell Like many of Shakespeare's plays, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play about the offstage world of two minor characters from Hamlet, defies categorization. Is the play a farce, an absurdist or existential work, a play of ideas, a comedy of manners, or straightforward Shakespearean parody? Although Stoppard himself acknowledges a debt to such absurdist playwrights as Beckett, Ionesco, and even the poet T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, he continues to resist labels. Though Stoppard admits that the play can be interpreted in existential terms, he chooses to characterize it as "the perfect marriage between the play of ideas and farce or perhaps even high comedy." This definition is strangely equivocal coming from a former drama critic. Most critics have been drawn to the play's absurdist tendencies. Often the connection to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is used as a means of classifying the piece as belonging to the genre of the Theatre of the Absurd, a phrase coined by Martin Esslin to classify plays that express the senselessness of the human condition and the failure of rational thought to deal with this disturbing reality. This kinship is more than cosmetic and less than total. Indeed, both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Beckett's clowns share some common elements. They seem trapped in worlds in which they are manipulated by unknown rules, teetering on the brink of a void of meaning. Both sets of characters share a preoccupation with death and are presented with facts that do not enlighten experience, but seem only to question the validity of experience itself. Yet Stoppard's approach has more to do with entertainment than with the total nullification of life experience which Beckett's plays sometimes imply. It is Stoppard's enormous wit, intelligence, and sense of play that separates this piece from the grimness found in other absurdist works. In fact, many critics have condemned Stoppard for not taking the serious issues quite so seriously. Stoppard's work belongs to a strange theatrical genus which rides the fence of all definitions, combining elements of each while retaining certain defining characteristics. His plays are highly self-referential, intertextual (depending upon references to other plays for meaning), and present a comical view of the world. Attempts to impose a single meaning on the play correspond to the dilemma of the characters at the beginning of the play--seeing only one side of a coin. Perhaps a more valid means of discussing the play is to examine the implications of its dialectical nature. Stoppard seems to place his characters on a metaphorical chess board, letting them propose questions and counter-questions without providing definitive answers. However, unlike Shakespeare, we can gain further insight into the play from the playwright himself: What there is, is a series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters, and they tend to play a sort of infinite leapfrog. You know, an argument, a refutation, then a rebuttal of the refutation, then a counter-rebuttal, so that there is never any point in this intellectual leap-frog at which I feel that is the speech to stop it on, that is the last word. (Stoppard 6-7) In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, there is always another side to the coin. Some of the conflicting views include art verses pornography, free will verses predestination, and observation verses participation. By flipping the coin, the play moves forward. As the Player proclaims: "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." For the title characters, the action of the play becomes a kind of Escher print, entrances leading to other entrances, with an always-incomplete understanding of the implications of what went on before. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are romantics in an anti-romantic play, striving for reality in a world of illusion, provided with a role but without an action. Sadly, even their roles are in question. In Hamlet, the confusion surrounding the names of these "attendant lords" is essentially an oddly out-of-place gag concerning their interchangability and insignificance. But as Stoppard moves these minor characters to center stage, their namelessness becomes a critique of identity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not mistakenly identified because they are indistinguishable from one another. Their identities are in question because they are dictated by others. This suspicion is so extensive that they can hardly keep track of their names themselves. If a definition of genre is demanded, perhaps the most applicable would be what Normand Berlin calls "theatre of criticism." According to Berlin, Stoppard allows the audience to function as critics during the play rather than afterward. By transplanting characters from a play we already know, one which has become a part of our common mythology, Stoppard enlarges our perspective. We can see beyond the limited view of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and critique their situation in the context of our own lives and even the theatrical enterprise itself. We can see both heads and tails.

Berlin, Normand. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Theater of Criticism." Modern Drama 16 (December 1973): 269-77. Bigsby, C.W.E. Tom Stoppard. London: Longman Group, Ltd., 1976. Londre, Felicia H. Tom Stoppard. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,1981. Stoppard, Tom. "Ambushes for the Audience: Toward a High Comedy of Ideas." Interview. Theatre Quarterly 4 (May-July 1974): 3-17.