Monday, 6 November 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I have to admit that I simply love this play. I first heard about it in Highschool when my English teacher mentioned it while we were studying Hamlet (and back in Highschool studying a book actually took around a month, particularly since we would read it aloud in class) and described it as a play where two minor characters from Hamlet take centre stage. Mind you, we never actually read the play, or had much more of a discussion beyond that, but his comments had piqued my interest. Anyway, there was a movie that had been done (thanks in part of the assistance of Tom Stoppard since, as it turned out, the play was so complicated that he was the only person that was able to put it on screen), and a few years later I ended up watching it. Needless to say I ended up rolling on the floor in  laughter.

Anyway, here is a trailer I found on Youtube:


Since that time I have watched the movie again and again, and even read the play (namely because I wanted to get an idea of how it was originally performed) but I had never seen it on stage - that is until recently when I discovered that the stage to screen productions had decided to bring it to one of the cinemas in Melbourne. The other interesting thing was that the play starred none other than Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame. It seems as if he is doing his best to attempt to escape that stereotype, though no doubt if it wasn't for Harry Potter he would be little more than a relative unknown. As it turned out he played the role really, really well - he was incredibly funny, he delivered his lines beautifully, and for most of the play I had completely forgotten that he was that dorky little kid that defeated Voldemort.

The Play

As I have previously mentioned, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead is a play about two minor characters in Hamlet - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - and of course the players. However I can't actually say that it has a plot - it doesn't. Rather, it simply drifts from beginning to end, in a rather absurdist and dreamlike quality, with much of the action of Hamlet being played out in the background. In a sense it is basically about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to make sense of the absurdity of their lives, and the fact that they really don't seem to have any control, or any ability to break away from their ulimate doom - their death. The play is basically a continual dialogue between them with the action of Hamlet occasionally breaking through, and also the chief of the players bringing his own thoughts to the equation, thoughts that don't always seem to be appreciated, if only because they don't necessarily bring any comfort to our two protagonists.

The interesting thing is that Tom Stoppard seems to always have his finger in the pie whenever this play is produced, probably because he is the only person who is able to make any head or tail of what is going on. When they attempted to turn it into a film, the story goes that it simply didn't work out until Stoppard stepped in and took over the reins. Radcliffe, before the play, takes us on a tour of the Old Vic, the playhouse where the play was staged, and mentioned that during rehearsal Stoppard would sit in this specific chair munching on lollies (namely because he loves lollies).

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead seems to take the concepts of absurdity that had been developed by Beckert and give it more life, and make it much more presentable. For anybody who has seen a performance of either Waiting for Godot or Endgame would know that Beckett isn't the most accessible of playwrights. Sure, I love his plays, but they seem to exist in a place that could effectively be considered nowhere. In a way he strips everything away and simply has a minimal amount of characters pretty much spurt rubbish and has us leaving the theatre, scratching our heads, wondering what on Earth had just happened. However, Stoppard takes Beckett's ideas and places them back in the real world. Okay, this is the only play of Stoppard's that I am familiar with (and his travesty that happens to be Shakespeare in Love simply doesn't count), but he helps us appreciate the absurdity of existence much better than Beckett was ever able to do, and it does it in a way that leaves us laughing.

All The World's A Stage

There are so many themes in this play that it is going to be impossible to be able to touch upon all of them, and anyway, I still have the film sitting in my cupboard that is probably going to come out again sometime so I that can explore this play again sometime in the future. However, I will try and touch upon a few themes that grabbed me this time around, and one of them happens to be the concept of the theatre. The thing is that the players are major characters in the play, and they explore something that Shakespeare in the past has explored - namely that we are actually players in a show in which we are the stars. However, the thing is that Stoppard's understanding of this stageshow is that it is an absurd comedy.

One of the things that comes out is that an actor ceases to be an actor unless there is an audience. The offense that the players took when our protagonists slipped away during a performance is tantamount. The thing is that without an audience they are little more than mad fools playing make believe. However, they simply had no opportunity to see that the audience had gone until there was a break in the performance. Up until that time they were simply so engrossed in playing their parts that there was no opportunity to see that their audience had vanished. In a way the only thing that gave them purpose, that gave them meaning, was the existence of the audience. Without the audience, there is no meaning to their existence.

Then there is the question of the roles that they play. When times are good they can pick and chose the roles that they will play, however when times are tough, the roles that they can play are limited, and if they are to survive, they need to be willing to literally prostitute themselves to anybody who is willing to give them money. This part of the play while, being quite sexually explicit, was more debaucherous than erotic. Eroticism is something that one can only afford when one has control - when one has no control, and one has no resources, it isn't eroticism, it is little more than prostitution. It is interesting that there players were effectively androgynous, with the exception of Alfred, who was the one that would be prostituted.

One of the lines that stood out to me in the numerous times that I have seen this play is that 'it all must end in blood'. While I will focus more on that a little later, the thing with the play, and the world being a play, is that it is an incredibly bloody play. While you can have rhetoric and romance, you cannot dispense with the blood - blood is demanded, and blood is essential. There is no happy ending in the play that is life - it all ends tragically for each and everyone of us. However, as I look at it, it is not a question of the fact that we all die, it is the way in which we die. While we die, we need to be in the mind that it is not our goal to escape death, but rather to die well. Unfortunately this is not always going to be the case, but more on that later.

The Importance of the Bit Players   

Unfortunately, unless you are one of the select few, we are all bit players in the play that happens to be our life. Sure, we may be the main characters, but in many ways we have little control in what is going on. In reality the world moves around us, and history inevitably marches forward, and many of us have little to no ability to change the course. This is one of the major themes of the play because our protagonists are simply powerless to not only change the destiny of others, but to change their own destiny. No matter how hard they try, the main players simply ride roughshod over them. They have to power to sway, or control Hamlet, and they have no power to be able to please the king. In a way, while they are players in the grand play, they have little to no ability to be able to sway the outcome of this play.

Yet one may argue that even the major characters have no power to change the course of history, In Hamlet it isn't Claudius, or Hamlet, or Gertrude, that has any power to change the end - the end has already been written, and they are inextricably drawn towards this end. No matter how much they try to change this ending, to introduce their own scheming plans, the end has already been written, and it is an incredibly tragic ending. However, while they are the actors, whose choices continually move them towards that tragic ending, they only exist with an illusion of freedom. However, they aren't spectators, they are the actors.

So, in come our protagonists, who are bit players. They have no control over the events, just as the main players have no control, yet they have an important role - they are the audience. As Horatio says at the end of the play, he is the one that has witnessed the events, and as a spectator, he is the one who is destined to tell the story to generations down the track. However our bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, also have an important role - Stoppard has allowed them to tell their story, and it is a story of trying to make sense of the absurdity around them. Sure, they have no power over the events, but they are commentators on these events - they are attempting to understand the absurdity that is life, and helping us see the brighter side to this pitiful existence. They may not have any power, and their destinies are tragic, but they are able to help us see that life isn't always dark and miserable, but it is a comedy, albeit a dark comedy, of which we sometimes need to step back and laugh.

There Is Always the Blood

So, I should finish off with something that many of us try to avoid, yet is a certainty for us all - death. Our protagonists are correct when they chastise the players on the fact that they really don't understand death. Sure, they are able to portray death in many ways, but there are two things that they can't do - make it authentic, and make it watchable. The chief player points this out when he tells the story of the actor who had been condemned to death for stealing a sheep. They managed to convince the authorities to have him die on stage, but it didn't work, because his knowledge that he was going to die meant that he was not able to get in character. As our protagonists point out, they cannot really portray death because once the character dies, the actor gets back up again. They aren't the characters, they are just actors playing a character - a fraud, a realistic fraud, but a fraud nonetheless.

The specture of death hangs over the play from beginning to end. Starting off with the absurdity of them tossing 95 heads on a coin in a row, to the final scene where pretty much everybody dies (with the exception of the players). Yet it is a dark comedy, and we are laughing all the way through. The play helps us come to terms with the certainty of death. Sure, it doesn't offer us hope, or meaning, because in the absurdist comedies there is no hope or meaning, but it puts a perspective on the world in which we live - death is a certainty, there is nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just learn to enjoy life, to have a laugh, and to simply accept the inevitable.

However, one of the reasons that I can learn to love life, and to laugh, is because of my beliefs. However, the problem is that not everybody is in the position that I happen to be in - life is tough, and it is full of pain and heartache - we simply cannot expect people to simply laugh when a loved one is dying of cancer. However, I still believe that we are fooling ourselves if we live life as if there is no hope, and no purpose. I believe that there is a purpose, and while a majority of us happen to be bit players, having little to no power to change to course of events, we are reminded of the butterfly, the one whose wings flap that causes a hurricaine on the otherside of the world. You see, no matter how small a part we play, we all play a part, and we all have a purpose. The problem is that in most cases we simply will not see the impact that our actions will have in times to come.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

1 comment:

  1. Our local community college did this play this fall in conjunction with Hamlet. Sadly I literally had a rehearsal or a concert on every single day they did it, so I missed seeing it.

    On the other hand, I got to perform in another Stoppard play, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. (It is written with an orchestral part - music by Andre Previn - and I was in the orchestra.) Very absurdist as well.

    Your point about the fates controlling the characters reminds me very much about the original Greek Tragedies, which operated under the same assumptions. Some themes are truly timeless.