Sunday, November 28, 2010

Discussion: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

The plot tweet: Hamlet's childhood buddies star in their own "behind the scenes" play, but they meet the same fate as in Shakespeare's tragedy.

My favorite line:
Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. It must have been shattering -- stamped into one's memory. And yet I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure.


This is my first time reading this play, and I'm fascinated. I'm desperate to see it on stage. I've just spent an hour online trying to find a convenient upcoming performance, so please let me know if you're aware of anything.

This play interests me on two levels: as a play in its own right and, of course, as another perspective on Shakespeare's Hamlet. I laughed out loud every time Guildenstern asked what Hamlet was doing, and Rosencrantz replied, "talking." It's true, Hamlet does that a lot. I also enjoy R&G's statements on the cause of Hamlet's melancholy and madness, whether real or feigned. For example:
Rosencrantz: To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?

Guildenstern: I can't imagine!
You might not like absurdist, existentialist metatheater in the vein of Waiting for Godot, but you have to admit, this play is funny. And, of course, it is weird. Why are R&G so lost and confused, even about their own identities and pasts, and why don't they have more control of their own fate? What causes the string of 92 coins landing heads-up? What is behind the sense of unease that pervades the entire play?

Just as with every Shakespeare play -- and just as with every good play, really -- these are questions that can be successfully addressed (or intentionally not addressed) on stage, creating endless variations of interpretation. I'd love to see and compare several productions before drawing my conclusions (or admitting the impossibility of doing so).

At the moment, however, the only thing I can picture is this past summer's outstanding production of Waiting for Godot at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin. I fear the similarities between the two plays are clouding my judgment.

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