Thursday, June 06, 2013

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Still Kicking

(Reflections on Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, produced by Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern Theatre. I saw the show May 31.)

In 1967, Tom Stoppard made his name with a play that he might've called Waiting for Hamlet.   To blend two iconic masterpieces in a short sketch on Monty Python would've been memorable; to develop the conceit through three acts took nerve and ingenuity.  Is it only an extended gag? What value does Stoppard add to the sources by Beckett and Shakespeare? 

Laughter helps the existential despair go down.  In a way, he does a service by creating Waiting for Godot lite.  We see two men in a featureless in-between landscape chatting, and we know that this is a take-off of Beckett's more stringent play, yet it's still an image for all our lives passed "in between," just passing time. When an acting troupe arrives, followed by courtiers and Hamlet himself, we are reassured to be in a place we recognize, and we get to chuckle at all the quotes we know.

Shakespeare reinforces Beckett.  Stoppard helps us to see Hamlet as an existentialist anti-hero ahead of his time.  In Shakespeare,  King Claudius and courtiers go about the business of managing Hamlet, sure of themselves and their purposes.  But Hamlet has lost faith in all certainties.  When love, honor, loyalty, friendship,  faith -- not to mention traditions of royal succession and motherhood -- have all been undermined by Claudius, Hamlet has to question if they were ever real.  Stoppard's play takes place mostly in gaps between crucial scenes of Hamlet, but he leaves intact Hamlet's public antics and "wild and whirling words." 

All the world really is a stage, but who's watching?  Beckett's play plays meta-theatricality to the hilt, as when Vladimir and Estragon look out at the audience and remark that they can't exit that way.  Shakespeare layers meta- on meta- in the "mousetrap" scene, when his audience watches actors pretending to be an audience of courtiers watching a troupe of actors pretending to be courtiers.  Hamlet meditates on what it is to be an actor, and he disparages his own ambivalence in comparison to the commitment of the actor who can summon tears for imaginary "Hecuba."  But from the very first sentence of Stoppard's script -- "There is an art to the building up of suspense" -- we are constantly asked to think about how our lives are improvised plays, and how we look to others for our cues.  What if no one's watching?   Stoppard gives the lead Player a remarkable speech, imagining for us what it was like for his actors to be in the middle of a play, only to realize that their audience had abandoned them.   If only to set up that image, both ridiculous and appalling, this play is necessary.

Pre-Post-Modernism.  Stoppard wrote R&G twelve years before a philosopher named Lyotard was first to analyze "post-modernism" as a philosophical stance towards life.  A summary of Lyotard's article seems to describe both form and content in R & G are Dead:

[F]or Lyotard, the de-realization of the world means the disintegration of narrative elements into “clouds” of linguistic combinations and collisions among innumerable, heterogeneous language games. Furthermore, within each game the subject moves from position to position, now as sender, now as addressee, now as referent, and so on. The loss of a continuous meta-narrative therefore breaks the subject into heterogeneous moments of subjectivity that do not cohere into an identity. But as Lyotard points out, while the combinations we experience are not necessarily stable or communicable, we learn to move with a certain nimbleness among them.  (Aylesworth, Gary, "Postmodernism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try and fail to construct a continuous narrative of their own lives:  "What is the first thing you remember?"  Their identities are not fixed; neither of them seems to be sure who's Rosencrantz. But they do play word games.  At one point, they volley questions by the rules of tennis, with faults for repetition, rhetoric, and non-sequitur.  Nothing beats Stoppard's dialogue there for "nimbleness." 

So, Bravo, Stoppard and Atlanta Shakespeare's Tavern.   I'm grateful to Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern for reviving this play, and for doing it in rep this summer with Hamlet.   It seems such an obvious thing to do, yet the only other actors to do this, so far as I've heard, were my own drama students at St. Andrew's Episcopal High School in Jackson, MS, back in 1986-1987.

In performance last week in Atlanta, actor Jonathan Horne, untidy and uninhibited among staid courtiers, seemed to be the bull in the china shop, or the madman at the tea party.   This was, I think, Stoppard's vision:  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two clowns (think Laurel and Hardy, or contemporary with the play, Rowan and Martin) who wake up in the middle of a serious tragedy, menaced by the antic Dane. That worked well, until director Jeff McKerley ramped up stage business. For the sake of belly laughs, the royal couple coupled between their lines, and Ophelia injected a heavy dose of Valley Girl into her lines.   This mugging got laughs, but at a cost:  Rowan and Martin were the least interesting characters on "Laugh-In" ; but Rowan and Martin at Elsinore?  That would have been remarkable.

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