Lecture on Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead


[The following is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), and delivered in LBST 402 on April 10, 1997. This document is in the public domain, released June 1999. The text was reformatted and a few editorial changes made in April 2015. And the text was revised slightly in 2017. For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston.]




For our final text of this semester (and the Liberal Studies program) we are considering the first major work of a writer who, in the thirty years since this play first appeared, has emerged as a leading playwright in England, one of the most popular and frequently produced writer there (and perhaps, with the exception of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber, the high priest of McTheatre, the most popular). In selecting this play for study, we want to provide at the end of the program some attention to drama, particularly to some of the complexities of what has come to be called Theatre of the Absurd, as well as to offer something very funny (a quality lacking in much of the twentieth century reading we have been engaged with for the past semester). I know that a few of you have been having some difficulty with the text of the play, but I hope an experience of the film has helped to bring out the wonderful and often amusing verbal and theatrical fluency of Stoppard’s style.


In my discussion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead I want to focus on a number matters which may help explain the sometimes bewildering style of the play and, in addition, make some connections with works we have read in Liberal Studies, so that this lecture is not only a partial explication of the work but also something of a reminder of some of the places where we have been in the last two years.




Before turning to Stoppard’s play, however, I’d like to linger for a few moments on those plays we have read in Liberal Studies: some Greek tragedies, Aristophanes’s Clouds, Shakespeare’s Tempest and, most importantly, Hamlet. These all contain elements that seem to be lacking in Stoppard’s play, and our initial confusion, if there is any, may stem in large part from our sense that we’re missing something that we are used to.


Traditional drama presents human actions in a social context. The action characteristically moves from a normal situation which is upset, through a series of conflicts as the characters seek to cope with this upset, towards a final conclusion in which something is resolved and a normality (even if a transformed one) is restored. In the plays we have read the conflict may be deeply ironic and the ending tragic (as in, say, Oedipus the King) or it may be robustly funny (as in, say, Clouds) or more fantastic (as in, say, The Tempest), but there is an overall logic to the action, and the plot has a discernible shape: a beginning, middle, and end. By the conclusion of the play, in other words, through the actions of the participants, something has been dealt with, resolved.


In these plays, furthermore, there is a discernible and consistent logic in the actions of the characters. As viewers, we are invited into their world, introduced to its logic, and follow the unfolding of the conflict according to the rules laid down by the play itself. The style of the play may be very formal (e.g., in verse), or it may be colloquially vulgar slapstick, or it may be theatrical fantasy, but throughout there is a logic which the playwright does not violate, and we thus know where we stand in relation to the depicted fiction and to the people in it.


I stress this point because our familiarity with traditional and many conventional plays depends upon a consistency in the logic of the represented fiction. If the logic and dialogue are very close to everyday life, we call the style naturalistic, or slice of life, or kitchen-sink drama; if the style is full of magic or non-natural events, we call the style fantasy. Both styles are equally effective (although many of us have our preferences), but we usually demand from them consistency, so that the world of the represented fiction (which is never an exact duplicate of real life, for even the most naturalistic sounding dialogue must be artistically compressed for dramatic purposes) has a comprehensible logic and consistency upon which we can rely.


In the context of the works we read last week (Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity), we can say that these traditional plays establish a “horizon of significance,” a world ordered by certain normative understandings which, even if they are not ours, enable us to understand what is going on as a coherent and accessible vision. The horizon of significance comes to us through what the characters believe and how the story establishes for us a sense of moral meaning.


With Stoppard’s play at first we seem to be in quite a different world. A common reaction to a script like that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is confusion. Where are we? What are the rules of this world we are in? How am I supposed to understand exactly what is going on and why, when I’m not sure at any particular moment about what’s going on, what sort of reality I’m dealing with, and why characters are behaving the way they are. Too much of this seems either incomprehensible or just a silly game, the point of which escapes me. So what’s going on? Where is the horizon of significance that I’m used to confronting?


This is the basic question I wish initially to address. And I want to approach it by repeating a common observation made about this play, that it is very derivative (i.e., it relies very heavily for its style and content on other works). Often the term derivative is understood pejoratively—a derivative work is inferior, not fully original. That may be true here, but I’d like to reserve judgment on that question. I do want, however, to consider three major art works upon which Stoppard clearly draws: the first is the great classic play from The Theatre of the Absurd, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the second is T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the third, and most obvious, is Shakespeare’s Hamlet.




First, by way of exploring some of the connections between Stoppard’s play and Beckett’s, I’d like to introduce a term familiar to most of you: The Theatre of the Absurd. This term is very loose, but it refers specifically to the works of a number of modern playwrights, particularly Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter (among others), whose plays share certain characteristics, the foremost of which is that their dramatic world seems to have become empty of any horizon of significance or, indeed, anything reliable at all. It has become, in a word, absurd, without logic and without the comfortable reminders of a logical structure: a confidence about time and space and memory.


In the Theatre of the Absurd the protagonists are discovered in a world which they do not, indeed they cannot, understand. It has no reliable meaning. Often, it is featureless. The confusion is not a matter of a conflict between competing meanings, but rather the absence of anything that might help one to understand oneself, one’s purpose, or one’s place in the social scheme of things. Even the protagonist’s identity is problematic. This concept is, I think, clear enough to us, at least in a general outline, from our discussions of modern art and some of our discussions of Nietzsche and de Beauvoir. A sense of the absurdity of the external world is, after all, a legacy of some nineteenth-century Romantic thought.


This, however, is not the only important criterion of this literary style. The other essential component is that the protagonists’ attempts to deal with the world also register as absurd. They become like clowns loose in madhouse or, more appropriately perhaps, in a featureless desert. It is important to grasp this second point, because it separates what we might call existential drama from absurd drama. Existential action also assumes that the world comes to us void of horizons of significance. We have an urgent priority to impose on that world our own projects, freely chosen, and thus become a creator of values for ourselves. The world gives us no fixed priorities for choosing one project over another. But to be fully human, to achieve the dignity of being human, we must act upon our freedom to choose and launch ourselves into the world. This will not bring us happiness (de Beauvoir insists upon that repeatedly); it will, however, confer human dignity upon us.


The Theatre of the Absurd takes from us that dignity. Its heroes lack whatever it takes to act confidently in the world. They are essentially grotesque clowns, without a sense of purpose and without the courage, energy, wit to forge one for themselves. They spend their time anxiously confronting an incomprehensible world, often desperate for some reassurance that there is something or someone who can help them out, but incapable of helping themselves. What renders their situation all the more helpless is that they have no reliable memory, so they cannot even orient themselves and their present situation to what they once were—they can create no intelligible historical narrative for their lives. Hence, they are radically unsure of who they are. The very idea of a self-initiated energetic project is quite beyond them.


Most of the major attention in Absurdist Theatre focuses upon how the protagonists try to cope. Since they are, unlike traditional protagonists, incapable of independent action, what they do is always the same: they wait for something to happen, for someone to come along and provide information, direction, or meaning. However, since the world is absurd, such reassurance never arrives. If it seems to arrive, the protagonists are incapable of understanding it sufficiently. And so the plays typically end as they start: with the protagonists waiting for something. The structure of the story does not admit of a firm ending (of the sort common in tragedy and comedy) because either of those endings is value laden, that is, it is making some form of affirmation about the world.


Most of the drama in such plays—that is, the action that takes place on the stage—consists of games which the protagonists play, not because they have any sense of creative play, but rather because they need something to pass the time, to stave off the fear that always comes if they confront their deepest feelings about the world and their situation or even if they remain silent for any length of time (this point of style is a major, perhaps the major legacy of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot). So Absurdist Theatre is often very funny (or can be played for laughs), simply because of the ludicrousness of the ineffectual attempts (usually verbal) to confer significance upon the passing of time, when one has no resources. The most obvious example of this is Stoppard’s play is the verbal tennis game. The only thing allowed is a fresh question. Statements are out (they make assertions); repetitions are out; and rhetoric is out (because it brings passion into the game). Questions pass the time, so long as they are never answered and do not lead to an increased level of emotion. The questions have no point—any interrogative will do to keep the game going.


Thus, the emphasis on verbal humour is one of the major attractions of Absurdist Theatre. In Waiting for Godot this humour is set up as a conversation between one of the clowns who wants to probe for significance (e.g., by trying to sort out the significance of the thief who was saved) but is ludicrously inadequate for the task and the other of the clowns who is much earthier and keeps puncturing the intellectual pretentiousness of the other, often with a physical complaint. This is also clearly a feature in Stoppard’s play: Guildenstern agonizes about the meaning of it all; Rosencrantz is puzzled by his companion’s attitude and is constantly thwarting Guildenstern’s efforts. When Rosencrantz gets caught up in some time-consuming activity, Guildenstern just gets annoyed.


To acknowledge that these plays are often very funny does not mean that we should miss the desperation underneath the humour. In fact, Absurdist plays can often be very bleak or very funny (or both), depending upon the emphasis the director wishes to establish (this is particularly true of Waiting for Godot). The humour is potentially bleak because it depends upon laughing at any attempt to discover significance—the various resources which the protagonists seek to access are all equally stupid. We are not dealing here with traditional humour, in which a positive moral attitude helps to establish what matters and what does not (e.g., in Aristophanes’s Clouds or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels)—in which many things are exposed as foolish but only to bring out how certain other things really matter. Here we are dealing with a particularly modern sense of humour—black humour which sets up everything as equally ridiculous (probability, classical literature, traditional philosophical positions, religion, the human body, love, even language itself, and, in the film, all the great scientific experiments).


Parenthetically, we should all be familiar with this style of humour, although we might not have reflected on what lies under it. For a good deal of what passes for comedy these days—from Monty Python to This Hour Has 22 Minutes—is basically absurdist. It depends upon, as we are all familiar, the assumption that everything is equally silly, equally subject to ridicule: politics, religion, education, business—in short, all aspects of life are equally fit for mockery. That, incidentally, may be why this form of humour depends so heavily on the short skit and why one often tires of it quickly: we are not getting anywhere with it.


This form of humour, which is a distinctive characteristic of the twentieth century, was born, according to some cultural historians (e.g., Paul Fussell), in the trenches of World War I. Faced with what seemed like the ultimate absurdity of their situation—death and destruction all around, noble but increasingly meaningless traditional rhetoric about honour, courage, patriotism, and so on, and the only way out being an idiotic charge into the machine guns—many soldiers responded with a howl of laughter at the absurdity of it all—not just the absurdity of their circumstances, but also the absurdity of their responses to that situation. Out of that response (as it developed in the trench literature) grew a new attitude, something we have already touched upon briefly in discussing the development in modern art, especially in the Dada movement.


At the base of much of this black humour (and especially in Absurdist Theatre and in Monty Python) is the absurdity of language itself. Instead of being, as it is in virtually all the writers we have read, the keenest (if often deceptive) way of coming to an understanding of ourselves and the world around us, language in the absurdist world becomes one more unpredictable, unreliable, slippery, deceiving feature of experience. In Stoppard’s play this point applies even to the characters’ awareness of their own names. But it also emerges repeatedly in the frequently very funny ways in which they are always misunderstanding each other.


GUIL: You can’t not-be on a boat


ROS: I’ve frequently not been on boats.

GUIL: No, no, no—what you’ve been is not on boats.

ROS: I wish I was dead.


The push to absurdist theatre, however, also grew out of the experience of World War II. And to make this clear I want to refer briefly to a story with which many of you will be familiar: The Diary of Anne Frank. In this well known story, a group of Dutch Jews seek refuge in an attic from the persecution of the Final Solution. There they construct for themselves as normal a life as they can manage, shutting out the external world as far as possible with the daily and annual rituals of life, as if the important thing is just to keep hanging to on the normal way of doing things. Near the end of the war, they are discovered and taken away.


This story was made into a play and a film. And whenever I see this story performed dramatically, I am struck with the relationship between this story and the Theatre of the Absurd, which grew out of the ashes. After all, what happens in this story? The small Jewish community in the attic spends a lot of time waiting. They pass the time by hanging onto the traditional activities—worship, young love, religious festivals. And we, as audience, respond to this as a powerful affirmation of the human spirit.


Yet it doesn’t take much of a shift of perspective to see the activity of these Jewish people as absurd. After all, the world outside the attic has become an irrational and deadly nightmare. And what are they doing? They are pretending it isn’t there. They are going through a series of traditional formulas, which are absolutely ineffectual against the power and the horror of what is going on and what eventually breaks in upon them. They are, in a sense, playing games. True, they don’t think they are games (hence the play is not an absurdist one), and I am not suggesting that the Diary of Anne Frank is absurdist theatre. But it wouldn’t take much to make it an absurdist piece. All one would have to do is to turn the participants into grotesque clowns, so that the various social and religious rituals they go through to pass the time become exaggerated into comic futility; then we would have the essential ingredients of Absurdist Theatre: the ineffectual trying to cope with the incomprehensible.


Now, what I have been talking about is clear enough in Waiting for Godot, and some of the parallels with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are obvious enough, so that we can recognize Stoppard’s acknowledged debt to Beckett—especially in the delineation of the two main characters, their verbal patter, their insecurity about their identity and memories, their constant questioning (which usually is not something in search of an answer but simply a means of expressing their anxiety or passing the time), and their anxious confusion about what they are doing. Whether this qualifies Stoppard’s play as an absurdist piece or not is a question I’d like to defer for the moment.




We should see an immediate connection between Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Stoppard’s play (another acknowledged debt). What comes out particularly strongly (and this is a dominant feature of Beckett’s style as well) is the reliance on romantic irony throughout (a common tech-nique in a great deal of modernist and absurdist literature).


You may recall that when we discussed Eliot’s style, I called attention to this matter of romantic irony, the procedure by which apparently significant gestures or assertions or decisions are made only immediately to collapse: In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a moment will reverse. We discussed then how this movement—the generation of an apparently decisive energy followed by the immediate collapse of that energy—happens throughout Eliot’s poem and indeed governs the structure of the entire piece (so that the initial decisiveness in the resolution to set out to ask an overwhelming question ends with Prufrock’s acceptance of his own inability to do anything decisive and of the final triviality of his life).


A great deal of the humour in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead emerges from this technique. This is nicely caught in the very opening scene of the two protagonists in the film—Rosencrantz gathers himself to say something, but before anything can come out, the moment has passed, and Guildenstern has moved on. All Rosencrantz has managed to utter is an unintelligible grunt.


Beyond that, of course, Stoppard creates in his two main characters a mood characteristically like Eliot’s. The following passage from the poem, in fact, might well serve as an epigraph for Stoppard’s play:


No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; withal, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.


They have no heroic aspirations—they just want to survive (but for what purpose they are not sure), getting enough information to allay the anxiety they feel about their situation. They are aware of their own inadequacies and have accepted them, not out of a sense of humility or of satisfaction at being content with who they are or out of a sense of worthy service to someone or something greater than themselves, but rather because they lack the resources to do anything different. In a sense, they don’t even want to know what is going on, because then they might have to do something about the situation.


At the end of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the persona acknowledges that he is, in effect, already dead to all intents and purposes. And in a sense we might, considering the title of Stoppard’s play, say much the same about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern throughout the course of the action. In the world in which they inhabit, there doesn’t seem to be a very firm line drawn between life and death; the latter is merely an exit, casual and unex-citing, as insignificant as the details of the lives they live (far less dramatic than death in a fictional performance). Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot contemplate killing themselves because that might bring them something exciting and unexpected, like an erection. But of course they cannot do that. In the text of Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply disappear. Are they dead? Will they return to repeat the experience next time? We don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter—their lives are so trivial anyway that, like Prufrock, they have died long ago. In a very real sense, Vladimir, Estragon, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Prufrock are all extreme examples of what Nietzsche calls the “last men,” the living dead, as inauthentic and non-human as it is possible to get this side of the grave.




For all these similarities, it is also necessary to acknowledge that Stoppard’s play contains at least one very important element missing in Waiting for Godot and in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and that is the element of friendship between the two protagonists.


This element is important because, as we view this piece, I think we come to respond to these two characters in a manner significantly different from our response to those other characters I have just named. Vladimir and Estragon have been together a long time, and yet they do not seem to express any particular friendship for each other. They cannot embrace, because they are repelled by the stench of garlic. It’s clear that they need each other and are petrified at the thought of being alone. So their relationship is based upon a deep individual anxiety rather than upon anything expressing a positive value, such as friendship. Prufrock gives us no indication that he has any friends (although he does seem to have many acquaintances).


With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, the emphasis is different (certainly in the film this is brought out). There is a sense of comradeship about them, a genuine affection and closeness (which is occasionally physical), so that we do not see them, as we tend to see Estragon and Vladimir, as two creatures with no joy in life. Rosencrantz, for example, delights in showing off to Guildenstern, always inviting him to see his new discovery (an experiment, a paper plane, a recently fallen apple), and he is never angry when the experiment misfires or Guildenstern crumples up his creation. There is, in other words, an acceptance of each other, which suggests a certain mutuality between them. And that clearly counters somewhat (even if only in a small way) the absurdity of their situation. They do have something of value in their lives.


To this we can add (if we are talking about the film) the wonderful playfulness of Rosencrantz, who is forever wandering through Elsinore with a charming, almost child-like curiosity and inventiveness. That he stumbles across and reenacts many of the great experiments in science without ever quite realizing it establishes him as a person genuinely endearing (as well as adding a great intellectual delight for the spectator). This quality is entirely lacking in many Absurdist plays (particularly those of Beckett, where we have no reason to find anything particularly comforting in the characters).


Beyond this point, there is also a sense that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have more of a specific identity than, say, Vladimir and Estragon. They are Elizabethans, with a certain amount of money. So there is something of a historical identity, and the similarity between them and the people they encounter suggests something like a common cultural basis. In Beckett’s play, by contrast, the characters have names which suggest that they have nothing in common (Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky, the Boy), and their clothes tell us very little about their specific origins, least of all that they share some common historical or cultural milieu.




Given the close, obvious, and acknowledged connections between Stoppard’s play, Eliot’s poem, and Beckett’s play (to say nothing about the relationship to Hamlet), can we conclude that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, in the final analysis, a very skillful but very derivative play that does little more than integrate in an amusing way much more important works? Well, maybe. That is a charge that has been leveled with some justice at Stoppard (in the term theatrical parasite). But before endorsing that judgment, I think we should consider the most original aspect of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the memorable figure of the Player King.


The figure of the Player King injects into Stoppard’s play the fascinating complexities about levels of illusion, the relationship of art to life, and especially the very nature of theatrical fiction. I don’t know that I can begin to do justice to this dimension of the play, but I would like the make a few fairly obvious points.


The players bring into our consideration of the absurdity of the world a sense that we can find order in art. After all, there is a script. And art confers on human actions, especially on human death a certain significance: on the stage people can live significant, active lives and they can die magnificently. Furthermore, there is a logic to the action:


PLAYER: There’s a design at work in all art—surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion.

GUIL: And what’s that, in this case?

PLAYER: It never varies--we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies.

GUIL: Marked?

PLAYER: Between ‘just deserts’ and ‘tragic irony’ we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent. Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possible go when things have got about as bad as they reasonably get.

GUIL: Who decides?

PLAYER: Decides? It is written.

Art, in other words, is quite at odds with the world as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern perceive it. Art confers order. The style the players offer may be, as he admits, run down, seedy, a product of indifferent times, but what they offer is not absurd. The only problem is, of course, that it’s a fiction, something invented, and is quite meaningless without an audience. It is not a world unto itself. Hence, in the text, the Player King becomes very angry when he has to confront the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandoned them in the woods in the middle of the performance.


And by the same token Guildenstern is finally provoked to significant action at what he perceives to be the futility of mere theatre. When he strikes at the Player King, he expresses a finally explosive anger at the way in which the Player King, because he lives in the world of illusion, has all the answers that Guildenstern never finds:


GUIL: But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? (In anguish to the PLAYER) Who are we?


PLAYER: You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.


GUIL: No—it is not enough. To be told so little—to such an end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation . . .


PLAYER: In our experience, most things end in death.


GUIL: (Fear, vengeance, scorn) Your experience?--Actors! (He snatches a dagger from the PLAYER’s belt and holds the point at the PLAYER’s throat: the PLAYER backs and GUIL advances, speaking more quietly.) I’m talking about death—and you’ve never experienced that. And you cannot act it. You die a thousand casual deaths—with none of that intensity which squeezes out life . . . and no blood runs cold anywhere. Because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat. But no one gets up after death—there is no applause—there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that’s death.


Guildenstern is trying at last to do something, to make contact with the only reality of which he is sure. And he is utterly convinced that he has succeeded. He claims the Player doesn’t know death. But the Player King convinces Guildenstern that he is dead. By some final irony, without knowing it, Guildenstern has finally done something, only to discover that it’s just a pretense, part of an improvised drama, complete with an audience who duly applaud.


The play itself is full of references to that fact that it is a play (from the opening comment during the initial coin flipping “There is an art to the building up of suspense”) Thus, as we watch a play, we see within that fiction a professional seller of fictions offering something that is lacking in the main represented fiction. Much of the intellectual delight we get from the play comes from this tension—what exactly is real here? Stoppard’s treatment of this aspect of the play is dazzling, entertaining, and very thought-provoking (for some people at least).


In this aspect of Stoppard’s play, there are some significant differences between the text and the film. In the text, the represented real world is the world of Elsinore, into which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned. That world is, in some respects, a travesty of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—conveying well the deceitful, bewildering logic of the place (from the incessant plotting to the behaviour of Prince Hamlet)—but it is given to us as the real world. The Players are, as in Shakespeare’s play, professional entertainers who show up at Elsinore, put on their play, and have to stow away in a hurry once Claudius is upset.


And yet things are not quite that simple, because we, in the audience, know that the world of Elsinore is not real—it comes from another play, and although Shakespeare’s poetry is butchered in Stoppard’s dialogue, nevertheless the words and actions are close enough to Shakespeare’s original to remind those who know Hamlet that this world may be presented to us as the real world in Stoppard’s work, but it is simply one more fiction. That complicates things.


In the film, there is an enormously significant difference in the very final scene. For the last thing we see is the wagon packing up from the position in the forest where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first met them and moving up that featureless landscape down which the two riders first traveled. How are we supposed to interpret this?


Well, the most obvious conclusion I can come to is that this scene is telling me that all the action has all taken place within the players’ wagon. The world of Elsinore, in other words, rather than being the real political world into which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the Players move, is here a creation of the players. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have, in effect, purchased their way into a production of Hamlet and, because of the logic of the script (pages of which are blowing through many scenes), must move inexorably to their deaths, as it is written.


This treatment (in the film) brings (I think) some clarity into the use of the different theatrical metaphors as it is established in the text, but the issue is still sufficiently complex. In the film we appear to have a real world which consists of featureless white rock and an uninhabited forest, through which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern move without any clear sense of purpose or direction other than the hazy memory of a royal summons, and through which the Players lead their wagon, without our knowing its destination. In the forest, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get literally swallowed up by the players in the scripted drama. This adds something of an ominous reverberation to the play which I have no intention of resolving.


But it seems to me to turn the Player King into something rather more ma-levolent than he is in the text (where he has nothing to do with the disappearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). In fact, as I look at the final image in the film of the players’ wagon inching itself up the rock face where we first met Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I am reminded of a venomous black insect which has just consumed prey--luring the two protagonists into its world with a promise of order, only to swallow them up and move on somewhere.




All right, so Stoppard has injected into what he has drawn on an intriguing and sophisticated theatrical metaphor, and he has given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a more human dimension than Beckett does to his new protagonists. But does Stoppard have anything to say? Is this play offering us anything which we might want to characterize as a vision of experience? Or is it, by contrast, simply a dazzling display of verbal and theatrical sophistication?


I must confess I find this question difficult to answer ever since I first encountered Stoppard’s writing. For it strikes me that those who argue that this play has little moral substance may well be correct. And Stoppard has characterized his own work as “retreating with style from the chaos.” I don’t find that amid all that witty talk and inventive staging anything really substantial. I am filled with delight, but not moved. And what I take away from this play is a sense of the wonderful cleverness of the author rather than anything in myself or the play to reflect upon.


In that sense, we might say that Stoppard has moved beyond the Theatre of the Absurd into what has come to be termed a post-modern style. Here we might recall Nietzsche’s call for us to appropriate our cultural past and turn it to our own original purposes, deriving from the process the highest delights of human life: the joy in artistic play:


But the "spirit," in particular the "historical spirit," also sees an advantage for itself even in this despair: over and over again a  new piece of the past and of a foreign place is tested, put on, set aside, packed away, and above all studied:--we are the first age studious about the issue of "costume": I mean in moralities, articles of faith, tastes in art, and religions, prepared as  no other time ever was for a carnival in the grand style, for the most spiritual revelry of laughter and high spirits, for a transcendental height of the lofties nonsense and Aristophanic mockery of the world. Perhaps this is the very place where we are still discovering the realm of our own inventiveness, that realm where we too can still be original as some sort of satirists of world history and God's clowns--perhaps when nothing else today has a future, perhaps it's our very laughter that still has one! (Beyond Good and Evil, Section 223)


Stoppard, it strikes me, is following Nietzsche’s suggestion. He is appropriating the past—Eliot, Beckett, Shakespeare—but unlike a modernist like Eliot or Kafka he has no particular respect for it. He is not mourning the loss of meaning (as in Eliot) or making reference to the past religious consciousness (like Kafka) or lamenting the loss of meaning in the world (like Beckett). If anything, Stoppard is mocking Shakespeare’s play, emphasizing its irrational barbarity and weirdness. He is having fun, creating startlingly new and original metaphors and reinterpreting the past, not with a sense of what its past meaning might be, but rather to dance upon assorted fragments of the past. After all, there is always one vital human human resource beyond despair: laughter.

Hence, the main emphasis in Stoppard’s play is imaginative exuberance of the author himself, the skill of an original genius at work, the sheer delight in artistic play. Because Stoppard is so intelligent, inventive, and theatrical, his play creates a marvelous work of art. One has to see or read the work many times to get a sense of its richness. But those riches do not, I think, have much to tell us about ourselves or the world we live in. In a work like this, as in so much modern art, we are not invited to view the world differently once we have experienced what the artist has to say. Does that make this inferior? I’m not going to answer that. After all, times being what they are. . . .



Cahn, Victor L. Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard (Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979)


Jenkins, Anthony. Critical Essays on Tom Stoppard (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990)


Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (London: Faber and Faber, 1967)