Ham­let Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

hen the play Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead re­ceived its first pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion, by the Na­tional Theatre Com­pany at Lon­don’s Old Vic Theatre in April 1967, it cat­a­pulted its ob­scure au­thor, Tom Stop­pard, to the level of the­atri­cal roy­alty. The Na­tional Theatre had opened its doors only three-and-a-half years ear­lier, in Oc­to­ber 1963, and in the decades since then it has de­vel­oped into a com­plex of au­di­to­ri­ums in that city’s South Bank Cen­ter, only a short walk from its orig­i­nal home. But it still mounts some pro­duc­tions at the Old Vic, and it seems pleas­antly res­o­nant that Rosen­crantz

and Guilden­stern Are Dead should be per­formed at the same place it be­gan. Na­tional Theatre Live in HD screens a per­for­mance of the play from the Old Vic fea­tur­ing Joshua McGuire and Daniel Rad­cliffe, air­ing at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Thurs­day evening, April 20.

When the Na­tional Theatre opened back in 1963, its first of­fer­ing was what must be the most rev­ered play in the English lan­guage, Shake­speare’s Ham­let. Sud­denly, here was an un­known writer with a play built on the foun­da­tions of Ham­let yet re­veal­ing an en­tirely orig­i­nal voice in its own right. The piece had taken a few years to de­velop. Stop­pard had orig­i­nally con­ceived it as a one-act work ti­tled Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Meet King Lear, but he adapted that into a full-length play with its new ti­tle, and it be­came a cult hit when it was un­veiled by the pre-pro­fes­sional Ox­ford Theatre Group at the Edinburgh Fes­ti­val Fringe in 1966. Six months af­ter its un­veil­ing at the Old Vic, the next year, the pro­duc­tion moved to Broad­way to be­gin a year­long run. There it won four Tony awards along with top hon­ors from the New York Drama Crit­ics’ Cir­cle and the Outer Crit­ics Cir­cle. It has long since been em­braced as a clas­sic.

Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are, of course, char­ac­ters in Ham­let. They were col­lege friends of Ham­let’s and they are sum­moned to the Dan­ish cas­tle of Elsi­nore by his mother (Queen Gertrude) and “un­cle-fa­ther” (King Claudius) to try to pen­e­trate what on earth is go­ing on with the per­plex­ing prince, who is either crazy as a loon or sly as a fox. They pass through eight scenes in Shake­speare’s tragedy. They in­ter­act with the roy­als and the courtiers at Elsi­nore, though they fail to ex­tract much out of Ham­let; they are or­dered to seek out the body of old Polo­nius af­ter Ham­let kills him; and they are as­signed to ac­com­pany Ham­let aboard ship when the king and queen send them off to Eng­land. They bear a sealed let­ter from the Dan­ish roy­als in­struct­ing the king of Eng­land to be­head Ham­let on his ar­rival; but Ham­let discovers the let­ter and sub­sti­tutes in­struc­tions that it is Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern who are to be killed, which they are — af­ter which Ham­let re­turns to Den­mark to par­tic­i­pate in the fi­nal blood­shed at Elsi­nore. In the last scene, with bod­ies strewn about the stage, an am­bas­sador ar­rives — too late — to see King Claudius, “To tell him his com­mand­ment is ful­fill’d,/That Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are dead.”

Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are pawns in the ac­tion of Ham­let, use­ful but ex­pend­able. Stop­pard’s ge­nius was to turn things up­side down and put the two at the cen­ter of the ac­tion. He plucks the am­bas­sador’s line from the end of Shake­speare’s play, puts it on the ti­tle page of his own, and fol­lows through from there. Surely, he sug­gests, these two losers have lives apart from the mo­ments they spend on­stage in Ham­let. Some of those mo­ments will be part of Stop­pard’s play, just as Shake­speare wrote them, but we also get well ac­quainted with Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern on their own. Ditto the troupe of ac­tors who fate­fully en­act The Mur­der of Gon­zago to ex­pose Claudius as an as­sas­sin; they must be up to some­thing when not play­ing Elsi­nore. In Shake­speare, Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern nearly al­ways ap­pear in tan­dem. In fact, one of the jokes in Ham­let is that peo­ple for­get which of them is which. In that con­text it hardly mat­ters, since they are there merely to ful­fill some func­tion or other, rather than be­cause they are fig­ures wor­thy of de­vel­op­ing be­yond that. Not so in Stop­pard, although he does pro­long the joke about con­fus­ing their names such that at one point they mis­take them­selves for each other. In Stop­pard, Shake­speare’s tragedy wafts across the stage al­most in­ci­den­tally, much as Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern waft through Ham­let. These two are not the sharpest swords in the ar­mory, but even so, they spend much of their time ex­chang­ing amus­ing ban­ter that turns out to be philo­soph­i­cal — some­times in overtly in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion but more of­ten by just stum­bling into pro­found ideas by ac­ci­dent.

Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead launched the play­wright who went on to pro­duce many works of bril­liance, in­clud­ing such key­stones of the 1970s stage as Jumpers and Travesties and then The Real

Thing (1982), Ar­ca­dia (1993), Shake­speare in Love (the 1998 screen­play), and The Coast of Utopia (2007), to select just a few of his best-known works from a long list. A few of his works apart from Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead have Shake­spearean an­chors — Dogg’s Ham­let, Ca­hoot’s Mac­beth (a dyad of short plays from 1979), and 15-minute Ham­let (ex­tracted from the for­mer). Ado­ra­tion of Beck­ett also looms large, cer­tainly in Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead, in which the two al­most vaudevil­lian prin­ci­pals have much in com­mon with time-killing Vladimir and Es­tragon in Wait­ing for Godot, and in which, at one point aboard the ship, char­ac­ters are lodged within bar­rels, much as Nagg and Nell are trapped in­side waste­bas­kets in Endgame and the stock char­ac­ters of

Play are sit­u­ated within urns. Whiffs of the theatre of the ab­surd em­anate from some of the scenes of Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern

Are Dead, and it also has a touch of post­mod­ernism thanks to its ba­sic con­cept of re­con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing a

clas­sic work into a new form. Trans­form­ing an ex­ist­ing work was not en­tirely new, to be sure. It is at the root of all par­ody. One might cite a very silly playlet pub­lished in 1874 by W.S. Gil­bert (of “and Sul­li­van” fame): Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern, A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids. (There, King Claudius is em­bar­rassed about a dread­ful play he wrote as a youth and prom­ises death to any­one who per­forms it. Rosen­crantz, yearn­ing to take Ham­let’s place as Ophe­lia’s boyfriend, tricks the prince into per­form­ing the play, af­ter which Ham­let is sent off to Eng­land and Rosen­crantz gets the girl.) In any case, Stop­pard’s treat­ment was as­suredly borne on the aes­thetic breezes of its time, but it has aged very well.


Stop­pard de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for writ­ing plays that can be dif­fi­cult to grasp, a le­git­i­mate con­cern that was not so much of a prob­lem early on. Still, Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead moves swiftly. As in Shake­speare, au­di­ence mem­bers can find them­selves try­ing to keep up with a tor­rent of wit and word­play, as well as with deep thoughts that run like cur­rents be­neath the en­ter­tain­ing sur­face. The play stands on its own, but any­one en­coun­ter­ing it would be well ad­vised to un­der­take a quick re­view of Ham­let, which will cer­tainly en­rich the ex­pe­ri­ence.

A marvelous new way to do that has just hit the in­ter­net: an in­cen­tive called Per­for­mancePlus from the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val in Canada. Two years ago, the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val jumped into the HD broad­cast mar­ket through a se­ries of re­leases made from their stag­ings of the Bard’s plays but redi­rected to be made more ef­fec­tive when filmed — ba­si­cally staged plays turned into movies. (The Screen showed the first sea­son of these here in Santa Fe, but then sat out the 2016 sea­son for un­ex­plained rea­sons. The good news is that it will get back on track with the lat­est in­stall­ments, with plans to show Love’s Labour’s Lost on June 18 and Mac­beth on July 30.) Now the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val has pack­aged two of those pro­duc­tions,

Ham­let and King Lear, into a cap­ti­vat­ing for­mat de­vised for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses. At the heart are the the­ater’s filmed per­for­mances, ac­ces­si­ble in their en­tirety scene by scene. The com­plete text runs along as a side­bar, and dif­fi­cult words from Shake­speare’s lex­i­con are even de­fined if you hover your cur­sor over them. A good deal of text is typ­i­cally ex­cised from mod­ern Shake­spearean stage pro­duc­tions. Per­for­mancePlus deals with this by pro­vid­ing the en­tire text in the side­bar, but with words grayed out if they have been cut from the pro­duc­tion, an in­struc­tive fea­ture in sev­eral ways. You should browse around the Ham­let site, which in­cludes var­i­ous bonus fea­tures apart from the film and text, like suc­cinct plot sum­maries, rel­e­vant points of dis­cus­sion, and in­sights from par­tic­i­pants. It’s all el­e­gantly de­signed for in­tu­itive use. You can ac­cess all this free and in­valu­able ma­te­rial at www.strat­ford­fes­ti­­ers/teach­in­gre­sources/per­for­manceplus/ham­let. It’s well worth a visit, and it will be ideal prepa­ra­tion for get­ting the most out of Stop­pard’s bril­liant re­think­ing of the tale of the dole­ful Dane and his col­lege bud­dies.


Joshua McGuire and Daniel Rad­cliffe

Daniel Haig (fore­ground) and com­pany; pho­tos Manuel Har­lan, courtesy Na­tional Theatre

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