THE FLIP SIDE OF HAMLET
Hamlet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
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.
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN 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.
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.stratfordfestival.ca/learn/teachers/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