Date finished: April 29th 2017
I read Hamlet for the first time a couple of days ago as a primer to read this. Not that reading Hamlet wasn’t important in itself, Tom Stoppard’s existentialist play about two peripheral characters was merely the driving force behind my finally reading it. So here we are at the promised event.
“We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!”
The play follows the duo who appear as Hamlet’s old friends in the eponymous Shakespeare play. In Hamlet, the duo acted friendly to the point of sycophancy toward their old friend, but he saw through them and dismissed them, realising they were in the employ of Claudius. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead the two of them are winging it, having suddenly appeared in the middle of Hamlet without knowing how they got there or why they’re there. Whilst the events of Hamlet happen from time to time around them, they are often left alone or with the players to ponder their situation, the nature of existence, and exchange barbed remarks.
“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was famously described by Vivian Mercier as a play in which “nothing happens, twice”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern… follows the same approximate trajectory (or lack thereof), less concerned with plot and acts than being a simple work of absurdist metatheatre; it’s a play in which nothing happens, during Hamlet. But for all that meaninglessness, it’s rather fun.
“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern… is a verbal duel, a satire on the nature of theatre, and an unexpectedly philosophical work of tragicomedy, blurring the lines between reality and drama. It’s a playful work, an infinite jest, with a cold undercurrent running through its puckish facade. It’s also a rather visual play, judging from the stage directions, so now I have to find a stage version to watch.