Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a humorous piece of self-reflexive theater that draws upon Shakespeare's Hamlet as the source of the story. The actual device of self-reflexive theater is used so well in Stoppard's play that it reads like the love child of a play and a compelling critical essay. The play is academic yet conversationally phrased and it deepens our understanding of the original play but also criticizes it. The aspect of self-reflexive theater is used to comment on theater itself but also as a presentation of ideas and analysis that had previously had no place on the plot-centric set-up of stage and audience.
The essay Rosencrantz and Guildensternare Dead: Theater of Criticism by Normand Berlin draws attention to the fact that Stoppard who was once a drama critic, writes from the critical perspective. When engaged in a non-reflexive play, we are too busy following the movement of time and events to really judge the play, but Berlin writes "In the act of seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, however, our critical faculty is not subdued. We are always observing the characters and are not ourselves participating...we are forced to contemplate the frozen state, the status-quo, of the characters who carry their Shakespearean fates with them.". The grand illusion of theater is the acceptance of the on-stage fantasy as real and existing separate from the people who are actually performing it. Watching theater had classically been an experience separate from the experience of analyzing the piece. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the author keeps us hovering between the two states, we are at once participating in the fantasy but consciously observing the boundary between reality and stage.
In Act 1, scene 3, Guildenstern (trying to act like Hamlet) and Rosencrantz hold a mock interview in order to practice for their royally assigned investigation into Hamlet's psychosis. They go through the key plot points of Hamlet culminating in this noteworthy exchange:
ROS. To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto the throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?
GUIL. I can't imagine!
Stoppard is commentating on Shakespeare's writing, by portraying onstage the ignorance that is required of the characters for the original plot of Hamlet to work. The "meat" of the scene isn't to insult the duo, but for the critically-inclined audience to analyze the sort of logical leaps we take in order to participate in a narrative. The traditional outlet for such observations were academic journals and essays but Stoppard is exhibits these ideas onstage for a mass audience.
The Player exemplifies my point (bloated and wriggling as it is) of the unique...