The Play’s The Thing: ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, 20 Years Later

Spoiler alert: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die.

They are, in fact, already dead. And they always have been.

But you knew that already, right?

Another spoiler: You, too, shall die one day.

Here’s the rub: they didn’t know when or why, and neither will you.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Extended, circular interlocutions about the fragility of life or the meaning of reality or the existence of meaning itself were certainly more fashionable in the late ’60s, when this play was first presented, but you need not be obsessed by existential angst to enjoy this slippery mind-screw. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not an instrument used for itching those metaphysical itches; it is the itch itself. On the page, like so many plays, it is sufficiently delightful, but brought to life (like the best plays) it sparkles. Of course, even the best plays sometimes suffer from casts, however game, that are not worthy of the material they are provided. Fortunately, this one not only made it to the pretty-big screen, it attracted two of the best British thespians of their time: Gary Oldman (who was known mostly for his role in Sid and Nancy) and Tim Roth (not really known at all, at least outside the UK, circa 1990). Perhaps most miraculous, it also features Richard Dreyfuss, who manages not to be insufferable, perhaps for the last time in his career.

Anyone familiar with Hamlet well recalls that there is a play within a play that takes place: “The play’s the thing –wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” So how about a play about a play within a play? That is what Tom Stoppard attempts with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. He pulls it off, but also achieves many other extraordinary things in this meditation on life and art, art vs. life, the meaning of life, the meaning of art, the meaning of words, the meaning of…meaning, free will, faith and fate. In other words, he explores the sorts of Big Themes that are usually capitalized.

One of the best scenes occurs when the two protagonists play a game of Questions. This bit qualifies as catnip for the overly literate; for anyone who actually gets excited about art, this is intellectual porn. (Like the play itself, it works well on the page, but is considerably improved by the audio and visual qualities of real people doing real things in the service of artifice. On aesthetic and literal levels, the young Gary Oldman channels intelligence, physical beauty, mental acuity and the fey insouciance of a player being pulled on a playwright’s strings, which is precisely what he is. Also, all of the questions inherent in the play –and in the two men’s confused existences– are artfully woven into this ingenious little scene.)

A play (and movie) this excellent, if semi-obscure, has been reviewed well (and well-reviewed) enough times that a summary of the plot –such as it is– is not necessary. Certainly, a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s greatest work would seem obligatory, although the screen version could arguably be enjoyed on its own terms. For me, Stoppard’s true triumph here is not the surreal masterstroke of making marginal characters the main players, or scrutinizing the role of free will (in art, and in life) or in presenting a narrative where the conclusion is telegraphed from the get-go and still making it suspenseful, although those are all remarkable achievements. And, while it is convincingly rendered, he shouldn’t receive too much credit for reinforcing the obvious, if facile reality that we are all the stars of our own story, regardless of how inconsequential our thoughts and actions are in the proverbial pages of history (“All the world’s a stage”, etc.). The enduring impact of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead might be the manner in which Stoppard takes on the Big Questions that philosophers, poets, priests and everyone else have agonized over for centuries and arrives at an explanation even The Bard would likely endorse: it’s not so much that there aren’t any answers (there aren’t) but that we ask the questions at all. By asking the questions, we see the silliness, we hear the humor, we observe the awful and we eventually come to understand the most important thing, the only thing that matters: we are alive.

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