Yesterday I received a response to my letter to Stoppard! Essentially only a postcard, but I’m still very excited that I heard back from him at all – definitely the highlight of my day!

 “Dear Erin – how right you are about the time I have to discuss my plays at length – but thank you for your kind words. Tom Stoppard”

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Below is the link I came across to a recent interview with Stoppard – enjoy!

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/bn-review/note.asp?r=1¬e=21101552

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I’ve posted my final paper as a separate page titled “Plays Within Plays.”

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Below is the text of a letter I’ve written to Stoppard and am mailing via the publisher of The Coast of Utopia – fingers crossed, maybe I’ll even get an answer!

____________________________________________

Dear Mr. Stoppard: 

I am an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I recently spent a semester conducting a study of your plays. I have loved your work since I first encountered it in high school, and after reading so much of your writing in the last few months, I wanted to write to you and tell you how much I respect and enjoy your plays.  

Many of my favorite moments in dramatic literature come from your plays. The final waltz in Arcadia is for me one of the most beautiful scenes in the realm of theatre. I love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead because it is so universal – for weeks after I first performed it, everything people said or that I heard or saw related back to the play somehow, and I caught myself quoting it continuously. I can’t see a coin flipped anymore without instinctively calling ‘heads’. To me, that is part of the greatness of your plays, that they seem relevant to everything. I find myself constantly relating my own experiences back to your plays.  

Of all the immense variety of subject matter you’ve written on, I am most intrigued by your depiction of theatre and plays within the plays. Works such as The Real Inspector Hound, The Real Thing, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead have given me an entirely new perspective on the old conceit of the world as a stage. And yet, whenever I feel I’ve drawn a conclusion about your writing, something else emerges to make me rethink all my assumptions, and I find that to be one of the most enthralling things about your writing – that it’s nearly impossible to pin things down and say definitively, “this is this, and that is that.” To me, the ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning which appears in your dialogue and stagecraft makes reading or viewing your plays almost like a game, a challenge to work out all the possible meanings contained in one exchange or stage direction. In months of reading I’ve made very little progress in meeting that challenge, but the process has been terrific fun anyways.  

I would love to discuss your plays at length, but I recognize of course that you must be an exceedingly busy man. I hope, though, that you might find time to reply, however briefly, to this letter – if for no other reason than that it would be a thrilling end to my study to hear from the author himself. Regardless, though, you have my utmost respect and admiration, and I look forward to many future encounters with your writing.  

Sincerely,  

Erin M. Shannahan

College of William and Mary, Class of 2009

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The semester has come to a close, and I’m winding up all the remaining work on my project. I’ve updated the bibliography page to reflect changes in my reading as the semester progressed. I’ve been working for the last two weeks on a final, culminating paper, and I will post that on a separate page as soon as I’m satisfied with all my revisions. I had meant to write a post after watching Shakespeare in Love, but never managed to get what I wanted to say in print; I actually found it rather difficult to stay focused on Stoppard rather than wandering off onto Shakespearean tangents. I may finish that post, but most likely I will leave that film untouched and just end with R&G are Dead. I have one or two other tasks to take care of, just to tie up loose ends, but otherwise, I’ve pretty much come to the end of my study.

 Working individually in a study of this type has been phenomenal, because it allowed me so much freedom to pursue my own interests. I wouldn’t have undertaken this project if I weren’t already a Stoppard fan, but over the course of the semester, I’ve come to respect his talent and genius far more than I did previously, and I’ve begun to appreciate just how unusual and rare an author he is. There’s no way to express my respect and enjoyment of Stoppard’s writing without sounding trite. All I can say is that he has come to be one of my favorite and most esteemed authors, and I look forward to my next encounter with his work.

Special thanks to Colleen Kennedy of the William and Mary English Department for all of her help while serving as my advisor for this study.

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Almost 25 years after Stoppard exploded into the theatre world with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, he rewrote his own masterpiece and directed the 1990 film adaptation. The fact that Stoppard himself wrote the screenplay and directed, rather than another writer reworking the original play, makes all of the changes and contrasts between the play and film all the more striking.

The most noticeable change is the setting of the story. Where, in the play, we are told explicitly that R&G are “in a place without much visible character,” the film takes place in a series of lush, extravagant locations with a great deal of visual character. In the film, R&G wander continuously through the palace, from one room to another, instead of staying in place while the action comes to them, as is the case in the play; the play makes them into much more stagnant characters, since they cannot go anywhere for large portions of it. In the film, they can explore and move about. There is the same frustration, however, because no matter how much they move, they never seem to get anywhere; they continuously find themselves wandering in circles, as though in a labyrinth.

Rather than the action coming to them, they wind up stumbling into other scenes unintentionally. While in the play, they are at least important enough that the king continues to return and give them instructions, here they are even more of nobodies – all the action of Hamlet which they come across they find only through eavesdropping. Rather than carrying on an extended dialog to fill the time while they wait for someone to come in, as in the play, here they take momentary pauses from their dialog to note what’s happening around them before returning to their own pursuits. It makes the Hamlet plot seem even more periphery than before – only a temporary distraction. At other times, the film almost becomes a detective story, with the protagonists overhearing sinister whisperings and trying to work out the mystery, but of course, they never actually learn enough to solve the puzzle.

The aspect of the film which most bothered me was the changes to the tragedians and their plays. The climactic scene in which they reenact the end of Hamletwas moved far earlier in the movie, to the point where in the original play they limit themselves to merely elaborating on “The Murder of Gonzago” a bit. Instead, in the film, they go through the entire course of the play – which increases the sense of foreshadowing, but I felt severely undermined the impact of the final scene, which instead becomes just a montage of each of the court characters dying. I realize that what works on the stage cannot be translated easily to film, but I thought that much of the mystery, intricacy, and power of that scene was lost.

While I didn’t like the shuffled timing of the plays-within-a-play, in terms of the actual staging, I thought they were phenomenal. The dumb-show before the servants was extremely clever, and I loved the haunting effect of the masks used in the interrupted rehearsal. The inclusion of a play within the play-within-a-play, staged with puppets, gave me the sense that the story just kept going back deeper and deeper, repeating itself infinitely – like a fractal, or an object between two mirrors, reflected endlessly.

While I was disappointed with the way the final scene was handled, I did find the other transitions, such as between the acts or from one locale to another, to be very well done. The repeated themes of blowing paper and music, followed by a transition such as zooming in on the curtains of the tragedians’ cart and then zooming back out to show the curtains hanging in Elsinore, terrifically executed my understanding of Stoppard’s intention for the play – the instantaneous, almost magical passage of time and place were fascinating. The same could be said of the transition between Acts II and III, when Hamlet extinguishes the light near Polonius’ body and the next light to come up reveals them all on the boat. I also found it very interesting to see how much more of HamletStoppard included in this version, compared to the original, and which chunks of his original play he cut (a sizeable portion).

I thought that the Player’s part seemed rather diminished, since many of my favorite speeches disappeared. I did, however, love the development of Rosencrantz’s character. In the play, it is always tempting to categorize Guildenstern as the intellectual pompous one and Rosencrantz as the friendly stupid one, but in the film, without adding more than a few words of dialog, Stoppard used visual humor to flesh out Rosencrantz. He fiddles continuously with the ordinary objects around him, discovering as the film progresses gravity, at least one of Newton’s laws, volume, wind power, and the airplane. Instead of an idiot, he becomes an absent-minded professor figure – not oblivious to the political intrigue around him so much as unconcerned by it, considering his little discoveries far more intriguing than all the court babble. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what’s happening, so much as that it doesn’t bother him. Guildenstern becomes the opposite – too caught up in trying to figure out the court action to pay attention to Rosencrantz’s discoveries, despite the fact that ultimately they’d be better off if they stuck to R’s pursuits than G’s.

Some of the actors’ choices also bothered me slightly. I felt the film held no sense of urgency, none of the near-hysteria that appears at moments in the play. Even as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand on the gallows with nooses around their necks (another thing which bothered me; what happened to death being something which can’t be acted, merely an exit and a failure to return?), I got the sense that they considered this all to be merely a nuisance and a minor irritant. Considering how much of the original play is devoted to dealing with the idea of death, how to confront it, and a person’s ability to process the implications of death, I thought the movie contained very little of those questions which were so fundamental to the play.

Overall, I liked the movie, but the vast differences between the film and play have forced me to wonder about my interpretation of the play. So much of what I considered to be a fundamental, crucial part of the play disappeared in the movie, which would be understandable if a second author had revised the play, but since the changes were all made by Stoppard himself, I have to wonder if I’m focusing my attention on the wrong aspects of the play. It’s definitely something to take into account as I move into the final stages of my study.

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Although I’ve been trying to tackle the question of metatheatricality in R&G are Dead, thus far I’ve really only looked at it in terms of theatrical self-awareness bridging the gap between Stoppard’s play and the audience; I’ve yet to even touch on the abundant material provided by the plays-within-a-play or on the stagecraft of Stoppard’s play itself.

Guildenstern tells the Player, “I would prefer art to mirror life, if it’s all the same to you,” to which the Player replies, “It’s all the same to me.” Although the entire point of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play is that it should resemble the real events preceding Hamlet, Stoppard’s tragedians take this even further, meticulously predicting all the events past and yet to come. They don’t ever say they are staging “The Murder of Gonzago,”; instead, they act out the very play they are participating in, Shakespeare’s  Hamlet, becoming not actors but almost prophets. Their play-within-a-play merges with the action of the larger play at various points, as when their rehearsal culminates in the ‘death’ of the spies and immediately transitions to the performance before the king; when the between-scenes blackout ends, the tragedians have been exactly replaced with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Something similar occurs on an even grander scale in the end, when the tragedians act out a blood bath which exactly represents Hamlet 5.2 before disappearing into a blackout only to have the raised lights reveal that the fallen tragedians have become the court members. The line between play-within-a-play and the ‘real life’ of the play gets blurred and at times completely obliterated. The connection with the tragedians – especially strong if the tragedians are deliberately paired with a particular court character – makes the court members seem like actors as well, puppets forced to fulfill the plot delineated by the tragedians, rather than the other way around.

Some of my favorite parts of this play are parts I’ve yet to see successfully staged – namely, the striking final scene when the ‘dead’ tragedians are silently replaced with the dead court. I have not had a chance to see it performed as scripted in Stoppard’s directions; the one professional production I saw used universal lighting, meaning that the tragedians’ bodies were always visible; the identity switch was managed by double casting the court members as the tragedians and having them wear their court costumes beneath the tragedians’ long cloaks. While it was effective in its own way, raising a whole new batch of questions regarding identity, it is not the author’s original staging; and although Stoppard is the first to say that plays tend to benefit from revision and should be a flexible medium, I would love to see a production done in accordance with the original stage directions.

Having access to those stage directions also highlights a question I’ve had to deal with throughout this semester’s work – the difference between reading and seeing. Reading Stoppard’s directions, the connections between Hamlet and R&G are Dead emerge even more clearly, as when he quotes entire passages from Shakespeare’s play as stage directions for his own – but without reading the play as a text, there is no way of knowing precisely what he’s doing. Plays are, ultimately, a visual and aural medium, meant to be seen and heard and acted out, not read on paper; but at the same time, Stoppard’s stage directions and asides often add a dimension to the work that may not be present if it is just watched, introducing ambiguities that open up new possibilities. The problem with the many enigmatic features of Stoppard’s writing is that in staging them, one must choose and commit to one possibility, eliminating the others.

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R&G are Deadcontains such a wealth of material that I could do an entire independent study just on this play alone. I’m not sure I expressed myself as well as I would’ve liked in my last post, so I’d like to try and clarify those thoughts as best I can (easier said then done, though – I think this is really one of the fundamental questions of the play, which can never be definitively resolved).

 As I tried to express in my last post, one of the most unsettling themes of this play is the question of chance versus fate, free-will versus predetermination. R&G waiver a great deal, uncertain where they stand on this crucial question. Guildenstern seems to suspect that there is such a thing as fate or destiny, but is reluctant to believe in it – for example, in his discussions with the Player – “it was chance, then?” – or after the Player’s ‘murder’ when he says “if we have a destiny, then so had he…if there are no explanations for us, then let there be none for him.” He nervously reminds Rosencrantz, “if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost.” Ultimately this is exactly what happens to them – they are pawns both of the Danish court and of Stoppard.

Their fate, like those of the characters in the tragedians’ exhibitions, is not decided by their actions – “it is written!” As Guildenstern points out, “words [are] all we have to go on,” but the words they depend on are not Claudius’ orders, as he thinks, but rather Stoppard’s words, without which they cease to exist. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no history, no memory, no identity, and no future beyond the confines of the play’s action. They begin their existence when the curtain goes up and end when the curtain goes down.  The audience should not take them for ‘real ‘people’ – we should see them purely as characters in a play. Their misfortune is that, unlike most fictional characters, they are vaguely aware that they are play characters and that there is something outside their play-world.  Where we say ‘all the world’s a stage,’ for them, a stage is all there is to the world. Their situation should raise disturbing questions for the audience as well – could we, too, be characters in some universal script, our parts already determined by a supernatural or divine playwright?

Guildenstern comforts himself with the thought that “we’ll know better next time.” His claim that there will be a next time shows he is on some level aware that their story will be replayed over and over again every time Stoppard’s play is staged, but he hopes in vain; events will always play out as they are scripted, and whether or not R&G “know better,” they will still not be able to do anything to change the outcome. Much as they may hate to admit it, they are controlled by a ‘destiny’ as written by the playwright. Even something which seems to be a spectacular demonstration of chance at work – such as the flipped coins always landing heads up – is really controlled by the playwright. This is true in any play or piece of creation, but the difference, as I said, is that the inhabitants of this play are starting to catch on and question their lot.

Some question their lot; on the other hand, others, in particular the Player, seem to have figured the system out and are quite content to remain within it. The Player retorts to Guildenstern’s concerns about fate, “Oh yes. We have no control.” He seems relatively untroubled by this disconcerting statement.

The Player describes his troupe as keeping “to our usual stuff, more or less, only inside out. We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.” His pithy justification for their pornographic exhibitions also serves to explain Stoppard’s play as a whole – in showing us the minor, disposable characters rather than the major players in the tragedy, Stoppard is showing onstage the things we are supposed to take for granted as happening off stage while the main storyline proceeds.

The Player has caught on to the reasons for R&G’s limited existences – characters exist only so long as there is an audience to see them. “You don’t understand the humiliation of it – to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable – that somebody is watching …” When the audience stops watching, the characters cease to exist. The flip side of that coin is that as long as there is someone watching, they preserve their existence, because “even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat.” A character may die, but the actor remains, and the character will be revived when the next performance begins again.  

The Player claims the only believable kind of death is stage death, complete with moaning and pain and twitching, and in a sense, he’s right. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die at the end of the play, but their deaths conform to Guildenstern’s view on death as “just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t…here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced…” Despite being told that R&G are dead, it is far easier for the audience to imagine them permanently suspended in some kind of limbo, merely vanished, not dead; without seeing them die, we don’t believe they are dead – just as the Player says.

Neither the characters of the play nor the audience can really comprehend death. In one of the most famous monologues in the play, Rosencrantz speculates on death and burial, but he continually slips back into the mistake of imagining himself buried alive, not dead. He simply cannot imagine what it would really be like to be dead. Guildenstern has a better grasp on it, but the finality of it still staggers him. He more than any other character worries about death:

No one gets up after death – there is no applause – there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that’s – death…Death is not anything…death is not. It’s the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…”

Yet despite knowing that no one comes back from death, even as he goes to his own Guildenstern cannot help but think he’ll come back in some form or another. He’s right in a sense, but it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other because he still has no control over events. The audience does not even have the comfort of knowing that much.

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Alright,

So, as I said, I’ve been falling a little behind just due to end-of-the-semester work, but I’m catching up again now. I’ve posted once on R&G are Dead, but I still have much more to say, so another post will most likely follow. I’ll be finishing up my syllabus this week by tackling a few secondary sources and then watching the films of R&G are Dead and Shakespeare in Love – and after that, it will be time to buckle down and start putting all this information together.  

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What with the holidays and end-of-the-semester work loads, it’s been some time since I updated on my reading – but I’m back on track, and at long last, I’ve arrived at the play that started it all, both for Stoppard and for me: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Most people with any knowledge of Stoppard know him for this play, his first major success, which launched his career and which introduces so many of the themes he later went on to write about in his subsequent career: identity, metatheatricality, doubling, plays-within-plays, interlaced dialogue, plays ‘without plots’, self-knowledge, the tenuous nature of all knowledge — the list goes on and on, and every reading reveals a new level of complexity. I have personally read the text at least four times, performed it twice (therefore also watching parts of it rehearsed and performed dozens and dozens of times), and seen one professional production, and I still come across passages that have never made sense before, only to have a light bulb suddenly click on after the umpteenth time. This is the brilliance of this play – it’s bottomless, there is always yet another level below the surface.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to see a professional production, by the American Shakespeare Center’s touring company. R&G are Dead was performed in conjunction with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the actors played the same roles, with the same costumes and very similar staging and blocking, in both plays – and for the first time, I understood R&G are Dead as intricately connected with another play. I really had the sense, for the first time, that when the court exited, the action of Hamlet was continuing backstage while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern floundered on the margins. I actually read R&G are Dead before I ever read Hamlet, so I’ve always seen R&G as far more significant characters than they actually are. Watching ASC’s production really drove home the futility and pointlessness of the title characters’ roles, but at the same time, despite knowing that they would achieve absolutely nothing except dying young (and despite knowing most of the lines before they were said), I was completely engrossed.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are entertaining, witty, stupid, sarcastic, blundering, endearing, and aggravating all at once – but while each of them certainly has distinctive qualities and a personality of their own, they only function in tandem. They can be distinguished, but not separated. Even they themselves eventually lose track of their identities and can no longer remember which one of them is which. Identity becomes arbitrary, as does much of their existence. As Guildenstern points out, the confused pair has only the other characters’ words to rely on to help them determine the truth about their situation. This allows them to distance themselves from their actions and the consequences, because they are merely following directions. This distancing indirectly leads to their own destruction – their callous refusal to save Hamlet by intervening and going against the events already set in motion eventually causes their own deaths. As Guildenstern points out, “there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no.” They’ve in fact had multiple moments to change the course of events, the last and most important being the moment when they opened the warrant for Hamlet’s death, but chose to do nothing to save their friend.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern choose as well to do nothing to save themselves. There is no reason, informed as they are by reading the second letter, that they could not flee and save themselves, but they go willingly to the English court and their deaths. They have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do – their only function is completed. This is one of the many moments in the play when the metatheatrical nature of plays breaks through the fourth wall and overtakes the internal world of the play. R&G can do nothing to save themselves because that is how they are written: they have no freewill because they are fictional characters with a given task to perform. They cannot change the course of events because the events are controlled from outside their world, by the playwrights. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, have only the vaguest grasp on this concept; all they know is that they have little or no control over the course of events. The one character who seems to have some insight into the order of things is the Player.

The Player has always been my favorite character, despite his rather dubious morality and general sleaziness. The Player lives his life on the principal that ‘all the world’s a stage,’ and thus is the only character with any comprehension that they’re all actors in a play. His snide comments on the acting profession – “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” – and his reply to Guildenstern’s concern that R&G don’t know how to act (behave): “Act natural.” – all are laden with a double meaning – they resonate not just for the Player and his tragedians within their exhibitions, but also for all of the characters in the larger play. He comments that the actors “pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade, that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was.” This seems to be at the heart of R&G’s problems. They surrender their identities in order to fill their role in the court intrigue: if they were in Hamlet, they would exit, no longer watched or seen by the audience, and resume an identity upon reentering – but unfortunately for them, they’re left on stage and the audience continues watching, and they now have no identity of their own remaining.

It is the Player who points out the reason that R&G have no control over their fate, even when it seems they have a chance to change the course of events:

It is written…We follow directions – there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”

Although they are part of a comedy rather than a tragedy, the Player’s statement holds true: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their fellow characters can never change the events of their story. They are unfortunate in that they are just self-aware enough to realize the futility and their powerlessness. The Player and tragedians, accustomed to obeying something scripted and beyond their control, are complacent – it is enough for them just to let things happen as they will and trust in fate. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far less easy, but just as powerless. They can do nothing more than the tragedians to control their fates – they are constrained, carried away by the action of a story they have no control over:

“We’ve traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we more idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation…We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…”

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