Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

Stoppard is one of the leading playwrights of the twentieth century. Anne Wright, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, asserts that Stoppard ‘‘ranks as a dramatist of brilliant and original comic genius.’’ Wright succinctly captures the scope and success of his career as a dramatist, stating that ‘‘His first major success established him as a master of philosophical farce, combining dazzling theatricality and wit with a profound exploration of metaphysical concerns. His output through more than three decades has been extensive and varied, including original plays for radio and television, screenplays for television and film, adaptations and translations of works by European dramatists, several short stories, and a novel.’’ Wright notes that Stoppard’s plays ‘‘have been heralded as major events by both audiences and critics. He is now a playwright of international reputation in Europe and the United States. . . . His popularity extends to both the intellectual avant-garde and the ordinary theatergoer. Since the 1960s his work has developed in other areas, from absurdist or surrealist comedy to political and even polemical drama.’’ Wright maintains that Stoppard’s ‘‘career to date confirms his importance, not merely as a theatrical phenomenon, but as a major contemporary playwright.’’

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The work for which he is best known and most widely celebrated is the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1964–5), which was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, and then by the British National Theater in 1967. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet whom Stoppard develops as his central characters. An introduction to the printed version of the play explains its central themes and major stylistic elements: ‘‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern depicts the absurdity of life through these two characters who have ‘bit parts’ in a play not of their own making and who are capable only of acting out their dramatic destiny. They are bewil dered by their predicament and face death as they search for the meaning of their existence. While examining these themes, Stoppard makes extensive use of puns and paradox, which have since become standard devices in his plays.’’ Stoppard received several awards for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, including best new play in 1967, the Antoinette Perry (‘‘Tony’’) Award for best new play in...

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Essays and Criticism