Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Tom Stoppard

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Critical Context

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was Tom Stoppard’s first professionally produced theatrical work, and it catapulted him immediately into the front ranks of the theater’s leading modern playwrights. The play received numerous theatrical awards and garnered great critical acclaim, with Clive Barnes of The New York Times terming it “. . . a most remarkable and thrilling play. . . . Very funny, very brilliant, very chilling.”

The play also established the style and themes that would characterize Stoppard’s subsequent work. The witty verbal exchanges and love of wordplay that occur throughout the play have become Stoppard’s trademarks and are present in such later works as Jumpers (pr., pb. 1972), Travesties (pr. 1974) and The Real Thing (pr., pb. 1982), although the latter adopts a far more conventional structure and theme than is typical of Stoppard’s plays. The incorporation of classic works and famous figures—both real and fictional—has also featured prominently in his later works, with Jumpers exploring philosophy and Travesties setting Vladimir Ilich Lenin, James Joyce, and Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara against a backdrop of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Travesties is only one of the plays that has displayed Stoppard’s continuing fascination with the theater. The Real Thing centers on the affair between an actress and a playwright, while The Real Inspector Hound (pr., pb. 1968) spoofs the tradition of the English country house murder mystery. The play’s ties to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are strong, building as it does on the earlier work’s idea of characters caught in a play against their will with a story concerning two critics who are drawn into the action of the play they are reviewing.

Stoppard’s reputation as a playwright has continued to grow over the years, yet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead still remains among his two or three finest and most important plays. In it lie the roots of its author’s future works and the world’s first view of a gifted and inventive theatrical voice.

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Critical Evaluation