Tom Stoppard’s plays revolutionized twentieth century theater with their combination of comic wit and serious themes. His first major dramatic work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was first performed on April 11, 1966, at the Old Vic Theatre in London, by the National Theatre Company. That same year, the work received the Play and Players Award for best new play in England, and in 1968 it received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. In the years that followed, Stoppard’s work ranged from a collaboration with Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) on the screenplay of Brazil (1985, Los Angeles Critics Circle Award for best original screenplay) to screen adaptations of works by Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, and E. L. Doctorow. A prolific and brilliant writer, Stoppard also continued to write plays, including Travesties (1974) and The Real Thing (1982).
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two courtiers summoned by Claudius to spy on Hamlet, bear to the English king the order for their own execution. As characters, they remain undefined, functioning in tandem as ciphers for a sort of banal treachery, their services purchased by the promise of reward. As spies they prove clumsy and inept. As foils for Hamlet, they are beheaded by the English king. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard turns Hamlet inside out by retelling the story from the courtiers’ point of view, a very different one indeed. The Player reminds the confused courtiers that there is a design in all art, a finality toward which all events point. This is appropriate for the characters in Hamlet, who sweep across the stage with a sense of sureness and identity, but it totally bewilders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have no memory of the past nor comprehension of the future. Although they struggle to make sense of their situation, for them existence is episodic and without pattern. The vaguely menacing Player informs them that all events lead to death, “the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily.” In response to Guildenstern’s inquiry, “Who decides?” the Player responds, “It...
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