Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered in Edinburgh and London in August of 1966 and in April of 1967, Tom Stoppard was immediately recognized as a major contemporary playwright. The cleverness in the concept of the play, its verbal dexterity, and its phenomenal theatricality brought its first reviewer, Ronald Bryden, to call it "the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden." Later, in London, Irving Wardle, writing for the Guardian, said that "as a first stage play it is an amazing piece of work," and in New York, Harold Clurman, reviewing the play in Nation, echoed the general sentiment by calling Stoppard's play a "scintillating debut." And Clive Barnes, the highly influential critic for the New York Times, asserted in October of 1967 that "in one bound Mr. Stoppard is asking to be considered as among the finest English-speaking writers of our stage, for this is a work of fascinating distinction."

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However, as enthusiastic as critics were for this dazzling first effort, they also had some very clear reservations. Generally, they thought Stoppard's play somewhat derivative, too closely linked to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, for example. Bryden found the play "an existentialist fable unabashedly indebted to Waiting for Godot" and the appreciative Clurman called it "Waiting for Godot rewritten by a university wit." Also in New York, an appreciative Charles Marowitz writing for the Village Voice added,"my only objection is that without the exhilarating stylistic device of the play-beneath-the-play, the play proper would be very much second-hand Beckett." Michael Smith, also writing for the Village Voice, applauded the play, saying "the writing is brilliantly clever, the basic trick inspires a tour de force, and the play is great fun,'' but added, "the drawback is Stoppard's attempt to push it to deep significance. The early part of the play repeatedly echoes Waiting for Godot in sound and situation but entirely lacks its resonance."

Another reservation the critics voiced was the suggestion that the play's verbal dexterity and ingenious theatricality might have been all it had to offer, that underneath the dazzling surface there was very little of substance and that the play was ultimately shallow. This was suggested by Philip Hope-Wallace reviewing the first London production for the Guardian when he said, "I had a sensation that a fairly pithy and witty theatrical trick was being elongated merely to make an evening of it." And despite his generous praise for Stoppard's play, Charles Marowitz added that "much of its cross-talk is facile wordmanship that benefits accidentally from ambiguity."

Writing somewhat after the initial critical response to the play, critics Robert Brustein and John Simon summed up this ambivalent response. Brustein wrote,"I advance my own reservations feeling like a spoilsport and a churl: the play strikes me as a noble conception which has not been endowed with any real weight or texture," and in a now often quoted remark, Brustein calls Stoppard's play "a theatrical parasite, feeding off Hamlet, Waiting for Godot and Six Characters in Search of an Author—Shakespeare provided the characters, Pirandello the technique, and Beckett the tone with which the Stoppard play proceeds." Similarly, critic John Simon writing for The Hudson Review admitted that "the idea of the play is a conception of genius'' but also saw it as "squeezing large chunks of Beckett, Pinter, and Pirandello, like sliding bulges on a python as he digests rabbits swallowed whole," finally reducing Stoppard's play to "only cleverness and charm."

More than 30 years later, this ambivalent assessment continues to hang over Stoppard's work in general and over Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in particular. In varying degrees, critics have leveled similar charges upon successive major plays—Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), The Real Thing (1982), Hapgood (1988), and Arcadia (1993), frequently assessing them as excessively concerned with cleverness and the arcane, too cerebral, lacking in genuine emotion, and ultimately shallow when measured against a very high standard of art and genius. However, the duration and accomplishments of Stoppard's career has finally affirmed his status as a major playwright. By the time Stoppard had written Jumpers and Travesties, Jack Richardson, writing in Commentary in 1974, had to admit Stoppard's pre-eminence: "since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a play I admired but found a little too coy and dramatically forced in its darker moments, Stoppard has come closer and closer to a successful wedding of theatrical artistry and intelligence. He is already the best playwright around today, the only writer I feel who is capable of making the theatre a truly formidable and civilized experience again."

In the context of a brilliant career, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues to be a formidable achievement. Even by 1973, Normand Berlin, writing in Modern Drama, could assert that Stoppard's first major play had "acquired a surprisingly high reputation as a modern classic." And within a decade of its first appearance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead had enjoyed over 250 productions in twenty different languages. Though a number of critics now feel that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is perhaps not Stoppard's best play—that some of his later work have been more complex, polished, and mature—Stoppard's first major play remains his most popular and his most widely performed.

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