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“Wheels within wheels, etcetera”: Artistic Design in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead William E. Gruber Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ought to cause us to acknowledge some inadequacies in the vocabulary we currently use to discuss plays, and the nature of our shortcoming can be demonstrated, I think, with some rep­ resentative summaries of Stoppard’s art. Ruby Cohn, for ex­ ample, suggests that Stoppard proved “extremely skillful in dovetailing the Hamlet scenes into the Godot situation”; Ronald Hayman writes that “Stoppard appeared at the right moment with his beautifully engineered device for propelling two atten­ dant lords into the foreground”; Charles Marowitz comments that “Stoppard displays a remarkable skill in juggling the données of existential philosophy”; and Thomas Whitaker argues that “the raisonneur of this clever pastiche is of course The Player . . . [who] knowingly plays himself.”! Such language—“skillful in dovetailing,” “beautifully en­ gineered,” “clever pastiche”—condemns while it praises, subtly labeling Stoppard’s play as a derivative piece of workmanship. We tend to mistrust anything which is not obviously new, not wholly original; yet surely our modem bias here obscures crucial differences between Stoppard’s play and, say, the Hamletcollages of Marowitz and Joseph Papp. These latter works may be summarized accurately as examples of skillful joinery. But Stoppard’s drama does not simply “fit” together different pieces of theater. His play has no clear theatrical precedent, and a workshop vocabulary proves unable to explain what occurs when the script of Hamlet mingles with the script of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. 291 292 Comparative Drama Part of the reason this subject has not been clarified is that it is impossible to assess accurately the extent to which the audience will recognize allusions to Hamlet. Even one of Stop­ pard’s stage directions poses insoluble problems: “Hamlet enters upstage, and pauses, weighing up the pros and cons of making his quietus.”2 Is this a reference which only readers who are familiar with Hamlet’s soliloquy can pick up? Or can the actor who mimes Hamlet’s actions somehow call the audience’s atten­ tion to a specific portion of an unspoken soliloquy? Or, to cite a related problem, what is the audience to make of references to Hamlet which occur out of immediate literary context? For example, Guildenstem, on board the ship for England, suddenly speaks portions of Hamlet’s “pipe-playing” speech, a speech he had heard (yet can we really assume this?) during an earlier scene from Shakespeare’s play which Stoppard does not repro­ duce. Is it possible that Stoppard here intends to show that Guildenstem ironically is locked into the text of Hamlet? But if this is Stoppard’s intent, how many viewers, in passing, could make the necessary connections between the two plays? Because of these and other similar instances, it is clear that different kinds of audiences are going to experience significantly different responses to the various allusions to Hamlet. Those who read Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead are more acutely aware of the numerous subtle references to Hamlet; and, of course, those readers and viewers who are thoroughly familiar with Shakespeare’s drama will recognize many more interactions between the two plays than those members of the audience who know Hamlet only as a famous old tragedy. The key to Stoppard’s design, however, cannot be found by wrestling with ambiguities such as these, and there is no point in laboring to answer what percentage of what audience catches which Hamlet allusion. Instead, it will be more profitable to speculate regarding the general expectations of one who comes to see or to read the play. It would be a mistake to underesti­ mate the pervasive influence of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, even among those whose interest in the theater is minimal. Our belief that Hamlet is the central drama of our culture has been growing since late in the eighteenth century, so that the language of the play shapes our idiom, governs the way we think on certain critical matters. Indeed, the play’s status is mythic.3 Stoppard can assume of every member of his William E. Gruber 293 audience an almost religious attitude...


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pp. 291-310
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