Tom Stoppard at The Questors
Five Plays from Berlin (Guildenstern and Rosencrantz) 1964
From DE PROFUNDIS
I know nothing in all Drama more incomparable from the point of view of Art, or more suggestive in its subtlety of observation, than Shakespeare's drawing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are Hamlet's college friends. They have been his companions. They bring with them memories of pleasant days together. At the moment when they come across him in the play he is staggering under the weight of a burden intolerable to one of his temperament... Of all this, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz realise nothing. They bow and smirk and smile, and what the one says the other echoes with sicklier iteration.
When at last, by means of the play within the play and the puppets in their dalliance, Hamlet "catches the conscience of the King", and drives the wretched man in terror from his throne, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz see no more in his conduct than a rather painful breach of court etiquette. That is as far as they can attain to in "the contemplation of the spectacle of life with appropriate emotions". They are close to his secret and know nothing of it. Nor would there be any use in telling them. They are little cups that can hold so much and no more.
Towards the close, it is suggested that, caught in a cunning springe set for another, they have met, or may meet, with a violent and sudden death. But a tragic ending of this kind, though touched by Hamlet's humour with something of the surprise and justice of comedy, is really not for such as they. They never die. Horatio who, in order to report Hamlet and his cause aright to the unsatisfied'
SHAKESPEARE AS FOLKLORE
(What follow are excerpts from an article contributed by Irving Wardle, drama critic of The Times, to the magazine New Society. In it he discusses the curious reluctance of British dramatists to use Shakespeare's works as raw material for plays of their own.)
As we receive it, the Shakespearean tradition has been kept alive by poets, actors, directors, critics, leader writers — by everyone, in fact, except his own professional successors. There seems to have been an unspoken rule warning playwrights to keep their hands off. Even before the romantic age and the cult of originality, the writers kept their distance...
The development of 'director's theatre' in this country has taken place almost entirely in Shakespearean production; and it has grown up largely because directors have been occupying a place left vacant by the playwrights,
Even from these restricted examples, it is clear that the reinterpretation of Shakespeare is no hack trade for a writer. With this evidence, the reluctance of British dramatists to engage in it is all the more difficult to understand. But there it is. Any infringement of the taboo automatically prompts derision and outrage...
Reasons for the bardic boycott are there if you look for them.... The very familiarity of Shakespeare makes it harder for a British than for a foreign writer to take what he needs and ignore the rest. Instead of feeling free to select isolated elements as source material, he is liable to be drawn into the Shakespearean magnetic field and lose control over his own work. There is an obvious parallel in classical Greek drama, a favourite hunting ground of the modern playwright. Among all the reworkings of Oedipus, Antigone and Electra, plays by modern Greek writers are conspicuously absent..,
Not counting Charles Marowitz's 80-minute 'cut-up' version of Hamlet, which provoked the routine howls of protest a few months ago (I thought it was brilliant), there have been two signs of a writer's return to Shakespeare. The first comes from America. It is the work of a hitherto unknown playwright, Barbara Garson, who is hailed by Robert Brustein (usually a very reliable critic) as an 'extraordinarily gifted parodist' and as the author of one of the most 'brutally provocative' and 'grimly amusing' plays in the whole American repertory.
The piece in question is Macbird, a reworking of Macbeth focussing on the American political scene of the past six years. The title role is occupied by Lyndon B. Johnson; President Kennedy features as Duncan, and Robert Kennedy as Malcolm. "Characters such as the Egg of Head (Adlai Stevenson) enjoy Hamlet-like soliloquies about whether to leave the new administration or work for change from within "
The other example is Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead -- another Hamlet variant, but unlike any other I have encountered. It is also probably the first play in theatrical history with a pair of attendant lords in the lead. Stoppard does nothing to fill out their blank outlines. Their blankness is the whole point. They exist only to be totally involved in great events. When they are not wanted they are left together in a bare ante-room of the palace, spinning coins and playing word games to pass the time until the next call comes.
Their situation and their style of cross-talk obviously relate them to the two tramps in Waiting for Godot. Stoppard never introduces material that is not in Shakespeare. But he manages to provide his two heroes with an existential development. They discover the letter authorising their execution, and choose to continue the voyage and deliver it, so as to emerge from the shadows of nonentity for a single moment.
Two plays do not make an impressive total: but at least they show that Shakespeare can still activate original writing and that he is as adaptable to modern political allegory and existential comedy as he was to subjective romanticism and Russian naturalism. The field is wide open.