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Although Tom Stoppard established his reputation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when it was first produced in 1966, the playwright often appears reluctant to talk about his second play. Stoppard, who most critics report to be a very private person, repeatedly offers his interviewers only cryptic responses to their questions about the meaning of the piece. When asked whether or not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern embodies any particular philosophy, Stoppard replied that the play does not reveal any profound theories or metaphysical insights “on a conscious level, but one is a victim and beneficiary of one’s subconscious all the time and, obviously, one is making choices all the time . It’s difficult for me to endorse or discourage particular theories I personally think that anybody’s set of ideas which grows out of the play has its own validity.” Stoppard, like many renowned playwrights before him, seems almost to delight in adopting such an equivocal stance. As he tells Rodger Hudson, Catherine Itzin, and Simon Trussler–the editors of Theatre Quarterly– in a frequently cited interview, “insofar as it’s possible for me to look at my own work objectively at all, the element which I find most valuable is the one that other people are put off by–that is, that there is very often no single, clear statement in my plays.” 1 Similarly, in an interview with Jon Bradshaw, Stoppard explains, “the play had no substance beyond its own terms, beyond its apparent situation. It was about two courtiers in a Danish castle. Two nonentities surrounded by intrigue, given very little information and much of that false. It had nothing to do with the condition of modern man or the decline of metaphysics. One wasn’t thinking, ‘Life is an anteroom in which one has to kill time.’ Or I wasn’t, at any rate. God help us, what a play that would have been. But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wasn’t about that at all. It was about two blokes, right?” 2
Despite Stoppard’s coy evasions regarding the play’s more trenchant themes (according to the playwright, the drama was chiefly “calculated to entertain a roomful of people” 3 ), critics have confidently posited several popular theories regarding the philosophical influences inherent in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, rather than view the play as a piece written to please more than to instruct, have suggested that the play is too intellectual, too literary, too inaccessible. Normand Berlin called the play “derivative” and argued that Stoppard’s obvious dependence on Shakespeare, Beckett and Pirandello causes the play to “think” too much which results in a lack of feeling “or [the] union of thought and emotion that we associate with Waiting for Godot and Hamlet. ” 4 While not all critics argue that Stoppard’s borrowings are detrimental to the play, most agree that the playwright is in some sense a “theatrical parasite”–a phrase coined by Robert Brustein in a 1967 article in the New Republic. Richard Andretta writes, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is based on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. It is also reminiscent, in spite of Stoppard’s protestations, of Pirandello’s Six Characters in search of an Author and Each in His Own Way. [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's] bewilderment and angst, their metaphysical speculations and the games in which they indulge to while away the time and overcome their fears of the unknown resemble Vladimir’s and Estragon’s activities in Waiting for Godot. Their dependence on the script to give them directions and provide them with a purpose is similar to the six characters’ plight in Pirandello’s play. There are also references to Albee, Oscar Wilde, Osborne and many others.” 5
As Andretta suggests, Stoppard resists, in part, this interpretive reading of his play. Stoppard does, of course, readily discuss the play’s allegiance to Hamlet but argues that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is much more than a Shakespearean pastiche like the burlesque one-act he wrote two years prior to the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear . This short farce centers around the messengers’s appointment with the English King who happens to be Lear. While Stoppard was interested in this idea, he quickly abandoned it in favor of focusing on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s situation at Elsinore.
As for his supposed referencing of Beckett, Stoppard admits that he admires the Irish playwright and had read a great deal of Beckett’s non-dramatic literature when he wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but denies any direct links between his play and Godot. Most critics agree that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resemble Beckett’s tramps Didi and Gogo in that both pairs are trapped in a situation that is inescapable; they all confront an existential condition and ultimately lament the meaninglessness of their existence in the face of an “author” who proves no savior and prescribes for them only eventual death. Indeed, Rosencrantz, like Godot, is termed by theatre historians and drama critics an “absurdist” play in reference to Martin Esslin’s seminal text, The Theatre of the Absurd. The Theatre of the Absurd, according to Esslin, refers to a body of dramatic work by post WW2 playwrights whose plays are all colored or patterned by an existentialist ideology. Based in large part upon the theories of Albert Camus and John Paul Sartre, existentialism addresses the feelings of “Absurdity” [the absence of purpose or meaning] humanity encounters in a world of shattered beliefs–a world where millions of people are killed in concentration camps and whole cities are annihilated by atomic bombs. “This sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition is, broadly speaking, the theme of the plays of Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco, Genet, and [others]. [T]he Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.” 6 Ros and Guil, many critics argue, encounter such a world where their queries are made in vain, where meaning is arbitrary and where they become victims of a seemingly random circumstance they neither proscribe nor control.
Like Beckett (and Hamlet), Pirandello also addresses humanity’s sense of isolation in the universe but is more preoccupied with the concept of illusion and reality. Pirandello argued that truth was something that could not be fixed or ultimately determined by any person or persons but was variable, in a constant state of flux and dependent upon one’s particular point of view. The nature of reality therefore was mercurial; individuals were perpetually creating new realities for themselves–a Pirandellean verity that was best exemplified through a theatrical (and therefore ephemeral) medium. Stoppard’s supposed reference to the dramaturgy of Pirandello–specifically Six Characters– emerges in the basic premise of his play: two characters from another play (Hamlet ) find themselves in an “un-, sub- or supernatural” world where they are forced to adopt a role or embrace a fate which has been sealed by their author (Shakespeare). Ros and Guil’s reality (a condition Guil refers to as “thin the name we give to the common experience” in Act I) is not something which they can definitively establish but is continually altered as new information is provided by the playwright who controls their destiny. Stoppard denies any conscious “quoting” of Pirandello’s work in his play, however; he states, “As for Pirandello, I know very little about him, I’m afraid. I’ve seen very little and I really wasn’t aware of that as an influence.” 7
Because Stoppard so often denies that the play is a largely derivative work, many critics have looked for analytical tools within the text itself to unlock the secrets behind the play’s meaning. One metaphor, however, that has been neglected reveals Stoppard’s skillful incorporation of mathematical theory in addition to Shakespearean rhetoric. A central image that runs throughout the play is the game of chance. Ros and Guil begin the play by flipping a coin only to discover that heads are produced consecutively. After the eighty-ninth flip, Guil begins to ponder this seeming anomaly in an attempt to explain how such a phenomenon could occur. “List of possible explanations. One: I’m willing it. Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past. Two: time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety-times. On the whole, doubtful. Three: divine intervention. Four: a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does.” 8 In his article “The Circle and its Tangent” R.H. Lee makes reference to this passage and notes that Guil’s final explanation “is statistically accurate, and presents us with a world of total unreliability–an amazing combination of phenomena simply cannot be made to yield either a sequence or a precedent. The eighty-sixth spin is totally undetermined by the previous eighty-five. Facts remain isolated, refuse to form chains, and explanations remain forever ‘possible,’ the nature of circumstances determining the run being beyond our comprehension.” 9
While most critics, like Lee, interpret this coin flipping as an indication to Guil that he and Ros are within an irrational world devoid of logic and reason, Stoppard actually presents a much more complicated metaphor here. As Guil suggests later in Act I, Stoppard introduces the mathematical theory of probability to help explain Ros and Guil’s “absurd” predicament. Contemporary mathematicians create and employ statistical theories to explain the seeming paradox of chance. Casinos do not gamble but are consistently profitable just as lotteries provide a dependable source of income for state governments. The reason that such enterprises are lucrative depends upon the mathematical concept of randomness. Contrary to the connotative meaning of the word, a statistician defines the term random as an order that can be created only over long-term observation of phenomena. This description of randomness comprises the theory of probability for “probability describes the predictable long-run patterns of random outcomes.” 10 The coin toss is a basic example used to illustrate this theory because while one might reason that the coin is balanced equally and therefore will come down heads half the time and tails half the time, contemporary mathematicians explain that this personal opinion does not exactly correspond with observed data. Mathematicians have found that coin tosses only yielded a .5 probability after ten thousand times. A graph created to explain this example shows that the outcome for the first four hundred or so tosses was surprisingly unpredictable because as Guil says “each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does.” In other words, the short-term outcome of the coin toss yielded a result that did not ultimately reflect the long-run probability: Ros’ experience of flipping coins was not statistically inaccurate or technically improbable.
The theory of probability serves as an excellent metaphor for the play because Stoppard suggests that Guil’s initial response to the unorthodox results of the coin toss are a bit more complicated than critics have made it seem. Guil, who knows the theory of probability, uses mathematical principles to mitigate his fear about the kind of world he and Ros now inhabit (a place where they have no memory prior to their summons, where illusion and reality are indiscernible, and where a supernatural force of some kind seems to be controlling their destiny without regard to their individual will); “The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defense against the pure emotion of fear.” 11 What Guil fears most, however, is not that he and Ros exist in a world of, as Lee says, “total unreliability” but that he is in a world governed paradoxically by the theory of probability, a world where initial events seem “random” but where the end is irrevocably fixed or determined (ie. death for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). By employing the theory of probability, Stoppard actually enhances Ros and Guil’s sense of frustration with their circumstances–a sense of frustration that could be interpreted as “absurd.”
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