Sunday, April 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #105: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

I am not in the habit of reading play-scripts. I mean, is anyone? Except for actual theatrical directors and actors, obviously. It's not a format that Joe Reader grabs. Is it?

But I read Tom Stoppard's famous first play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead way back in my mis-spent youth -- I think in high school, probably as an adjunct to studying Hamlet, since I was just that kind of weird kid -- and loved it then. So I saw a copy cheaply recently, and grabbed it. And, since I'm doing Book-A-Day, I'm gravitating to all of the weird short books that are on my shelves.

So I read it again, for the first time in probably thirty years. (I did see, and write about, the movie version in the early days of this blog.)

I should not have been surprised that a play from the mid-60s was very stagy and mannered -- as much about the idea of being a play as it was actually a real play that people would enjoy -- but I was, a bit. It's also as much of a riff on Waiting for Godot as it is a riff on Hamlet: if you were pitching it to Hollywood, the log line would be "The Waiting for Godot guys are Hamlet's old school friends!"

Which is to say: reading Rosencrantz can be a lot of work. It's not a play that opens itself up to the reader; it circles, tightly, around Hamlet and the concept of free will, in dialogue that we would have called very Stoppardian if he'd had enough work out by 1967 to let us make the comparison. And the play itself is deliberately chilly, the story of two men whom the title declares to be dead.

Of course, reading any play is an inferior experience to seeing it produced. A play-script is a blueprint: the actual work happens in time, on a stage, to particular people in a particular moment. And Rosencrantz is a brilliant script, a blueprint for a magnificent work. You don't need me to tell you that, but I will, just in case -- I'll join in on the chorus, because the chorus is correct in this case.

See it performed if you can, preferably on a stage. The 1991 movie is a decent alternative if you can't. You do need to know Hamlet and Godot first, obviously. But you should know them anyway, the way you know which hand is left and which is right.

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