November 29, 2009, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian
In his comedy “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare eloquently wrote that, “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts …”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would know a little about that.
Though the two fictional schoolmates of the Prince of Denmark only appeared briefly in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, “Hamlet,” they’ve since enjoyed thriving lives of their own, from W.S. Gilbert’s 1891 play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” to this year’s film musical, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead.”
Their most celebrated stage turn came in Tom Stoppard’s 1964 absurdist comedy, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Structured in mirror form to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Stoppard’s play follows the action from the viewpoint of its own title characters: Exits from the one play become entrances into the other, as it were.
All the world’s a stage, yes; but as Stoppard reminds us, the meaning of the drama very much depends on who’s standing in the spotlight.
“We’re all the main characters in our own stories,” said Carrie Ann Mallino, director of the production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” that opens next week at the Crystal Theatre. “And even though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the smallest characters in ‘Hamlet,’ they’re their own main characters in their own lives. It’s an interesting idea that Stoppard turns into all sorts of different layers of meaning, and that’s why I think it’s such a great play.”
Stoppard’s play, which was made into a film in 1990, follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they travel to Elsinore at the behest of the king and queen. Unsure of the reason for their summons, the two pass the time by betting on flips of a coin. After Rosencrantz wins 92 bets in a row – by only calling heads – Guildenstern theorizes that they may be “‘within un-, sub- or supernatural forces.”
It’s a humorous moment that sets the tone for the remainder of the play, as the two characters struggle to get a grip on what’s happening around them, stumbling on moments of insight that they usually fail to understand. If Shakespeare’s Hamlet struggles with the question of whether to live or act – “To be or not to be” – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern grapple with the more fundamental question of whether we are living in the first place, and who determines our actions.
“With ‘Hamlet,’ once you get past the flowery language, you have a very simple story that you can follow,” said Mallino. “In ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’ you’re dealing with straightforward English but very complicated philosophical ideas – what is death, what is life, what responsibility do you take for your situation. I think everybody who sees it comes away with something different, because there’s so much in it.”
It may be impossible to discuss “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” without mentioning “Hamlet,” but Mallino is quick to note that it’s not necessary to know Shakespeare’s play in order to enjoy Stoppard’s.
“There’s a fairly amazing moment between the two characters where they sum up ‘Hamlet’ in less than half a page of dialogue,” said Mallino. “It’s brilliantly written and funny, but it also will serve as a kind of quick ‘Cliffs Notes’ for anyone who isn’t entirely familiar with it.”
Of course, with MAT’s production running concurrent with the University of Montana’s production of “Hamlet” (see related story), it’s a good time to become familiar with both plays.
The timing of the two productions was no coincidence; MAT artistic director Grant Olson and University of Montana professor Greg Johnson hatched the idea to do the two plays simultaneously last year. Mallino, who had wanted to direct “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” for years, jumped at the chance to get involved.
“I love Shakespeare of course, and Tom Stoppard is one of the few modern playwrights who is not only incredibly thoughtful and brilliant in his own work, but you can tell from the script that he really loves and is respectful to and inspired by Shakespeare,” said Mallino. “I’m really hoping that audiences find it as fascinating as I do.”