I’ve seen far too few plays. Part of this has to do with where I live. I tend to default to reading them due to a lack of reasonable alternatives. I’m fortunate as far as my undergraduate education is concerned; we read a solidly representative selection of plays in every class covering specific periods or movements within literature. Translations, Waiting for Godot, The Dumb Waiter, Look Back in Anger and a handful of others were all included in my studies of Modernism and Postmodernism, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was absent. Remedying this particular gap was a treat.
Like Pinter and Beckett’s work mentioned above, Stoppard’s play fixates on two strong male leads, forced to confront the existential reality of life in the absurdity of their surroundings. The play is full of the morbid slapstick that seems to be so pervasive in this school of theater (and that’s probably the most obvious thing lost in reading rather than going to see a performance). It’s funny and doesn’t show its age too badly. The bit players of Hamlet get their due as protagonists at the center of the dramatic action, with the Prince of Denmark himself making incidental appearances. Nonetheless, they remain ontologically bit players, moved by the people around them and adrift with no source of propulsion, like an astronaut tumbling and only changing course when pushed away or striking some solid object.
The German word “sonder” can be translated most literally as “special” but has recently migrated into English with a more specific meaning. From it’s genesis in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
- n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead managed to turn this idea on it’s head before an adequate word existed to describe it. In spite of being made the center of the drama, they are still removed from the center of the action. Their exchanges, their impossible fortune, their interactions with one another or the actors in the play-within-a-play(within-a-play?) don’t matter. They can’t change anything and nobody can tell the two of them apart because nobody needs to. They don’t matter, and neither do we. We’re all bit players and the idea of a protagonist is just a story we tell ourselves to makes us feel better about the reality of our situation. It’s a less than cheery thought, but a damn good play.