The Sunday Salon: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I don’t talk theater that much here on the blog. While drama is obviously considered to be a part of literature, I’m a reader-response theorist at heart. If I believe that meaning is generated when reader encounters text, then it follows that I think, for a play, that meaning is generated when viewer encounters production. To be fair, that does mean a play is filtered through someone’s perspective, but it necessarily must be. As a former student actress, I think of scripts as recipes or music notes more than texts unto themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t have a favorite play—case in point, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which tells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of the titular duo. After several years, I finally got to see a production of it on Friday.

Atlanta is home to the New American Shakespeare Tavern, the only such tavern in America, where the Atlanta Shakespeare Company serves up Original Practice performances (which focus on the relationship between performers and the audience) as well as British pub grub. (Well, not the company themselves, obviously.) The company is not only the first American company to ever perform at the Globe in London, it’s also the first in America to have produced all thirty-nine plays attributed to Shakespeare, which was its goal at its inception.

New American Shakespeare Tavern

So what does a theater company do when they’ve done what they’ve set out to do? Go back through the canon, of course, but this time, in a different way. The Atlanta Shakespeare Company is calling it The Shakespeare Evolution Series. Currently, they’re in the middle of a Hamlet series—Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Fortinbras are being performed in a row, keeping the cast more or less intact between all three plays. Genius!

I’ve been waiting for the Tavern to produce another version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for five years. My mother introduced me to the film version when I was in high school, which I didn’t get on first pass, but soon fell utterly in love with. When I saw it was being performed at the Tavern in 2008, I could have crumbled in ennui. At seventeen, I didn’t know how to drive and lacked any means of acquiring transport to the city. Seeing it on Friday redeemed that feeling of crushing defeat.

I think I can best explain my love for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with a line from the play itself: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.” Because the piece is absurdist and boasts two male characters talking to each other for most of the play, it’s often compared to Waiting for Godot, but I think it’s the superior piece. Beckett enjoys subjugating language and showing it to be fundamentally hopeless; Stoppard, instead, celebrates language, showing off its beauty and playing with it. True, Guildenstern (the more intellectual of the pair) often talks himself into corners, there is still the hope that words will save us all. The irony here, of course, is that the words (“it is written,” the Player King hisses at them at one point) will never save them, as Hamlet requires them to die. But perhaps the next performance, they’ll get it right. It’s implied heavily that the pair is stuck in a loop, repeating their efforts to make sense of their world and claim agency whenever a production of Hamlet occurs. And that, for whatever reason, gives me hope, even though there will never be a production where they survive.

And, of course, it’s an act of adaptation—fanfiction, to be more precise, utilizing the source material in order to create something poignant and significant. No wonder I was drawn to it during the Wombat Years.

The production at the Tavern is wonderful. It’s difficult to shake off the brilliance of the film version, with its pitch-perfect cast and Stoppard’s direct involvement, but, eventually, I got into the swing of things. The Atlanta Shakespeare Company, in particular, nails the balance between comedy (it is quite a funny play!) and poignancy. The latter gathers speed as the play progresses. If you’re in the Atlanta area, I would definitely recommend checking it out.

And if you’re not—well, I actually kind of prefer the film version, but that’s probably because I’m biased more towards film than theater these days. It’s amazing, although it does lack the unicorn exchange.


This week has been calm, but I haven’t gotten a lot of reading done, to my bitter disappointment. The goal is to have an enormous buffer of scheduled posts ready for July and August, as I won’t have a lot of time to devote to the blog during those months, so I just need to hunker down and do it. Unfortunately, all of Saturday Night Live is on Netflix. Ennui!

This week’s links:

Have you ever seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, either on film or on stage? What’s your favorite play?

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays as well! I don’t read many plays, which is sad, because when I was forced to read them in school I loved most of them. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Waiting for Godot and R&G Are Dead all in one year? I would love to see Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead performed live. Thanks for the reminder! I think I’ll try and make that happen.

  2. Oh God, Tom Stoppard. I wish I could see all of his plays thrice. My absolute favorite of his, Arcadia, was revived in New York the first year I was here, but that’s the only one I’ve seen. I’d love love love to see Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. So jealous!

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s