The Read Harder Challenge this year included a task to read a play. I never really enjoy reading plays, and I have read quite a few over the years. In high school, as an IB kid, I read no less than 10 Shakespeare plays. It was… grueling? It is this particular understanding of myself that made me immediately turn away from the idea of studying to be a dramaturg while my friend Gina was in grad school at Yale.
But, I signed up for the challenge, so I decided that reading something I had already seen and enjoyed was the ticket, enter my love of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I have seen the movie (with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Iain Glen, and Richard Dreyfuss!), I’ve seen it live, my friend has worked on it, and I am often guilty of making jokes at these characters’ expense. The reading experience was enjoyable (or as enjoyable as I had any hope of it being), and it was fun to read the stage directions, and remembering how different versions I have seen have either been faithful or not to them.
For those not in the know, Stoppard created a work which follows the easily mixed up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet and sees what happens to them off-page. Think, Longbourn. In addition to that layer, Stoppard creates a dialogue with the audience about art, and its limitations.
The play, through one interpretation, can be seen as the attempts of Ros and Guil to come to terms with Shakespeare, who is standing in for the forces greater than ourselves. As the ghosts haunt Hamlet, so too does the ghost of Shakespeare haunt Ros and Guil, through the course of the three acts of this work they struggle to act independently of Shakespeare’s plot, to operate outside of Shakespearean boundaries, and much of the play centers on the potential of the characters in direct opposition to the limitations imposed by their original author. Stoppard includes another group, besides the Hamlet characters themselves, to serve as foil to this idea: the Tragedians who are all too accepting of their roles.
This work won four Tonys including Best Play. If you haven’t seen or read it, I say give it a shot. And hey, you could be just in time to be ahead of the 50th anniversary production at the Old Vic.