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Baylor Theatre 2006: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead relies to a large extent on the abilities of the two

actors playing the title roles. They are on-stage for essentially the entire play, and for much of

the play, they are alone on-stage. Even though the published play includes a lot of acting advice

and stage direction, seeing the play performed live by good actors increases one’s understanding

of the characters as well as of the play itself.

I enjoyed reading the play because of its witty, intellectual, and self-referential style, but

only through seeing it performed live did I really connect with the characters. The actors

communicated well both the differences between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while also not

losing their essential oneness (e.g., they themselves are confused over their names, neither can

begin anything unless both do, etc).

When reading the play, I gathered that Guildenstern was the more philosophical of the

two, while Rosencrantz was the more childlike, but it threw me off in the second half when

Rosencrantz started asking more questions and being philosophical. In the first act, the actor

playing Guildenstern spoke relatively quickly, with a lot of force. During the coin toss game, he

walked back and forth in agitation, really wanting to make sense of the anomalous string of coins

landing on heads, confident that if he just worked it through logically, he would eventually come

to an explanation. Rosencrantz, meanwhile, just sat and accepted the phenomenon

complacently. Once Rosencrantz started talking, it became clear that he does question things,

but he largely accepts whatever explanation he makes up for himself—non-sequitor or nonsense

though it may be. Rosencrantz is interested only in an answer that will satisfy himself, while

Guildenstern wants to know the objective reality. I did not get that distinction from reading the

play, and indeed, while reading the second half, I felt as though Stoppard had stopped trying to

differentiate the characters and was using them interchangeably for his own wit and wordplay.
But even in the second half of the performance, the two actors kept up the body language

and speech style that they had established in the coin toss scene, conveying that even though

Rosencrantz does take a more central speaking role in the second half, especially in his

discussions of death, he is still more interested in how things affect him than in their

cosmological significance. The movement of the play from Guildenstern in the first half to

Rosencrantz in the second half also parallels the increasing absurdity of the situation in which

the two find themselves, since Guildenstern represents a desire for order and meaning that is less

and less relevant in their upside down world. This movement is also visible in the written play,

of course, but it is more noticeable on stage.

The ending was very effective on stage, much more so than merely on the page.

Throughout, Rosencrantz’s outcries against their situation have been rather like the self-focused

complaints of a petulant child, while Guildenstern continues to try to explain the situation

rationally. After Guildenstern “kills” the Player and even that turns out to have been false, he

basically goes catatonic. He stands over by the edge of the stage, silent and staring, totally

demoralized by his inability to impose meaning even by such violent, drastic measures.

Meanwhile, Rosencrantz embraces the absurdity of his own death, accepting it as a relief; as

played by the actor, this is a natural outgrowth of his character—he may complain about

circumstances he does not like, but he is perfectly fine with them after he rationalizes them to

himself through whatever nonsense is necessary. Guildenstern, not as susceptible to nonsense,

must be pushed all the way over the edge before he accepts his death. Though it is perhaps

possible to feel detached from the characters while reading the play simply because Stoppard’s

wit is more noticeable than any pathos, it was not possible to avoid sympathizing with a

Rosencrantz as lovable as this one was throughout the play and a Guildenstern as broken as this

one by the end.