Theatre of the Absurd: the playwrights Good morning (afternoon).

The topic of my project is the playwrights of absurd theatre, focusing primarily on the playwrights Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard. As a brief overview, absurd theatre is a term used to describe the plays written by a group of mostly European playwrights during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and also the style of theatre that has subsequently evolved from those playwrights’ works. Samuel Beckett, an Irish playwright born in 1906, was one of the four foremost playwrights of the absurd theatre genre, the other three playwrights being Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and Arthur Adamov. His works are bleak, fundamentally unpretentious, and deeply pessimistic about human nature and the human condition. The pessimism, however, is eased somewhat by a wicked sense of humour. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. One of Beckett’s plays, Endgame, is a one-act play that was originally written in French, as was Beckett’s wont, and was later translated into English by Beckett himself. The title is derived from the game of chess, the endgame being the part of a chess game where there are very few pieces remaining on the board. The play is considered to be one of Beckett’s most important dramatic works. The play’s protagonists are Hamm, an aged master who is blind and unable to stand, and Hamm’s servant Clov, who cannot sit down. The two characters, who are mutually dependent, have been fighting with one another for many years, a pattern that they continue in as the play progresses. Clov wants to leave, but seems to be unable to do so. Also present are Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell, both of whom reside in rubbish bins. The title of Endgame relates to the play in that it mirrors Hamm’s struggle to accept the end, which can be compared to the refusal of an amateur chess player to accept their often inevitable defeat. In this, Hamm perhaps represents a king, with Clov as his final pawn. Tom Stoppard, a Czech-born British playwright, is internationally famous for plays such as The Real Thing and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and for the screenplays for the films Shakespeare In Love, Enigma, and His Dark Materials, which is currently in production.

One of his plays, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, was first staged in 1966, with a film version released in 1990. The play, and also the film, expands on the general exploits of two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, those characters being named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – hence the title of the play. These two characters are friends of the Prince, and the play focuses primarily on their actions while the events that take place in Hamlet occur in the background. Stoppard’s play is structured as the direct inverse of Hamlet, in that the title characters are the leads, with Hamlet himself playing only a minor part. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by the King in an attempt to determine Hamlet’s motives and in turn to plot against him. However, Hamlet mocks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather derisively, and outwits them so that they, rather than he, are killed in the end. Therefore, from the perspectives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the action in Hamlet does not make a whole lot of sense. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are portrayed in this play as two clowns in a world beyond their understanding. They often confuse their names, as they have completely interchangeable, yet intermittently unique identities, their memories are rarely reliable, and they completely misunderstand one another during philosophical arguments without realising the implications on themselves. At times, one of the pair appears more enlightened than the other, a position that they switch throughout the play. The themes explored in this play are existentialism, free will as opposed to determinism, and the search for value. These themes, and the presence of two central characters that almost appear to be two halves of the one character, are shared with another of Beckett’s plays, Waiting For Godot, and the two plays are often compared to one another. The characters from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead pass the time by asking one another questions, impersonating other characters, and either interrupting one another or remaining silent for lengthy periods of time. One scene revolves around a game of ‘questions’, which in the play is staged like a tennis match. The version of this scene that I have chosen to perform is taken from the film adaptation of the play. Rosencrantz: Do you want to play questions?

Guildenstern: How do you play that? Rosencrantz: You have to ask a question. Guildenstern: Statement. One love. Rosencrantz: Cheating. Guildenstern: How? Rosencrantz: I haven’t started yet. Guildenstern: Statement. Two love. Rosencrantz: Are you counting that? Guildenstern: What? Rosencrantz: Are you counting that? Guildenstern: Foul. No repetition. Three love and game. Rosencrantz: I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that. Guildenstern: Whose serve? Rosencrantz: Err… Guildenstern: Hesitation! Love one. Rosencrantz: Whose go? Guildenstern: Why? Rosencrantz: Why not? Guildenstern: What for? Rosencrantz: Foul! No synonyms! One all. Guildenstern: What in God’s name is going on? Rosencrantz: Foul! No rhetoric! Two one. Guildenstern: What does it all add up to? Rosencrantz: Can’t you guess? Guildenstern: Were you addressing me? Rosencrantz: Is there anyone else? Guildenstern: Who? Rosencrantz: How would I know? Guildenstern: Why do you ask? Rosencrantz: Are you serious? Guildenstern: Was that rhetoric? Rosencrantz: No. Guildenstern: Statement! Two all. Game point. Rosencrantz: What’s the matter with you today? Guildenstern: When? Rosencrantz: What? Guildenstern: Are you deaf? Rosencrantz: Am I dead? Guildenstern: Yes or no? Rosencrantz: Is there a choice? Guildenstern: Is there a God? Rosencrantz: Foul! No non sequiturs! Three two, one game all. Guildenstern: What’s your name? Rosencrantz: What’s yours?

Guildenstern: You first. Rosencrantz: Statement! One love. Guildenstern: What’s your name when you’re at home? Rosencrantz: What’s yours? Guildenstern: When I’m at home? Rosencrantz: Is it different at home? Guildenstern: What home? Rosencrantz: Haven’t you got one? Guildenstern: Why do you ask? Rosencrantz: What are you driving at? Guildenstern: What’s your name? Rosencrantz: Repetition! Two love. Match point. Guildenstern: Who do you think you are? Rosencrantz: Rhetoric! Game and match! The play ends with lines spoken by a character by the name of the Ambassador from England. These lines are taken from Hamlet, and in turn were the origin for the title of the play and the movie. The sight is dismal. And our affairs from England come too late. The ears are senseless that should give us hearing, to tell him his commandment is fulfilled. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.