Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Books You Really Should Be Reading: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

"Books You Really Should Be Reading" is a feature created by myself (though I'm sure far from original) in which I blab on about old favorites which I believe to fill a certain criteria to be considered "unknown brilliance". Not that I'm much of an authority on this matter, but hey, its a free Internet.


This week on "Books You Really Should Be Reading"
--By Erika, The Sister

Author: Tom Stoppard
Pages: 126

The play concerns the misadventures and musings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from William Shakespeare's Hamlet who are childhood friends of the Prince, focusing on their actions with the events of Hamlet as background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is structured as the inverse of Hamlet; the title characters are the leads, not supporting players, and Hamlet himself has only a small part. The duo appears on stage here when they are off-stage in Shakespeare's play, with the exception of a few short scenes in which the dramatic events of both plays coincide. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by the King in an attempt to discover Hamlet's motives and to plot against him. Hamlet, however, mocks them derisively and outwits them, so that they, rather than he, are killed in the end. Thus, from Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's perspective, the action in Hamlet is largely nonsensically comical.

There is nothing I could say about this play that could possibly spoil it. Right there in the title, it tells you of our heroic duo's untimely death. And even if you think it's a false summary, those well-versed in source material Hamlet know not to get their hopes up.

Alright. By 1967, people had been trying for decades to put a new spin on Hamlet. Stoppard was the first to truly succeed, by doing something so simple, senior members of the tragicomic-playwrite society (because there has to be one? Right?) must've been smacking themselves with their dog-eared copies of Waiting for Godot. Stoppard simply retold the play through the extremely limited views of the minor characters, childhood friends of the prince. Eponymous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so interchangeable they can't even tell themselves apart.

The subtle humor from Stoppard's magnum opus comes from the bewildered dialogue between it's main characters. Guildenstern, the smarter, warier of the two, is the one leaning towards random philisophical diatribes, from the very first scene, in which he finds himself and his companion stuck in a never ending cycle of heads-up coin tosses. Rosencrantz, by comparison, is dimmer, oblivious, and childlike, his humor often coming from his simple acceptance of the situation. Neither knows what the fuck is going on--Guildenstern wants to, Rosencrantz doesn't particularly care. Topics, from probability to memories to death to theology, are touched upon in their conversations. Also coming into play is the Player and his traveling troupe to actors/prostitutes (the times, you know). They bring the play to it's climax, a hysterical scene that I won't ruin for those interested in it.

To be honest, I would not have read it had not been for the movie. Made in 1990, starring a trifecta of awesome and brilliant and British actors, Tim Roth (of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Funny Games, Rob Roy, TV's Lie to Me, and being my current Favorite Person), Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fifth Element, and the upcoming Book of Eli), and Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl, CloseEncounters of the Third Kind, and not actually being British, but I don't really care). Roth plays Guildenstern, Oldman plays Rosencrantz (for which he was nominated for an Independant Spirit for Best Male Lead, despite him only co-headlining), and Dreyfuss plays the Player. Stoppard directed the 1990 adaption himself, with mixed results (the whole thing is very obviously a freshman's work--shoddy sets, odd pacing and camera angles, etc.). But the true greatness of the play manages to get through. Roth and Oldman play their parts with the appropriate balance of bewilderment and confoundment, and Dreyfuss is positively devious as the Player. Each one had their own little showpiece moments--the Player, in his introductory scene, Roth, in the penultimate boat scene, in which he confronts the Player about his craft, and Oldman, from a non-showy but nonetheless (sorry) adorable scene in which he invents the paper airplane. The main duo get some hilarious scenes together, especially their game of Questions, played like a game of tennis.

But the thing that translates best, in my humble opinion, is the very last scene, played to wonderfully nonchalant by Rosencrantz, befuddled by Guildenstern, completely bittersweet, but you can't help but giggle at their final bit of banter.

Also an interesting production tidbit: throughout the movie, pieces of paper get tossed around by an always-present breeze. If either of the two took the time to look at one, they would have seen that they were the pages of the original Hamlet.


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