Preying upon the Theatrical Parasite



Although Tom Stoppard established his reputation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when it was first produced in 1966, the playwright often appears reluctant to talk about his second play. Stoppard, who most critics report to be a very private person, repeatedly offers his interviewers only cryptic responses to their questions about the meaning of the piece. When asked whether or not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern embodies any particular philosophy, Stoppard replied that the play does not reveal any profound theories or metaphysical insights "on a conscious level, but one is a victim and beneficiary of one\'s subconscious all the time and, obviously, one is making choices all the time . It\'s difficult for me to endorse or discourage particular theories I personally think that anybody\'s set of ideas which grows out of the play has its own validity." Stoppard, like many renowned playwrights before him, seems almost to delight in adopting such an equivocal stance. As he tells Rodger Hudson, Catherine Itzin, and Simon Trussler--the editors of Theatre Quarterly-- in a frequently cited interview, "insofar as it\'s possible for me to look at my own work objectively at all, the element which I find most valuable is the one that other people are put off by--that is, that there is very often no single, clear statement in my plays." 1 Similarly, in an interview with Jon Bradshaw, Stoppard explains, "the play had no substance beyond its own terms, beyond its apparent situation. It was about two courtiers in a Danish castle. Two nonentities surrounded by intrigue, given very little information and much of that false. It had nothing to do with the condition of modern man or the decline of metaphysics. One wasn\'t thinking, \'Life is an anteroom in which one has to kill time.\' Or I wasn\'t, at any rate. God help us, what a play that would have been. But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wasn\'t about that at all. It was about two blokes, right?" 2

Despite Stoppard\'s coy evasions regarding the play\'s more trenchant themes (according to the playwright, the drama was chiefly "calculated to entertain a roomful of people" 3 ), critics have confidently posited several popular theories regarding the philosophical influences inherent in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, rather than view the play as a piece written to please more than to instruct, have suggested that the play is too intellectual, too literary, too inaccessible. Normand Berlin called the play "derivative" and argued that Stoppard\'s obvious dependence on Shakespeare, Beckett and Pirandello causes the play to "think" too much which results in a lack of feeling "or [the] union of thought and emotion that we associate with Waiting for Godot and Hamlet. " 4 While not all critics argue that Stoppard\'s borrowings are detrimental to the play, most agree that the playwright is in some sense a "theatrical parasite"--a phrase coined by Robert Brustein in a 1967 article in the New Republic. Richard Andretta writes, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is based on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. It is also reminiscent, in spite of Stoppard\'s protestations, of Pirandello\'s Six Characters in search of an Author and Each in His Own Way. [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern\'s] bewilderment and angst, their metaphysical speculations and the games in which they indulge to while away the time and overcome their fears of the unknown resemble Vladimir\'s and Estragon\'s activities in Waiting for Godot. Their dependence on the script to give them directions and provide them with a purpose is similar to the six characters\' plight in Pirandello\'s play. There are also references to Albee, Oscar Wilde, Osborne and many others." 5

As Andretta suggests, Stoppard resists, in part, this interpretive reading of his play. Stoppard does, of course, readily discuss the play\'s allegiance to Hamlet but argues that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is much more than a Shakespearean pastiche like the burlesque one-act he wrote two years prior to the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear . This short farce centers around the messengers\'s appointment with the English King who happens to be Lear. While Stoppard was interested in this idea, he quickly abandoned it in favor of focusing on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern\'s situation at Elsinore.
As for his supposed referencing of Beckett, Stoppard admits