15. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are

Mr. Dame opted to close out the year with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. As a minor icon in the Theatre of the Absurd, it seemed to provide nice continuity from The Stranger, while its basis in Hamlet provided good closure. Most importantly, it was relatively fun, funny, and appeared shallow enough that the kids wouldn’t feel burdened by it while dealing with their showcases, portfolios, and final college-going decisions. At least that was his intention. He had started a very small betting pool with himself on how it would go awry.

He had to admit that for all of the mental scourging his students had inflicted upon him, he felt a kind of love for them: the kind of love that would write letters of recommendation featuring the phrase “I’m delighted that so-and-so is a former student of mine” so they could get on with their lives someplace else. There had been much chatter of how plans were settling out as the acceptance letters and offers of financial aid had surged over the past couple of weeks. Most of the students were downsizing their educational aspirations to the reasonably-priced state schools. Several had gotten considerable financial aid packages from an assortment of smaller private universities to bring them into tenable range. Sofia gave up on her plan to go a couple hundred thousand dollars into debt and made the supreme sacrifice of accepting an all-expenses paid state education. Jenny had a trust fund to subsidize her education on the other coast. Sandy had family contacts to help mitigate the costs of the University of Edinburgh. Ken claimed that he’d be studying metaphysics at Oxford, but the guys let it slip that he was actually going for computer science at Cal Tech. Brett had taken Sandy’s advice about community college and was actually transferring into a pre-med program at the venerable — read: overpriced — institution up on Nob Hill. Christie was going to be studying dentistry, which struck Mr. Dame as odd, but probably more sensible than the choice he’d made at her age.

Joey had been absent during this time, first innocuously and then conspicuously. While it hadn’t really mattered over the past couple of days — Tom Stoppard’s involvement on the film-version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead had made it kosher-enough for viewing in class — Mr. Dame was beginning to get concerned. He had selfishly hoped that the return to drama would give Joey more incentive to engage in the class, but now he was just hoping that the poor and probably-gay kid wasn’t getting the stuffing beat out of him either at home or in B-hall. Joey was again not in his desk when the bell rang. Mr. Dame sighed and turned to address the students that were present.

“Welcome to the theater of the absurd,” he greeted his students proudly. “Can anybody summarize why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead qualifies as absurd, and maybe also summarize the artifact as well?”

Jenny looked confused. “What artifact?”

“The play,” clarified Mr. Dame, “as far as its script goes. Though any specific object of study may qualify in academic terms as an artifact — keep that in mind come September.” He hammed up his voice and gazed into his book. “Why this artifact claims to be almost 50 years old!” he gasped. “But seriously, can anybody summarize?”

“Oh yes, I can do that,” said a voice from the doorway. The class turned to see somebody who had been Joey the last time they’d seen him standing there. His clothes, while fundamentally the same as ever, seemed tighter, brighter, and more focused. His gray eyes almost seemed to sparkle silver, given the impression that the red hoodie was indicative of recent bloodshed or, combined with the black t-shirt underneath, having come through a trial by fire. His hair was short and glistened darkly with gel. His ears were gauged and his aura gave the distinct impression of having been tattooed extensively on flesh-not-visible.

“Joey, so glad you could make it,” said Mr. Dame, hoping his voice didn’t sound too relieved or enthusiastic, but also certainly not sarcastic. “Please, take your seat.”

“Mr. Dame, sorry about the absences: I was busy ensuring that my schooling did not interfere with my education. But this is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I wouldn’t miss it,” he said with a grin that Faust might have learned from Mephistopheles. “Anyway,” he added as he stalked toward his seat, “the theatre of the absurd can be thought of as theatre which is honest about putting its characters in boxes.”

“With lids on them?” asked Brett.

“With lids on them,” confirmed Joey, maintaining his grin with unflappable confidence, “since the characters really have no life outside the book or script, they are utterly divorced from the time-stream of cause and effect that we use to try to affect positive change in real life, and learn from to improve our ability to affect desired changes more successfully in the future. While our reality has limitations, constraints, accidents, people working at cross-purposes like in Sartre’s No Exit, the absurd theatre recognizes that the action on the stage is constrained by the script and even though the actors could probably play their characters differently to avoid their fates, the script serves as the will-defeating absurdity that ensures they will always hit their marks — akin to how The Player describes the process of the tragedy.”

“Or like how Slumdog Millionaire revels in the contrivance of putting the kid through the exact sort of life experiences he needs to win the game show and rather than apologizing for it at the end, instead flaunts it with ‘it is written’?” suggested Diane uncertainly.

“Pretty much,” agreed Mr. Dame.

“Except that they didn’t end in boxes,” amended Joey. “The absurd rendering of the characters splits them apart not just from the audience and from their evolution, but, in their caricature form, also from each other. Slumdog Millionaire, with its romantic conclusion which suggests that the lead characters will go off and have a great life together off of the stage, fails that test of absurdity.

“See, all theatre is absurd in the production of the characters’ marvelous lives, with their exceptional destinies unfolding on just a tiny stage in just a few hours. The audience is generally left to infer large chunks of those lives, like — in this case — the birth of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But the theatre of the absurd cuts us off from what we don’t see: Stoppard forces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to talk about everything they can’t remember because it didn’t happen in the script, and thus highlights the absurdity, the severing, the disconnection of the scripted life,” Joey expounded.

“Right,” said Mr. Dame, wondering anew where Joey had been and what he had been doing instead of coming to class that could have transfigured him outside and in. “When I went to see this play performed live, the notes claimed that Stoppard had started writing a review of a local Hamlet production, but then got carried away on these two little details.”

“And so we trace Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” continued Sandy to advance the previous question, “who have no particular lives of their own as they innocently bumble through Hamlet with almost as much time as they were real characters, until they meet their unfortunate but tragically necessary end.”

“So what did you notice?” Mr. Dame pursued. “Either in the script or in the film; the differences were intentional by format, I’m sure,” he added.

“The introduction was particularly clever,” said Diane pleasantly. “I liked the way the growing improbability of the coin turning up heads revealed how much they expected a conventional future which their actions could affect, and yet were about to be faced with, well, a script.”

“Actually, the script describes the run of heads as ‘impossible,'” corrected Brett.

“Didn’t Douglas Adams work out that if something is finitely impossible, that’s the same thing as infinitely improbable?” Jacob asked Brett.

“So what, you want to build a spaceship based on the Theatre of the Absurd?” Brett replied.

“Adams did that, too,” Ken injected, “that’s really what the Bistromathics drive was in Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

“I noticed that Guildenstern tried to kill The Player when he was overcome by nihilism,” said Heidi, “but then The Player just gets back up to show that he had appeared to die as expected — and the nihilistic expectation gets the death as expected. That struck me as kind of profound.”

“How so?” asked Jacob, his theological curiosity piqued.

“Well let’s say you’re a Christian and you believe in heaven. If you die and you’re wrong, then you don’t get to find out about it, right? Because you’re dead. But let’s say you’re a nihilist and believe in nothing and are wrong: why shouldn’t God just an-nihil-ize your soul? Or if you believe in purgatory or reincarnation — it’s like you’re asking for a suitable punishment or you’re asking for another chance to do better… why shouldn’t God just give you what you expect? The point is that it may very well be impossible to find out that you’re wrong about the afterlife, whatever it is, if it even exists. Kind of profound.”

“I took that slightly differently,” said Sofia. “If you look at the play The Murder of Gonzago, Stoppard has corrupted it: instead of Lucianus being the assassin, Lucianus is transposed onto Hamlet. While this is obviously wrong, it’s also what a conventional reading of Hamlet tends to expect. When you combine this on the one hand with The Player’s fake death-as-expected and contrast it with the unexpected-but-real coin-tossing or hanged actor bit in the play’s script, we’re left with an absurdity where what’s expected isn’t real and what’s real is rejected because it can’t be happening. Which is ultimately how the play ends.”

“And that gets amplified,” said Christie, wrapping the point back around, “when Hamlet is talking about how the actors are like the news anchors of the day so you better make sure they’ve got a good report of you, but the very next thing he does is corrupts their report. ‘Yeah, so you know Gonzago? I want you to change what you say about him for me.’ What they tell people to expect happened never did, so people are totally surprised when it all happens again.”

“And of course by the time we’re watching Hamlet,” Heidi extended, “Fortinbras has presumably said, ‘Yeah, so you know Hamlet? I want you to change what you say about him for me.'”

“Exactly my point,” Christie concluded with a proud grin.

“But if you take it too far, you get into 1984: ‘Yeah, so you know yesterday? I want you to change what you say about it for me,'” posited Jacob.

“One step further and you’ve got Dark City: ‘Yeah, so you know who you were yesterday? Well, no, actually you don’t,'” ad nauseumed Ken.

“Fortinbras was also a no-show,” Heidi added. “For how Hamlet played out, that was kind of odd. I mean, he gets mentioned in the script once or twice, the closing stage directions say that he’s supposed to be on stage as if people will have a clue who he is, but he’s really not there.”

Mr. Dame was wondering whether or not to point out all of the versions of Hamlet which also snubbed the Norwegian, but Sofia cut in. “To be fair,” she countered, “there’s no relationship between the great Fortinbras and the little Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If we were to make a play about our class, would the President be in it just because he’s the President? Or even the Mayor?”

“But it does highlight the underlying absurdism of Hamlet,” suggested Joey, “in that whatever the main characters were hoping for with their accidental judgments and casual slaughters, all they really did was make it easy for Fortinbras to waltz in and annex Denmark.”

“And what makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fit in with the rest of the curriculum is that they don’t have free and independent lives like Fortinbras,” said Sofia. “Instead, they bury their lives in the duties they have placed upon them for the circumstances they find themselves in, but end up dead anyway. Which is sort of an existential moral: you might as well dare greatly because you’re going to die anyway.”

“I do dare all that I might become a man,” whispered Ken, “him that dares more is none.”

“Sorry, the what?” asked Jenny.

“The buried life,” replied Sofia. “It was a major concern of T. S. Eliot, but has shown up in everything we’ve read here. Starting with Hamlet, we see Hamlet thinking about killing the king but not establishing any actual plans and letting the action not happen for months. The Great Gatsby has the utterly flaccid go-along-with-everybody-doing-nothing Nick narrating for Gatsby who wants to stop being spectacular so he can pillow-talk some girl’s ear off. Prufrock is even worse: ‘Oh, oh, a peach! I tremble!’ Then we come to Janie, whose idea of adventure is just following a boy around and forgiving the ongoing instances of domestic abuse. Then there’s Winston; his idea of rebellion is to do what the inner party member tells him to, especially when it’s nothing. And Mersault, who can’t be bothered to care about anything except not preserving his own life. Finally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to do right by king, country, and friend, on the hopes somebody else will appreciate it, which is just burying their lives in duties to others — and they end up unsuccessful, unappreciated, and dead.”

“It comes out particularly strongly on the boat,” expounded Heidi, “when Guildenstern, tapping Isaiah Berlin’s freedom from/to distinction, is talking about how much he likes boats and intends to spend his life on them. Freedom from constraints confuses and frightens them, freedom to do what they’re told gives them an iota of confidence that something good will come of what they’re doing. But for our purposes, it’s probably an indictment of going on a cruise as a vacation activity.”

“So the whole curriculum was nothing but a series of bad examples?” Jenny asked incredulously, her mind trying to find a flaw in Sofia’s litany.

“Why is that?” Heidi asked Mr. Dame, implicitly confirming Jenny’s query.

“Perhaps because good examples are hard to write and keep interesting at the same time?” suggested Mr. Dame. “Or maybe we don’t have good examples because the definition of ‘success’ is personal and we don’t want you to mistake a good example for a good idea?”

“Like cargo-cult self-help,” suggested Ken. Jacob looked at him confused. “Cargo-cult is a term that Dr. Feynman used to describe people who confuse correlation with causation,” Ken explained, “and thus ritualistically do things that correlate to — but don’t cause — intended outcomes. Originally it was referring to tribal societies that got cargo dumped on or washed up near them thinking that their religious rituals had caused the cargo to appear, but with regards to role models — especially fictitious role models — it can send us on an errant path of trying, imperfectly, to replicate the conditions of their success instead of creating conditions for our own success.”

“Like when Guildenstern — I think it was Guildenstern? — is talking about doing what the king wants them to and how it will turn out well for them? He expects that it will turn out well for others and while no specific reward is mentioned, the remembrance of the king should correlate to benefits and rewards,” Jacob offered by way of comprehending example.

“And while role models are valuable in that they show you what you should be able to do,” Christie summarized, “they can be dangerous because they don’t show you what you should be doing. Rather than face that danger, we’re focused on what to not do.”

“And that’s why this class has been such a bummer,” concluded Mr. Dame grimly.

“It’s okay,” said Diane sympathetically, “I learned more than just what not to do.”

“But getting back to the topic at hand,” steered Joey, “you’re missing the bigger picture.” His sublime confidence in this assertion was a marked difference from the anarchic word-bombs he tended to throw out, or the adolescent protests he yelped when he had no bigger thoughts to toss. The class turned to stare at him. “The bigger picture,” he elucidated, “is that theatre is, or can be, a form of ritual to subtly surface social dramas that people are facing.” He arose and went to the whiteboard, drawing a mobius with a clear horizontal axis:

“Real life is on the left, theatre is on the right, obvious stuff is above the line, subtle stuff below it,” Joey explained. “Now, Schechner says that if we start with an overt social drama here in the upper left, then that’s going to result in an implicit social process that goes on on-stage down here to the right — between the author and the actors and crew and such, it’s not avoidable. Just because they’re actors doesn’t mean they stop having feelings of their own. But that swings up to the upper right with what manifests in the actual overt stage performance that people see, and that feeds down into the lower-left portion which is the stew of culture and provides the underpinnings for the implicit social dramas that influence the stage, et cetera, on-going. This is why we should care about theatre. But if you look particularly at this curve from upper right performance drama to lower left implicit social dramas, you’ll hear the echo of The Player’s claim: actors are the opposite of people, doing on-stage what people are supposed to do off.

“There are two key transition points here,” he continued, “that relate directly to the agency of the theatre: the transition from the overt social drama into the implicit social process on stage, and then out from that to the actual performance. The rest of it we can’t control. But Turner posits, more or less, that the control of those two points are where the overlap of social ritual and theatrical performance overlap.”

“Like the huge process of graduation, how our big transition out of this system gets orchestrated into a graduation ceremony which, for all of the fuss made about it, is actually the same year after year in every high school in the country,” Diane proactively interpreted for Jenny.

“Or the security theater in an airport where the social drama is the need to keep us safe from terrorism, so they make us extra-vulnerable with crowded security lines but put on a good show of not allowing anything even potentially dangerous in the hands of people who go through security lines,” suggested Brett.

“But what’s going on in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is taking the Hamlet motif of putting a play within an play and twisting it around so that the ritual of the theatre is done within the ritual of the theatre,” Joey said. The class stared at him. “It’s, uh… kinda freaky,” he admitted. He turned to Mr. Dame: “Are you sure you want me to go on like this?”

Mr. Dame had prepared for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by being ready to believe anything, and Joey was now offering him a chance to believe just that. “Well, the show must go on, so why not?” Mr. Dame reasoned, “Let’s call it a special report.”

Joey squared his shoulders under the responsibility. “Okay,” he said, “so, bearing in mind that the play evolved into the film, let’s talk about rituals and rites of passage. Van Gennep claims that there are three phases to a rite of passage as a performance ritual, which Turner extends into the mutuality of ritual and theater.”

Mr. Dame stared at Joey and now realized where he had been and what he had been doing: he had been gaining acceptance in and initiation to somewhere beyond this ordinary, common, cultural-narrative based conventionality. And now he had returned to the class just in time to bestow a lesson on rituals. Mr. Dame supposed it was kind of like a very short and very small form of a heroic journey, and felt a tiny spark of jealousy.

“First, and this is true for most rituals, there is a separation of the sacred space and time for the ritual from the secular, common, profane space and time of regular life,” Joey recounted. “Stoppard puts the protagonists through this in two ways: first, the coin spinning prompts Guildenstern to suggest that ‘Time has stopped dead’ and that the run of heads isn’t really a run of heads, but one head happening repeatedly because time isn’t progressing a sequence. But then the cut, very clearly in the film, from the tragedians’ stage effectively teleports Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from their profane space into the sacred Elsinore, the starting place of Hamlet’s theatrical ritual.

“Furthermore, the tragedians claim that their existence is made bearable by the belief that somebody is watching. While this is generally taken as a claim that people like to believe that God is paying attention to them, this also works in this sacred versus profane schism: if there is no audience for a ritual, then the ritual will be ineffectual and a waste of time and life. It is preaching to choirs and crickets, and simply not worth the effort. No, the theatric ritual requires the sacred space of a stage and the profane attention of an audience for a sacred allocation of time,” he said with a flourish, visibly blocking out his sacred space from which to explain all he had found.

“Secondly, the people going through the ritual pass through ambiguity where nothing in the sacred ritual is the same as it was in the profane time before or will be in the profane time after. During their time of ambiguity, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t know who they are — they are severed from their past as we’ve noted and when the ritual ends, so do they. Throughout the play, none of the other participants in the ritual clearly identify them. Most continue the confusion, but The Player avoids naming either of them until the very end. But this merely taps deeper into the rite: ‘in mid-transition, the initiands are pushed as far toward uniformity, structural invisibility, and anonymity as possible.’ The pair are identity-less and interchangeable. I would go further and say that, after meeting the tragedians, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been extracted from the secular space of the audience and are being initiated into the tragedians — which is why The Player names them at the end.” Joey paused to gaze across the class to determine who was still with him at this juncture. Most of them were staring back in some degree or another of fascination.

“But what does that initiation mean?” Joey continued rhetorically. “The third phase of the rite returns the initiates with their new, well-defined position in the secular society. Here’s where things turn odd, and it really relies on the later, replayable film version: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been called up out of their buried lives, initiated into the tragic ritual of Hamlet and, in their dying end, achieve a role not as people but now as characters that we can return to time and again in the static script… and video. Observe in particular how the tragedians’ stage closes up apparently around them in the film, confiscating them from the secular world such as it is.”

“Didn’t the actor dying on stage bit from the middle conflict with The Player executing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the end?” asked Jenny.

“No,” replied Diane, “you’re mixing up the two forms — the bit about the actor being executed on stage was cut from the film, and in the stage form, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply fade away as non-repeatable performances do, which is also how they expected death to be… but contrasts poorly with the ambassador saying that they had been executed as commanded.”

“And we can see this in their end,” Joey pursued, “with Turner still citing Van Gennep saying that rituals nearly always ‘accompany transitions from one situation to another and from one cosmic or social world to another.’ Not only are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern going to die, and going to be stuck as characters devoid of lives of their own, but they’re also going to England. On a boat. Recall how big of a deal gets made about the boat.”

“I’m on a boat!” Ken declared, his voice awash in the irony of physical falsehood and metaphysical truth.

“It is ultimately all about the transition that the ritual provides, even in the transition from the stage to the screen,” Joey continued. “In both forms, The Player introduces the tragedians by profaning the ritual aspect of the theatre, inviting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to, ah, join in in a profane way. Guildenstern takes offense at this. But in the film version, where the ritual format of the established play is known, Rosencrantz’s almost-discoveries are consistently disregarded if not actively rebuked by Guildenstern: the ritual is a fundamentally conservative, past-looking behavior. It is not supposed to be discovering things in the stage performance” — he pointed to his loops on the board — “that don’t yet relate to an exigent social drama. The spontaneous nature of those discoveries makes them inappropriate to the task of shaping the culture to deal with its actual dramas.

“The final conclusion to this, ironic for the Theatre of the Absurd,” Joey crescendoed, “is how Turner agreed with Dilthey: meaning arises in memory, in the cognition of the past and trying to get a connection from the past to the present; value is essentially the enjoyment of or satisfaction with the present; but good comes from the power of will to shape the future. The ritual is supposed to help us hold on to meaning. So given the ongoing popularity of a 50-year old play ostensibly about meaninglessness facilitating in us a sense of meaning, it became important that the film version of it increased the ritualized facets of the script while trimming down the absurdist portions.”

“So the problem statement,” opined Sofia slowly, “is that unlike Shakespeare or Orwell dealing with real problems by moving into fiction, Stoppard was confronted with the problem of people finding meaning in his staged absurdity, so he morphed it into a different fiction, the film, which looks similar but means differently.” She considered this. “I like it,” she concluded smiling at Joey, “Good job.”

“I would bet,” Joey said, turning to Mr. Dame and offering up the dry erase marker, “that your teaching guide mentioned none of that?”

“Uh, yeah, pretty much,” admitted Mr. Dame. “Would you mind writing that down? I might need to use it again next year or something.”

Joey smiled back, his expression strangely hollow and deflated after the extended exposition. But with the first clap of Diane’s hands, the theatrical young man was revived, and to the applause of the classroom accepted his distinguished place among his academic peers.