Last weekend the Philosophy and Theater Group had our monthly discussion, and this time Phillip Cherny and myself talked about Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a tremendously clever, meta-fictional play which fills offstage moments of Hamlet with absurdist hi-jinks. For the philosophically inclined, this play has fireworks from beginning to end, and Stoppard covers a lot of ground in between: the meaning of chance, free will and determinism, identity, madness, truth and much more. As with the group’s other recorded discussions, you can find it on the Free Stuff for Citizens page as soon as you join up to become a PEL Citizen.
One of the first things that struck us was the way the titular characters are constantly rehearsing their own actions. The commotion of Hamlet bustles across the stage periodically, but despite their fretting, Ros and Guil are never able to gain control over their circumstances in those moments. Their fates seem to be swept along by forces beyond their control. But just what are those forces? Are they mathematical laws, the deceptive schemes of others, random turns of fortune, or simply the conventions of tragedy? Though it’s left ambiguous, we felt Stoppard gave us reason to suspect each of these was at work in the play, all ushering the characters to their foretold conclusion. The way Stoppard addresses the subject of death in the play was one of the points we lingered on in our talk. Phillip mentioned that there are two kinds of death here, one that the living experience as an idea, with all of its symbols and connotations, and the other kind, a nonexistence that can’t be experienced. One of the play’s assertions is that audiences find the fraudulent but familiar depictions of death as an experience more believable than the simple absence that a genuine death implies.
Next month we’ll be watching Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ’69, and in April we’ll be taking a look at works by Antonin Artaud, and Bertolt Brecht. There’s plenty of time to join us for either if you’re interested.
– Daniel Cole