Two New Plays
For many critics, the history of Western drama is viewed as a sort of socio-aesthetic revolution, whereby tragedy’s marginal personae gradually edge kings, Fausts, and aristocratic lovers from center-stage so that room may be made for smaller passions, prose and theories of a natural action style. Whether or not such a notion of dramatic evolution is valid, it has now been given both a good critical touchstone and an ironic endorsement in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the play by the young English writer, Tom Stoppard. Certainly no more marginal or prosaic characters exist in dramatic literature than these two dim college chums of Hamlet who are summoned into the complex moral world of Elsinore to ask a few banal questions of their prince and who then vanish from the stage to die by error, their obituary being a one-line bureaucratic report. To let these two share the protagonist’s role while the rest of Shakespeare’s play flits shadow-like around them is a fine aesthetic joke and antic commentary on Hamlet as a work of art in a world of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. Having accepted the felicity of the conceit, however, one must then go on to see what Stoppard has made of his play in its own right, and here there are disappointments—some minor, and some, I believe, too essential to make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead the play its premise portends.
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