ONE YEAR AGO this week I was ready to pack my bags, leave this dreary place, and take up permanent residence in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City. I had just seen a play called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and, once the final curtain came down, I simply could not think of leaving the theatre, never to return.
So I walked down the center aisle of the orchestra floor until I reached the stage. Most of the audience had left by this time, and the curtain had been raised, revealing Desmond Heeley's dusky set. I placed my hand on the stage to touch it, perhaps to make sure that this play was no illusion, perhaps out of sheer mystical reverence--like the apes with the monolith in 2001.
Anyway, I was soon returned to reality by a bald, elderly man who informed me, "The show is over, kid. Get out." And that was it. I went out on to 49th Street, got a hot dog, and headed for home.
As I might have expected, I never did get back to Rosencrantz during its New York run, and, wish as I might, I knew deep down that I couldn't really camp out in the theatre.
Now I am more mature about these things, so when this play, the work of a young Englishman named Tom Stoppard, showed up at the Shubert as part of a post-Broadway tour, I went to the theatre cool and detached, as if I were visiting the scene of a long forgotten love affair. But theatrical love affairs, like that other kind, can be suddenly rekindled. Sure enough, I left the Shubert ready to go back again the next night.
THIS PLAY --and, to be honest about it, I hardly can begin to describe it--tells the story of two of Shakespeare's most anonymous characters as they walk in and around the doings at Elsinre in Hamlet. The title characters of Stoppard's play, in case you have forgotten them, are two friends of Hamlet's from university days who are summoned by Claudius to help ascertain the nature of Hamlet's madness.
On the surface, Stoppard has devised an astoundingly clever theatrical trick. We see only the few scraps of Hamlet that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see. Since they see so little, Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia and the rest become merely bit parts in Stoppard's play. We see a mammoth tragedy from the worst possible vantage point, and what little of Shakespeare remains in the play seems ridiculous and funny in this context.
Underneath this droll gimmick, however, is much more. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are at the center of Stoppard's work, and they become its tragic heroes. Like Didi and Gogo, who bide their time with games of the spirit while waiting for the never-to-appear Godot, Stoppard's heroes devise their own games to endure the waiting for their Godot.
The Godot they wait for is some sign, some clue, as to the meaning of their existence. They do not understand why they have obeyed Claudius' order to come to the castle; they do not have a clue to Hamlet's madness; and when, on a ship to England, they discover that their missive no longer calls for Hamlet's execution, but for their own, they do not know how to explain death.
They are merely dragged along through a universe in which time seems to have stopped and logic is dead. A flipped coin comes up heads 85 times in a row. The landscape seems blank and irrelevant to life. Meanwhile, they must watch all of Shakespeare's characters as they walk in and out, moaning and pontificating on subjects that escape them. As Rosencrantz cries in the last act, "Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?"
WORST OF ALL, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find even their own identities in doubt. Not only do Shakespeare's characters find it difficult to distinguish between the two, but the title characters themselves have difficulty determining which of them is which.
Despite all of this, upsetting as it may be, they wait, hoping against hope that they "have not been picked out simply to be abandoned, set loose to find their own way." They accept their deaths calmly, hopefully. ("Well, we'll know better next time.") In this hint of optimism, there is perhaps hope for surviving in a world in which "we drift through time, clutching at straws." And, when Stoppard shows us part of Hamlet's final scene, the English Ambassador's pronouncement "that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" elicits the audience realization that death may be the only event it can count on in an insane universe.
While Stoppard's play could probably not have been written before Beckett come along, it is every bit a peer for Waiting for Godot. The comic and tragic elements, brilliant in themselves, are ingeniously balanced and woven into the Hamlet framework. The dialogue flows like nothing I've heard in a long time, and Stoppard uses the English language with more precision than any other playwright around.
The production has experienced some cast changes since the Broadway run, none of which affect the extraordinary quality of the production. Brian Murray, the original Rosencrantz, now has his characterization perfect. Laughing at the winds as he struggles along trying to penetrate the morass in which he finds himself, Murray makes his portrayal rival Alec McCowen's Hadrian in its timing and intensity. In addition, the Derek Goldby staging remains as graceful and moving as a year ago, and the Richard Pilbrow lighting plot still strikes me as the best I've ever seen.
There is absolutely no reason in the world to miss Rosencrantz this week. This may be your last chance to see the original production, and I don't see how anyone can afford to miss an opportunity to fall in love.