(And, hey, you heard it here first, folks.)
Yesterday, on a wild impulse which I am at an utter loss to explain, I watched the 1990 film adaptation of Tom Stoppard's breakout play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It is the story of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and their bewildered, humorous wanderings through the tragic happenings of the great play. And how was it? Well, didn't I once write "impulse has become a magical word with me"? And although impulse with me does not mean an "I *heart* so-and-so" tattoo or even a new shade of hair, still I am satisfied that R&G* is a great movie and may well be an even better play.
As I told a companion, amid a profusion of other less successful words, the play is rather like the last thoughts of a potted plant before it gets smashed against the wall. She seemed to connect to that analogy, to think it made a lot of sense. I stole it, I guess -- though not without justification, I know -- from the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. In the novel a starship equipped with an "improbability drive" spontaneously creates two things, a whale and a bowl of petunias, miles above a planet. As it comes plummeting to the ground, the whale does what we can only assume every sentient being would do: asks important questions like "Who am I?" "What am I?" "Where am I?" "And what is that large hard-looking thing rushing towards me?" etc. -- while the only thing the bowl of petunias thinks is "Oh no, not again!"**
Both this play and that novel perfectly corroborate my image of classic British absurdism.. "How ridiculously absurd!!" cries the man with top hat and bubble pipe as he jumps on his pink kangaroo and hops away to Wonderland.
It was a fitting analogy, now that I look back after spitting it out. Absurdism is the key word here: these are men that are really no better than potted plants. They aren't supposed to have any thoughts, to wonder at the nature of their existence; nor, in turn of course, of their demise. Originally they were little better than a plot device, and also perhaps another set of walls for Hamlet to bounce his wit off of. And, oh my, they are entirely interchangeable! a fact that causes them much confusion in this play.
But while the Hitchhiker's Guide series is all about laughs and is little inclined to the philosophical, this play has much more to brood about. Perhaps it was simply the nature of the play on which it was based or maybe the dark cloud of an ending we all know is coming for our two heroes -- but I always had a difficult time laughing carelessly, carefree, at this play. How can I laugh when pondering the nature of existence? (Honestly, don't you wonder what Socrates was like when squeezing out a turd?)
Certainly, the humor is not perfectly to my liking: I have long had a great disdain for this kind of nonsensical humor, the sort of thing an audience member might respond to with "That's not funny!" only to be shot down by the wild irreverent response of the performer: "Exactly!" Much of the humor in this play revolves around the "inadequacy of language," which as you can imagine, tried my patience. "Yes, yes, we get it," I thought over and over again: language is not the perfect philosophical medium you thought it would be. Sorry for your loss, of course, but that entire thread of thought weakened my overall impression of the play: when one of the boys shouts out something like "Oh, what's the point?" I see little use in the other promptly responding, "The point of what?"
One last point before I go: the concept of metatheatre -- ie, a play about plays. No doubt inspired by Hamlet's play-within-a-play, R&G Are Dead several times has its main characters watch the on-stage players perform. At one point, in the movie at least, the on-screen players themselves are watching a puppet show. And since R&G could be considered a metaplay my final count is five levels. Inception eat your heart out.
Though I was overall impressed, pleased even, with this movie, I wonder about what the original play is like. Occasionally movies are little more than taped stage performances, but based on the thing as I saw it with my own eyes, and on the few reviews of others I have read, I expect a stage performance would be wildly different, better even, than this particular movie. I would jump at the chance to see this play live.
* honest to goodness, I almost wrote "R&R"!
** Adams finishes this passage with a decided turn towards the philosophical: "Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now." You can read the whole of the passage at Goodreads.