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Tom Stoppard admits that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was influenced by many different writers. He does not, however, think of himself as entirely within the framework those writers shared. He has always said that his play was not meant to be taken too seriously, that it is intellectual entertainment but not designed to change one’s philosophy. Thus, one might say that Stoppard is part of a literary tradition, but often sets himself apart from that tradition by fondly ridiculing it.
One of the most obvious of Stoppard’s influences is Samuel Beckett, an Irish playwright working mainly in the mid- twentieth century. Beckett’s plays are often confusing, uncomfortable to watch, and mysteriously depressing, yet darkly humorous at the same time. His most famous play, Waiting for Godot, concerns two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who, as the title indicates, wait for Godot. Just who Godot is never really explained, but it hardly matters: he never comes, and Didi and Gogo are left in a timeless state of inaction to the point of non-existence. They do not even really seem to care whether Godot ever arrives: they are emotionless and unexcitable. The play’s audience often experiences the aforementioned depression: the two men have nothing to live for, realize that their lives are empty, yet continue to trudge on absurdly through a string of petty incidents.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern certainly share some of Didi and Gogo’s pathos, and no one who has not felt some kind of discomfort regarding his or her life’s purpose could truly see the humor in Stoppard’s play. Yet while Beckett often seems intent on disarming his audience, Stoppard, for the most part, welcomes them. Certainly, he enjoys discord: Horatio’s speech at the end of the play is swallowed up by music, stealing its solemn meaning. Yet death is ultimately seen as a game, and Stoppard does not try to scare his audience. The players act out a death scene later mirrored by the "real" members of the court, falling into the exact same positions. Stoppard diffuses with laughter what Beckett leaves heavy on the stage.
Another literary work that Stoppard acknowledges as an influence is T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot, one of English literature’s most respected and widely read poets, often wrote about people who were confused and desolate in the wake of the decline of religion that marked the first half of the past century. Feeling purposeless and yet strangely in control of their fates, Eliot’s characters stumble when trying to make even the simplest decision. His Love Song is in no way about love. Its narrator stands alone, worrying helplessly about whether or not to pursue a woman, while realizing that no one cares what he does, and which ever choice he makes, it will not matter. He recognizes that he is not the main character of his world--he is an "attendant lord," used to move the story forward but lacking a personality of his own. "Do I dare," he famously asks, "disturb the universe?" Clearly, he does not dare, and as he gets older he can only stutter ineffectually, never changing his situation. He walks along the beach, noticing the beauty in the world--he hears mermaids singing--but believing it does not exist for him ("I do not think that they will sing to me.") His tragedy is that he is just enough part of the world he lives in to realize how much he is missing by not being completely part of it. Yet he does not know how to become part of it, how to become real--though it seems clear that it would have something to do with asserting himself.
Rosencrantz and, especially, Guildenstern, share this problem with Prufrock. They are aware of something taking place under the spotlight, but they can only watch from the wings, knowing that they will never be able to understand, let alone take part in, the main action. Yet they differ from Prufrock (as is noted in the chapter summary notes). They seem to be truly under the spell of some outside force--which may very well be Stoppard himself, or Stoppard-as-Shakespeare--making his presence known in the play. When they try to develop a plan but seem somehow tied down by their inertia, one gets the sense that they are actually completely unable to influence their own fates, because they serve a purpose to their playwright that cannot be changed. Prufrock, on the other hand, exists in a realistic world as a "real" person whose failures are essentially his own fault. Thus while they exist in the same universe, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Prufrock cannot be said to be identical in their plights. The difference between them leads one to consider a more general influence on Stoppard: the Theatre of the Absurd.
This type of theatre, which was most popular in the first half of the twentieth century, is the result of a complex set of ideals that are often disagreed upon. Many of the playwrights associated with this movement were interested in representing the artificiality of theatre. They wanted to remind the viewer constantly that he or she was watching a play. The performance was not about the story, but rather its context: the experience of watching a play. Stoppard frequently employs devices associated with this type of theatre. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look into the audience, and seem (though it is never made clear) to talk to them. Rosencrantz cries out "Fire!" to prove that free speech exists--a famous example of a political ideal at work in the real world--.that has nothing to do with what is happening onstage.
Even their conversations, full of words, phrases, and references that come from the modern world, remind the viewer that the story is not really taking place during the Elizabethan era. The Player blurts out, "We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!" The audience is made to laugh at Hamlet, one of the most famous tragedies in English literature (Ophelia’s grief, so potent in the original story, becomes but a backdrop for the actors’ dress rehearsal.) It is very difficult, in this situation, to suspend one’s disbelief, and that is just what Stoppard wants. The play is not the extended story of the "real" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Prince Hamlet. It is a collection of jokes about theatre, literature, and philosophy, among other things. It is not meant to be real; it is meant to be entertaining.
To see how this concept plays out in real life, one might watch the movie made in 1990, starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. It was adapted for the screen by Stoppard himself, who made some interesting changes. He extended the scenes taken directly from Shakespeare, and made many of the jokes between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visual rather than verbal: Oldman, as Rosencrantz, discovers several laws of physics, each of which goes completely wrong when he tries to demonstrate it to his long-suffering friend. In the movie, Rosencrantz is played as a fool and Guildenstern his patient yet irritable protector-- their dynamic recalls Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It seems strange that anyone could confuse one for the other. In the play, they are, as they might say, "two sides of the same coin." Rosencrantz is less intellectual, more childlike, perhaps, but they seem forever bound to one another, so much so that they might as well be the same person. They are truly interchangeable.
The movie, also, cuts much of the "existential fear and angst" monologues, making the play, read or seen, a much darker and more cerebral experience. Seen in a theatre or read, the play offers some sense of intimacy: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with their nervous introspection and stunted ambition, would most likely not seem unfamiliar to the average person interested enough in the play to read or see it. The jokes, in a small setting, are shared. In the movie, that sense of intimacy is lost, and it is no surprise that Stoppard cut many of the "directly to the audience" jokes. Still, the movie provides an interesting perspective on how a story without a real story is portrayed in different media.