I just saw Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. That is a strange metaplay. I assume Stoppard was influenced by Beckett because Ros and Guild seem to echo Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.
Two questions arose from this play that I want to explore: are there differences between Ros and Guild and Vlad and Estragon; are there similarities between the aforementioned characters?
Godot and Dead contain the problem of remembrance and time. In both plays none of the principle characters can remember mundane or principle events of the past.
The characters are isolated in the reality they create and are forced to cope with this reality. Vlad and Estragon cope with reality by trying to pass the time with conversation, which usually ends in silence and then they are forced to confront reality again.
Ros and Guild confront their reality in a different way. They never end with silence. The two characters delve into each others thoughts and try to explore them, but most of all Ros and Guild have an stronger emotional connection than Beckett characters. For instance, when Ros and Guild are conversing about being “dead, lying in a box with a lid on it,” a suggestion that the two understand each other a little better than Beckett’s characters arises because Ros and Guild are confronting an emotionally charged subject, the loss of life (Stoppard 735).
I think Stoppard’s characters are more existential that Beckett’s because Guild makes specific reference to action. He seems to suggest that fate and chance are non-existent and life is made up of a series of free-willed actions that create a chain of events that arise from the initial action.
Guild says, “your smallest action sets off another somewhere else, and is set off by it...Tread warily, follow instructions” (Stoppard 706). Action is apparent but to “follow instructions” suggests that someone has contrived the actions.
Whoever contrived the instructions would be an influential individual, but I suspect a free willed individual has the ability to decide and act to follow the contrived instructions.
I think this needs more thought and perhaps I am missing the point completely because further in the play Ros and Guild suggest that they have no control over their world.
Character dependency, especially the use of two male central characters, in Modern Drama is interesting: Beckett’s Vlad and Estragon are dependent upon each other, Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind and True West use the dependency of two brothers, Pinter’s Goldberg and Mccann work together in the Birthday Party. How does Stoppard use the concept of dependency with Ros and Guild?
One character is usually rational, and one is usually irrational. Perhaps these authors are trying to use psychological ideas, but the duality reminds me of the Apollonian and Dionysian struggle.
Stoppard seems to achieve this duality effect in the first scene when Guild is trying to rationally explain why the coin he is flipping keeps landing heads-up. Guild can’t do it, and Ros changes the subject of abstract, rational, scientific explanations to a much more irrational discussion about how fingernails and beards have the capability to grow after death. Because the abstract discussion has no substance, it does not excite Ros, and his language is minimal. When a subject that has substance is discussed both characters contribute to the discussion in equal parts.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Nine Plays of the Modern Theatre. Ed. Harold Clurman. New York: Grove Press. 1981.