Theater Review: “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” — Absurdist Death Pangs

By Bill Marx

Much ado about nihilism.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre (264 Huntington Avenue), Boston, MA, through October 20.

Alex Hurt and Jeremy Webb in the Huntington Theatre Company production of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead .” Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

I assume Tom Stoppard would be amused. Above the Huntington Theatre Company’s marquee, which proclaims that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, sits the company’s branding motto: “Feel More Alive.” Given that R & G chatter a lot about death, perhaps the uplift factor for HTC audiences will be the show’s inevitable reminder that they are still breathing. Of course, Stoppard’s vision of two minor henchmen in Hamlet, bewildered about what is going on around them, not sure of who they are or the roles they are supposed to play, works hard (and sometimes successfully) to generate existential comedy out of incomprehension, punning, and paradox-ing on conflicts between free will and fate, the ambiguities of identity, the presence or absence of God. Over fifty years ago, when Rosencrantz premiered at the National Theatre, Stoppard’s philosophical wackiness had some kick, at least enough to confuse some critics. But, in this damp squib of a production from the HTC, the script comes off as amiable at best, with interludes of the brittle and tiresome. To allude to another Shakespeare play, it is much ado about nihilism.

As the title innocents, Alex Hurt and Jeremy Webb are a suitable pair of talkative clowns, but they don’t invest their cyphers with idiosyncratic comic detail, preferring to wallow (too comfortably) in Stoppard’s ping-pong exchanges. The assumption is that the language is the thing. and at times this laid back approach only highlights the repetition built into the linguistic japes. When called to do something more, Hurt and Webb rise to the occasion, such as the wonderful ‘dead in a box” speech. And there are pleasant vibes of depression in the production’s most visual scene — a ship sailing under the cool spotlight of a moon. But generally, Hurt and Webb are functional un-heroes, their verbal capering providing mild fun. Will LeBow’s Player and his fellow troupers (including Laura Latreille, Dale Place, and Omar Robinson) offer flickers of circus-y energy, but not enough to perk up the proceedings. There’s nothing grievously wrong with Peter DuBois’s direction, but he seems to have taken the advice of the Player to sit back and relax — he hasn’t rethought the script, but goes through its paces carefully, mechanically generating wordy mirth.

The HTC production is somewhat lifeless, but considerable responsibility lies with Stoppard’s play. The HTC program notes bring up Beckett and Waiting for Godot, but Pirandello is the operative influence here. His “characters in search of an author” are passionate beings, almost to a melodramatic fault. Stoppard’s R & G are either actors suffering from amnesia or characters who have only one desire — to understand their predicament, to make sense of the roles they are supposed to be playing. That frustrated obsession with figuring out the unknowable (resolved if someone handed them Shakespeare’s script) generates humorous and ultimately fatiguing mulling over of primal conundrums. The problem is that R & G are not personalities that we grow to care much about (they have no past and are stuck with a preordained future), so their doom isn’t of much interest — dramatically or intellectually. I would argue that, even as an example of theater of the absurd, Rosencrantz is superficial, a faded, domesticated application of the deeper, anguished absurdity created by giants such as Beckett, Pirandello, and Ionesco. Guildenstern’s final speech on personal extinction has some welcome dark kick: “Death is not anything … death is not … It’s the absence of presence, nothing more … the endless time of never coming back.” But with its predominately farcical rhythms, the play skips over the abyss — the real thing dives in.

There is a hint in the third act, where Stoppard expands a bit on Shakespeare’s script, that R & G are given more than alternatives — they can make a choice. As they sail toward England, the guys discover that the letter they are to deliver to the English king demands that Hamlet be killed. The pair argue a bit about this, finally rationalizing that, hey, death comes to us all. They could have warned Hamlet. Once he learns of the plot he switches letters, so R & G are the ones who will be executed. Perhaps Stoppard thinks that their passivity is tragic. Does the pair’s apathy make them morally culpable? Is some sort of action possible? A 1974 quote from the playwright in the HTC program suggests parallels between R & G and the Vietnam War (“The little they are told is mainly lies, and there’s no reason to suppose they ever find out why they are killed”) might have been in back of Stoppard’s mind. But he is much too dedicated to the metaphysical fun house approach to deal with real life traumas or to turn R & G into protestors against their fate.(Could this be a play about people who are categorized as disposable?) It will take a number of years before the dramatist will be able to generate living, breathing characters who feel pain — rather than talk about it.

So Rosencrantz is showing its age. And the ravages of time also reveal something about some of the reasons for Stoppard’s decades of success. In 1979 Ken Tynan, who as the Literary Manager of the National Theatre helped bring the play to the stage, wrote that the dramatist believes in “a universe in which everything is relative, yet in which moral absolutes exist.” On the one hand, this paradoxical conflict sparks a contentious, tragic-comic drama that skitters brilliantly about (and between) alternatives. On the other, this lordly overview smacks less of iconoclasm than having your cake and eating it too. After all, ‘moral absolutes’ hover in the background, assuring audiences that any serious theatrical vertigo is temporary. Absurdity defanged.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

1 Comment

  1. Martin Quitt on October 3, 2019 at 10:10 am

    I did not like the play a half century ago and nothing that DuBois has done induced us to suffer beyond the second act. It is the least stimulating of Stoppard’s plays. Hamlet is Shakespeare at his very best and rare is the production that does not repay close attention. Shakespeare has characters we care about, not lifeless abstractions. Hard to believe how Stoppard and DuBois trample Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

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