Joking to The Bluer End: Tom Stoppard

Sebnem Kaya

Hacettepe University





Since Tom Stoppard's main purpose is contriving "a marriage between a play of ideas and a farce" (qtd in Gussow 14) he handles his plays in a light-hearted manner however unpleasant or difficult the circumstances they present might be. Subsequently, as the two opposing quotations, that is "Tom Stoppard ... works with a brilliance, an intellectual agility and a capacity of mind as well as wit that have no nval on the contemporary stage" by Harold Hobson (qtd in Brassell 1) and "As a dramatist Stoppard is a dandy. His plays toy with difficult subjects, but they are essentially not very serious" by Robert Brustein (qtd in Brassell 1) evidence Stoppard's place in the contemporary British theatre is controversial. Nevertheless, even his earliest worldwide success Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967), which embodies a comparatively less complicated intellectual argument than in Jumpers and Travesties, has enough depth to show that he has been unjustly dismissed by some academics.

Rosencrantz which established Tom Stoppard's reputation in the Sixties is his first major stage play to disturb the canon. Probably when he has difficulty in working out a dramatic structure Shakespeare comes to his assistance. He borrows Shakespeare's plot from Hamlet and juxtaposes it with the themes imitated from Beckett. Stoppard justifies himself and the intertextual nature of his work in the play by joking about the ancient practice of borrowing in Shakespeare's time. The Player remarks that his cadences are "pirated from the Italian" (16,47). And through literary piracy, which has always been in fashion, he changes the familiar into strange and funny. By deriving elements from Hamlet, Tom Stoppard exposes himself to be shrewd enough to know how to attract both educated and uneducated audiences. He flatters the uneducated audience because most people who speak English are at least acquainted with the phrase "to be or not to be" which begins Hamlet's most famous soliloquy in Act III, although in fact they do not have to know Hamlet to enjoy Rosencrantz; Rosencrantz is not a parasitic play. For those who are informed about Shakespeare the play appears as a sophisticated pastiche of cliches of Hamlet-world as the basis upon which the playwright builds his comments on contemporary experience (Gordon 10).

Also employing the variation of an almost 400 year-old tragedy Tom Stoppard shows his respect to the myth of Shakespeare, that is Shakespeare is not for an age but for all time; however, simultaneously, he questions the significance of Shakespearean tragedy for the modem audiences in the second half of the twentieth century by making jokes about bow irrelevant it is to the realities of the present, and how pretentious and bombastic Shakespeare's language sounds when applied to the banal trivialities of our everyday life (Gordon 10-l1). The quotations from Hamlet written in blank verse which constitute about one-tenth of the play, especially Hamlet's language which is maintained intact raise laughter because they are used out of context. The other thing which is equally humorous is the yoking together of an anachronistic use of the twentieth century idiom with the Elizabethan political customs and social values (Gordon 11).

On the surface, Torn Stoppard uses wit, metaphor and repartee, which constitute the enjoyable aspect of his play. But while never abandoning his aim to entertain, under the influence of Absurdism he cannot keep from blending serious elements into his work. He does not let Ros and Guil, the two marginal figures which have been thankless parts for actors in Shakespeare's Hamlet, remain aside. They are now granted the leading role, through their view the Hamlet-world is given, they are made emblems of common humanity, but this does not necessarily mean that they are going better.

These two bewildered characters do not know and are never clearly told what they are supposed to be doing at Elsinore and why they are supposed to be doing it. They are uncertain of their roles; they voice a scenario which they cannot understand. They become more and more disturbed by the meaninglessness of their lives. Although they know that "the only beginning is birth and the only end is death" (28) they are forced to believe that there is some purpose in their existence. Like the Players, who perform before Hamlet, they act out their assigned roles. And in the course of the play, they start suspecting that life is devoid of a transcendent dimension and logic:
 
 

We're actors... we pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was. We were caught high and dry ... even the habit and stubborn trust that our audience spied upon us from behind the nearest bush, forced our bodies to blunder on long after they had emptied of meaning, until like runaway carts they dragged to a halt. No one came forward. No one shouted at us. The silence was unbreakable, it imposed itself upon us; it was obscene. (46)
 
 
The pointless hope of the actors hungry for an audience, a metaphor which dominates over the whole play, may be extended to humankind in general. In this case, the message turns out that this is not a disordered world to be restored by self-sacrifice and heroic action and every resolute action is doomed to decay into mere performance in this arbitrary existence (Bigsby 11). It follows that Ros and Guil just try to survive without yielding to panic, as Guil observes, "We don't question ... we don't doubt we perform" (78).

In fact, these are nothing but delusions because unlike the Player who panics only when there is nobody watching the Shakespearean pair lives with constant anxiety which is the partner of uncertainty (Gabbard 31). They doubt everything, for example, as later on the boat takes them to the British king Ros loses his belief in cartography. He cannot believe that there is an England; he thinks that they are slipping off the map (77-78) while Guil fears that if they reach the English king, they will be ineffectual in explaining their purpose (88).

To escape the reality of their predicament they adopt strategies, which are similar to those in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. They try to rid themselves of terror by tossing coins, conversing, and playing language games. However, mostly the exchanges between them which are rooted in cliches, word games and the formality of lofty philosophical speculation evoke what Eugene Ionesco calls the 'tragedy of language" (Dean 36). In addition, their language games bring about real and disturbing questions about their own identity and the conversation ends with Guil shouting out in despair, "Do you think conversation is going to help us now?" (87)

Under these circumstances, they try to find a pattern or purpose in their existence through scientific logic. But although Guil claims that "the scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defence against the pure emotion of fear" (11-12), the logical explanations they construct all crumble. For example, what is the scientific explanation for the difference between fingernails and toenails?
 
 

ROS: It is a funny thing - I cut my fingernails all the time, and every time I think to cut them, they need cutting. Now, for instance. And yet, I never, to the best of my knowledge, cut my toenails. They ought to be curled under my feet by now, but it doesn't happen I never think about them. Perhaps I cut them absent-mindedly, when I'm thinking of something else. (13)
 
 
Furthermore, how does it happen that every time they toss a coin - they toss it more than ninety times - it alarmingly comes heads, defying the laws of chance. Having lost almost all the coins in his purse to Ros, Guil tries to rationalise the mystery of his incredibly bad luck logically and methodically without knowing that he is introducing a new argument, that is time has stopped which is endemic to the Theatre of the Absurd (Dean 37): "time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety times ... On the whole, doubtful"

So the twosome are trapped inside a play which they did not write. They lack the understanding of their roles and the meaning of the total drama. Even the identity of the supposed author becomes dubious when Ros anachronistically refers to the law of probability, whereby, given time, six monkeys typing at random could produce the entire works of Shakespeare. This means that the whole scenario may be regarded as the result of chance, instead of the ordered product of an omniscient creator (Bigsby 12).

Ros and Guil conclude that the only freedom they have is that of sailors on a ship (89). They are free to move around on the vessel, but they cannot influence the wind and the current which are drawing them inexorably onwards. More bleakly, it can be considered as the freedom to exist in a coffin. It is like knowing that one day the lid will be opened and in the meantime being able to breathe, converse and exist. Ros suggests, "Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You'd have a chance at least. You could like there thinking - well, at least I'm not dead! In a minute someone's going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out" (51). This is actually illusion or willed self-deceit which is their last resort (Bigsby 12). But even this cannot be sustained. Guil tries to convince himself that "We are not restricted. No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed ... We can breathe. We can relax. We can do what we like or say what we like to whomever we like, without restriction" (84), but Ros adds the discouraging proviso, "Within limits, of course" (84).

They are uncertain of the nature of truth as well. In the first place, the theatrical references, the plays within plays such as The Murder of Gonzago, raise questions about the nature of truth. Besides the obvious references to Hamlet, there are others to Edward Albee - "Good old east" (62) derived from "good old north" in The Zoo Story - and John Osborne - "Don't clap too hard. It's a very old world" (16) derived from Archie Rice's less metaphysical comment in The Entertainer, "Don't clap. It's a very old building" (qtd in Bigsby 13). Through these references, the audience is constantly reminded of the unreality of what it is watching. On many occasions, Ros too shows his awareness of the presence of the audience. Moreover, the conventions of the stage are repeatedly mocked. This is how the audience is made aware that it is also playing a role, collaborating with those on the stage in the establishment of the so-called truths (Bigsby 13). What is truth, then? A player claims that "truth is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions" (48). It is actually the existence of a world in which only birth and death are certainties. This situation creates the need for fictions, for self-sustaining pretence, it is the need which leads people to the creation of art (Bigsby 14). In the course of the play, both the absurdist characters and the audience are pathetically waiting with faith for a structure, such as art, through which life can find a meaning. However, one way or the other, at least one of the twosome will be disappointed by art because they have conflicting expectations of it. About the art of performance, Ros wants "a good story, with a beginning, middle and end" (58) whereas Guil prefers "art to mirror life" (58). Guil is also disappointed by the players who he imagined would be something fantastic like a unicorn. For this, the players appear to be a poor substitute: "No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only ... a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes ..." (19).

As there is no definable truth, no established pattern, no morality to adhere to, the tenor of their situation becomes more and more compelling, following that they lose confidence and their defensive illusions begin to disintegrate (Bigsby 13). Language itself begins to collapse. Being fragmented it can no longer be a means of communication, but even maybe an obstacle to it. They try to cling to the conviction that they "have not been picked out ... simply to be abandoned," that they are "entitled to some direction" (14). But in the end comes the confession that "it is not enough. To be told so little - to such an end - and still, finally, to be denied an explanation" (89).

Against this situation they admit that they do not know how to act; they usually end up as spectators than players. On very few occasions they take action as, for instance, they attempt to block Hamlet's exit:
 
 

Guil positions himself next to Ros, a few feet away. so that they are covering one side of the stage. facing the opposite side. Guil unfastens his belt. Ros does the sane, They join the two belts, and hold them taut between them. Ros's trousers slide slowly down. (65)
 
 
Similarly, near the end of the play Guil takes action in his attempt to kill the Player out of his need to assert that he is alive and capable of action (Dean 40). He stabs the Player to murder him, but his extreme act of rebellion through violence once more ends in the recognition that he is trapped in a world of games. Despairingly, the knife he is holding turns out to be a collapsing prop for playing death on stage (89-90).

Nevertheless, despite all, Tom Stoppard does not deny Ros and Guil a moment of choice when they are empowered, when they can not only resist but change Shakespeare's text. Having read the letter addressed to the English king calling for Hamlet's death, they debate whether they should show it to him. But at this moment of conflict between predestination and free will they rather choose to reproduce it and embrace their Shakespearean roles as two little impotent courtiers who should not "interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings" (80) With the same absurdity to the fill they do not fall victim to circumstance, but to their apathy. Their own deaths are enacted by the two Spies who are evidently wearing identical clothes to their own, but either because of their suicidal tendency which might stem from purposelessness or because they mistake "actuality" for "fictionality" they remain passive and thus, unlike a comedy, the play lacks a happy ending, that is "living happily ever after" or any kind of celebrations. Rosencrantz ends with the announcement of the deaths of the title characters.

What is more appealing to the elitist in Rosencrantz is the profound philosophical implications which also remove the play from the limitations of absurd drama. Before everything, it raises questions about identity among the audience, Ros and Guil themselves, and other characters. As in Hamlet identity is based to a large extent on class (Gabbard 28). The weak are underlings who should serve the will of the strong. Claudius and Gertrude are interested in Ros and Guil because they need to use them. Additionally, as one's status and significance lessen, so does his individuality. Hence, there is a confusion as to who is who in the play. The royal couple know that Ros and Guil are Hamlet's friends, but they do not know one from the other. Even Ros and Guil themselves are so alarmingly uncertain as to their identity that mistakenly, Ros introduces himself as Guil. And as the pressure on them increases they exchange roles, accentuating that these are indeed roles generated by the necessity of their situation rather than by the force of their authentic character (Bigsby 15).

Tom Stoppard also puts forward the question of perspective through Guil who tries to establish a philosophical defence for not interfering with Hamlet's murder:
 
 

Well, yes, and then again no - (Airily.) Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him (Hamlet). Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera, and consequently he would have died anyway, sooner or later. Or to look at it from the social point of view - he's just one man among many, the loss would be well within reason and convenience. And then, again, what is so terrible about death? As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don't know what death is, it is illogical to fear it (79).
 
 
Guil does not see his subject from a fixed position. Instead, he encircles it, but the problem is that he appraises it always from vantage points, underlining one of the playwright's favourite themes, that is the limitations inherent in approaching a subject from a fixed perspective (Dean 39).

The principal focus of Rosencrantz is death, life's greatest mystery which Ros and Guil try to solve with their limited capacity. Both of them are preoccupied with the idea of death as seen in a dialogue in which Ros's flippant final comment undercuts the seriousness of Guil's speculations:
 
 

ROS; We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?

GUlL: No, no, no - - - Death is .. - not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not being. You can't not - be on a boat

ROS: I've frequently not been on boats. (78)
 
 

Throughout the play, death is presented as a developing process that begins at birth. The royal summons is a metaphor for both the beginning and the ending of life. From the moment Ros and Guil respond to the summons, without asking any questions they step into a life that leads to death (Gabbard 34). Their passivity and inaction are appropriate to their decaying state. They are slightly aware that body signs do not mean life. Ros reports that fingernails and beard grow after death (12-13). As given in the title they are actually dead from the outset, born into a deathly life without order or action (Gabbard 34). Death is not like being alive in a coffin nor is the histrionics of the Tragedians, but rather a fearsome reality, extinction, as Guil defines it' "a failing to reappear, "an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance" (61). Nevertheless, it must be for the attraction of the unknown, the wish to discover the unknown that the players love killing and dying even if it is in jest:
 
  PLAYER: Deaths for all ages and occasions! Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition-! Climactic carnage, by poison and by steel - ! Double deaths by duet - !
 
 
It is notable that in spite of all this bitterness Rosencrantz is not bitingly absurd. The vision of the Theatre of the Absurd is based on hopelessness, meaninglessness and futility of human condition: in Becken's and Ionesco's plays the comedy is undercut by despair which is implicit in the characters' portrayal. The perception of the human condition beneath the surface of Rosencrantz is not as bleak as in the other examples. There is possibly an undercurrent of optimism, for instance, suggested through Ros and Guil's language. Taking a closer look at it, one recognises that their dialogue can be seen sequentially linked and logically grounded; what is identified as absurd dialogue may be the idiosyncratic conversation between two intimate friends as it is full of jokes and shared experiences (Dean 36-37). Thematically, the dialogue between them is a means of warding off silence and thus a kind of refusal to succumb to despair (Dean 37). Finally, although for Guil time might have stopped the audience is aware of the passage of time as proved by the forward-moving action of the play (Dean 37).

Consequently, although the argument behind Rosencrantz may not be very strong Tom Stoppard includes enough of metaphysical inquiry, or "intellectual leapfrog" as Stoppard himself names it, on complex issues such as life, death, art, faith, truth, logic given through the two abandoned questioning characters for whom the only support is the compassion with which they treat one another and the humour which they use as a means of neutralising their fear, as a means of preserving sanity. Furthermore, he poses question after question, but he avoids being challenging. He does not allow his audience to get emotionally involved through literary references, plays within plays which intensify the "alienation effect" to the full. So while never becoming didactic his play has the potential to appeal both to the escapist and the intellectual. Some spectators can find enough pleasure in the humour while being unable to understand the serious. Others when their laughter settles consider the serious issues that underline the work.
 
 
 
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bigsby, C.W.E. Tom Stoppard. Burnt Mill; Longman, 1976.

Brasseti, Tim. Tom Stoppard: An Assessment. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1987

Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick. Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Gabbard, Lucina Paquet, The Stoppard Plays, New York: The Whiston Publishing Company, 1982.

Gordon, Robert. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jumpers and The Real Thing: Text and Performance. Houndmills; Macmillan, 1991.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Tom Stoppard. London: Nick Hem Books, 1995.

Kelly, Katherine E. Tom Stoppard and the Craft Of Comedy. Michigan; University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.