Archive: January 5th, 2009

Tom Stoppard: Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

[Readings] (01.05.09, 11:47 pm)

Relating this to my work may take a bit of maneuvering, but it’s on my reading list, so here it goes.

Stoppard plays are often absurdist and existential, but come with a comedic vein absent in other absurdist theatre such as Beckett or Brecht. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is set following the eponymous characters from Hamlet. While in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor, spending most of their time in the background, in Stoppard’s play their roles are reversed with that of Hamlet’s cast. They exist in an ambiguous and indeterminate state, the very world around them is vague and indistinct. They are fraught with the problem of not being able to make out the world, and being unable to change their roles within it. The play reads like Hamlet’s backstage, only the actors never come out of character. The world seen is a quasi-state that is both part of Hamlet’s fiction and also is definitively outside of it.

This sort of situation is relevant to media studies from the perspective of its general philosophical influence, but also from the perspective of performance and presentation. Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala have described digital artifacts as being transparent and reflective. Transparency is the idea that a user may engage with a work without the interference of mediation. Reflective artifacts instead draw attention to the mediation and it is through that awareness that the work is able to convey meaning. Pure transparency is an illusion or myth, of course, as mediation is present in all interactions, and it is only through convention that these mediating factors are ignored, or understood symbolically without requiring contemplation.

Plays are artistic artifacts, which use mediating factors and devices which operate on a symbolic level that is meaningful to the audience. Conventions make use of the stage, especially in the way that characters enter and exit, to communicate symbolically to the audience what is taking place. A viewer unfamiliar with these conventions would not find plays to be transparent at all, and would be baffled by the characters who enter and exit, by the conventions of scenes, lighting, and curtains. They would be puzzled by these gestures much the same way that someone who had never seen a computer would be puzzled by a web browser. Beyond the pure issues in communication of symbolic gesture and representation, there is the issue of literacy. In addition to conventions of interpretation in a domain, there are also traditions of works and use which abide by and originate these conventions. A familiarity with these traditions is generally a form of literacy. When such conventions become pervasive enough to be naturalized, their use is considered transparent.

Reflective artifacts reveal that the mediation process still occurs, even in these circumstances. Absurdist theatre challenges the conventions of theatre and in doing so defamiliarizes the audience with the conventions and their expectations. Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead presents a view which operates in a liminal space between the domain of Hamlet and something else. It depends on the literacy of its audience to understand Hamlet, and also unseats the understanding and expectations regarding the nature of characters– how characters are supposed to work within a play in the first place. Characters are supposed to have clear identities (so we may identify with them), they are supposed to be empowered within the scope of the action (so we may admire them), and they are supposed to be naturally within the world (so the world will seem real to us).

Stoppard’s play is also significant from the perspective of literary extension and adaptation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead extends the world of Hamlet. This is important because of the form of the adaptation. The play extends the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but also borrows some of the major cast of Hamlet. The borrowed characters are not extended, are not presented as whole round characters, but are rather flat representations. We understand the significance of Hamlet not because of what he does, but because we know that he’s the same Hamlet from Shakespeare’s play. The world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is evoked, but not extended or even represented. The result is something which produces a commentary on the original material. Instead of continuing the world of Hamlet with its own rules and logic, we see the events of Hamlet rendered according to a new set of rules. In essence, the representation has not changed, the key events have not changed, but the underlying model that produces those events has changed.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorStoppard, Tom
TitleRozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Tagsmedia traditions, fiction, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon