Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) imagines Shakespeare's Hamlet from the perspective of two minor courtiers. In Stoppard's revision, the characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are not fully developed in the original play, fumble around bewildered about their mission and the reason for their existence. The play was first produced by an amateur company in the Edinburgh festival on April 11, 1966. Ronald Bryden's glowing review caught the attention of professional companies. In 1967, 29-year-old Stoppard became the youngest playwright to have his work performed by the National Theatre; the play opened later that year on Broadway.
Between the amateur Edinburgh production and the publication of the second edition in 1968, only a few changes were made to the script. The most significant change was the ending. In Hamlet, Fortinbras orders for the tragic spectacle of the dead bodies to be cleared. Stoppard picks up from there, and has two ambassadors from England enter. The ambassadors count the bodies, name them, and then conclude there are eight deaths in all. In the second edition, Stoppard uses Shakespeare's words instead of his own to end the play with the final speeches from the ambassador and Horatio announcing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
When Tom Stoppard produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, England was dealing with the aftermath of WWII and colonization, causing the public to question authority, challenge precedent, and debunk mythologies associated with power and prestige. In the world of theater as well, it seemed as if the last thing sought after was a noble hero. The turn towards working-class themes in British theatre began with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956). The play's central character, Jimmy Porter, became the model for the working-class anti-hero that would pervade British theater for the next decade, confronting head-on the oppressive dominance of history, tradition, and convention. Contemporary critics seemed to reach their breaking points when the anti-hero trend's irreverence towards tradition invaded Shakespearian theater. In Peter Hall's 1965 production of Hamlet, thespian David Warner appeared on the historic Stratford-on-Avon playing an un-princely Hamlet: flippant, impudent, slovenly in appearance, and willing to take advantage of his position of power. Tom Stoppard's critically acclaimed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead offered alternative anti-heroes. Instead of morally dethroning Hamlet, Stoppard brings two minor characters to the foreground, allowing him to address issues relevant to his contemporary postmodern audience while simultaneously minimizing the dominance of Shakespearian tradition.
The central issue that Stoppard focuses on is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's state of existential crisis. The two characters engage in repetitive, often nonsensical dialogue as they fumble through a plot that is incomprehensible to them. Stoppard's play brings a Shakespearian twist to the Theatre of the Absurd, a genre popularized by existential European playwrights in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search for an Author (1921) was an important precursor to the Absurdist genre. The play features a family who is left incomplete by their author. They interrupt an ongoing play and demand that the director stage their play. Like Stoppard, Pirandello reveals the seams of the stage itself - or, as Pirandello terms it, the "the theater in the theater." Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is often cited as a source from which Stoppard draws much philosophical influence. Both plays focus on the absurdity of the human condition as two protagonists find themselves passing time, talking, or playing games until the "action" resumes. However, Stoppard invokes fast-paced comedy and theatricality that cut through Beckett's grave atmosphere. Stoppard is also influenced by T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Prufrock calls attention to his minor role in life by making a direct reference to Hamlet in the following passage:
No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; withal, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Like Prufrock, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are "easy tool[s]" in a highly orchestrated plot in which they are insignificant "attendants." They have been casts as the fools, and despite their arduous journey towards enlightenment they have been denied understanding, purpose, and essential meaning.
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead masterfully revives an almost impenetrable tradition of Shakespearean theater. Many contemporary productions of Hamlet have updated the play by changing superficial markers of time such as setting, costume, and vernacular. However, Stoppard revises the play from the inside out, changing the very nature of the characters to reflect the current postmodern dilemma. In Stoppard's play, the stage itself becomes symbolic of the human condition. And it is Stoppard's dexterity with the English language in addition to his acute philosophical lens that allows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to be more than a modern rendition of Hamlet, but also a work of art that lives and breathes on its own.