Read and annotate the following excerpt from Ian Johnston’s lecture on Thomas Stoppard and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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English 12H

Due: Friday 7 October 2011.
Read and annotate the following excerpt from Ian Johnston’s lecture on Thomas Stoppard and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
[The following is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), and delivered in LBST 402 on April 10, 1997. This document is in the public domain, released June 1999]

Theatre of the Absurd

First, by way of exploring some of the connections between Stoppard's play and Beckett's, I'd like to introduce a term familiar to most of you: The Theatre of the Absurd. This term is very loose, but it refers specifically to the works of a number of modern playwrights, particularly Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter (among others), whose plays share certain characteristics, the foremost of which is that their dramatic world seems to have become empty of any horizon of significance or, indeed, anything reliable at all. It has become, in a word, absurd, without logic and without the comfortable reminders of a logical structure: a confidence about time and space and memory.

In the Theatre of the Absurd the protagonists are discovered in a world which they do not, indeed they cannot, understand. It has no reliable meaning. Often, it is featureless. The confusion is not a matter of a conflict between competing meanings, but rather the absence of anything that might help one to understand oneself, one's purpose, or one's place in the social scheme of things. Even the protagonist's identity is problematic. This concept is, I think, clear enough to us--at least in a general outline--from our discussions of modern art and some of our discussions of Nietzsche and de Beauvoir. A sense of the absurdity of the external world is, after all, a legacy of some nineteenth century Romantic thought.

This, however, is not the only important criterion of this literary style. The other essential component is that the protagonists' attempts to deal with the world also register as absurd. They become like clowns loose in madhouse or, more appropriately perhaps, in a featureless desert. It is important to grasp this second point, because it separates what we might call existential drama from absurd drama. Existential action also assumes that the world comes to us void of horizons of significance. We have an urgent priority to impose on that world our own projects, freely chosen, and thus become a creator of values for ourselves. The world gives us no fixed priorities for choosing one project over another. But to be fully human, to achieve the dignity of being human, we must act upon our freedom to choose and launch ourselves into the world. This will not bring us happiness (de Beauvoir insists upon that repeatedly); it will, however, confer human dignity upon us.

The Theatre of the Absurd takes from us that dignity. Its heroes lack whatever it takes to act confidently in the world. They are essentially grotesque clowns, without a sense of purpose and without the courage, energy, wit to forge one for themselves. They spend their time anxiously confronting an incomprehensible world, often desperate for some reassurance that there is something or someone who can help them out, but incapable of helping themselves. What renders their situation all the more helpless is that they have no reliable memory, so they cannot even orient themselves and their present situation to what they once were--they can create no intelligible historical narrative for their lives. Hence, they are radically unsure of who they are. The very idea of a self-initiated energetic project is quite beyond them.

Most of the major attention in Absurdist Theatre focuses upon how the protagonists try to cope. Since they are, unlike traditional protagonists, incapable of independent action, what they do is always the same: they wait for something to happen, for someone to come along and provide information, direction, or meaning. However, since the world is absurd, such reassurance never arrives. If it seems to arrive, the protagonists are incapable of understanding it sufficiently. And so the plays typically end as they start: with the protagonists waiting for something. The structure of the story does not admit of a firm ending (of the sort common in tragedy and comedy) because either of those endings is value laden, that is, it is making some form of affirmation about the world.

Most of the drama in such plays--that is, the action that takes place on the stage--consists of games which the protagonists play, not because they have any sense of creative play, but rather because they need something to pass the time, to stave off the fear that always comes if they confront their deepest feelings about the world and their situation or even if they remain silent for any length of time (this point of style is a major, perhaps the major legacy of Beckett's Waiting for Godot). So Absurdist Theatre is often very funny (or can be played for laughs), simply because of the ludicrousness of the ineffectual attempts (usually verbal) to confer significance upon the passing of time, when one has no resources. The most obvious example of this is Stoppard's play is the verbal tennis game. The only thing allowed is a fresh question. Statements are out (they make assertions); repetitions are out; and rhetoric is out (because it brings passion into the game). Questions pass the time, so long as they are never answered and do not lead to an increased level of emotion. The questions have no point--any interrogative will do to keep the game going.

Thus, the emphasis on verbal humour is one of the major attractions of Absurdist Theatre. In Waiting for Godot this humour is set up as a conversation between one of the clowns who wants to probe for significance (e.g., by trying to sort out the significance of the thief who was saved) but is ludicrously inadequate for the task and the other of the clowns who is much earthier and keeps puncturing the intellectual pretentiousness of the other, often with a physical complaint. This is also clearly a feature in Stoppard's play: Guildenstern agonizes about the meaning of it all; Rosencrantz is puzzled by his companion's attitude and is constantly thwarting Guildenstern's efforts. When Rosencrantz gets caught up in some time-consuming activity, Guildenstern just gets annoyed.

To acknowledge that these plays are often very funny does not mean that we should miss the desperation underneath the humour. In fact, Absurdist plays can often be very bleak or very funny (or both), depending upon the emphasis the director wishes to establish (this is particularly true of Waiting for Godot). The humour is potentially bleak because it depends upon laughing at any attempt to discover significance--the various resources which the protagonists seek to access are all equally stupid. We are not dealing here with traditional humour, in which a positive moral attitude helps to establish what matters and what doesn't (e.g., in Aristophanes's Clouds or Swift's Gulliver's Travels)--in which many things are exposed as foolish but only to bring out how certain other things really matter. Here we are dealing with a particularly modern sense of humour--black humour which sets up everything as equally ridiculous (probability, classical literature, traditional philosophical positions, religion, the human body, love, even language itself, and, in the film, all the great scientific experiments).

Parenthetically, we should all be familiar with this style of humour, although we might not have reflected on what lies under it. For a good deal of what passes for comedy these days--from Monty Python to This Hour Has 22 Minutes--is basically absurdist. It depends upon, as we are all familiar, the assumption that everything is equally silly, equally subject to ridicule: politics, religion, education, business--in short, all aspects of life are equally fit for mockery. That, incidentally, may be why this form of humour depends so heavily on the short skit and why one often tires of it quickly: we are not getting anywhere with it.

This form of humour, which is a distinctive characteristic of the twentieth century, was born, according to some cultural historians (e.g., Paul Fussell), in the trenches of World War I. Faced with what seemed like the ultimate absurdity of their situation--death and destruction all around, noble but increasingly meaningless traditional rhetoric about honour, courage, patriotism, and so on, and the only way out being an idiotic charge into the machine guns, many soldiers responded with a howl of laughter at the absurdity of it all--not just the absurdity of their circumstances, but also the absurdity of their responses to that situation. Out of that response (as it developed in the trench literature) grew a new attitude, something we have already touched upon briefly in discussing the development in modern art, especially in the Dada movement.

At the base of much of this black humour (and especially in Absurdist Theatre and in Monty Python) is the absurdity of language itself. Instead of being, as it is in virtually all the writers we have read, the keenest (if often deceptive) way of coming to an understanding of ourselves and the world around us, language in the absurdist world becomes one more unpredictable, unreliable, slippery, deceiving feature of experience. In Stoppard's play this point applies even to the characters' awareness of their own names. But it also emerges repeatedly in the frequently very funny ways in which they are always misunderstanding each other.

GUIL: You can't not-be on a boat

ROS: I've frequently not been on boats.

GUIL: No, no, no--what you've been is not on boats.

ROS: I wish I was dead.

The push to absurdist theatre, however, also grew out of the experience of World War II. And to make this clear I want to refer briefly to a story with which many of you will be familiar: The Diary of Anne Frank. In this well known story, a group of Dutch Jews seek refuge in an attic from the persecution of the Final Solution. There they construct for themselves as normal a life as they can manage, shutting out the external world as far as possible with the daily and annual rituals of life, as if the important thing is just to keep hanging to on the normal way of doing things. Near the end of the war, they are discovered and taken away.

This story was made into a play and a film. And whenever I see this story performed dramatically, I am struck with the relationship between this story and the Theatre of the Absurd, which grew out of the ashes. After all, what happens in this story? The small Jewish community in the attic spends a lot of time waiting. They pass the time by hanging onto the traditional activities--worship, young love, religious festivals. And we, as audience, respond to this as a powerful affirmation of the human spirit.


Yet it doesn't take much of a shift of perspective to see the activity of these Jewish people as absurd. After all, the world outside the attic has become an irrational and deadly nightmare. And what are they doing? They are pretending it isn't there. They are going through a series of traditional formulas, which are absolutely ineffectual against the power and the horror of what is going on and what eventually breaks in upon them. They are, in a sense, playing games. True, they don't think they are games (hence the play is not an absurdist one), and I am not suggesting that the Diary of Anne Frank is absurdist theatre. But it wouldn't take much to make it an absurdist piece. All one would have to do is to turn the participants into grotesque clowns, so that the various social and religious rituals they go through to pass the time become exaggerated into comic futility; then we would have the essential ingredients of Absurdist Theatre: the ineffectual trying to cope with the incomprehensible.

Now, what I have been talking about is clear enough in Waiting for Godot, and some of the parallels with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are obvious enough, so that we can recognize Stoppard's acknowledged debt to Beckett--especially in the delineation of the two main characters, their verbal patter, their insecurity about their identity and memories, their constant questioning (which usually is not something in search of an answer but simply a means of expressing their anxiety or passing the time), and their anxious confusion about what they are doing. Whether this qualifies Stoppard's play as an absurdist piece or not is a question I'd like to defer for the moment.


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