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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard

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Plot Overview

Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler to a Jewish family on July 3, 1937, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. He fled with his parents to Singapore in 1939 to escape the Nazis. A few years later, at the height of World War II, he went with his mother and younger brother to India to escape the invading Japanese. His father, a doctor, stayed behind in Singapore but later drowned on his way to join his wife and sons. In India, his mother met and married Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British army. Along with his stepfather, mother, and brother, Stoppard moved to Bristol, England, in 1946, just as India declared its independence from Britain. By all accounts, Stoppard wholeheartedly embraced British culture and eventually ceased to speak Czech. A love of English wordplay and constant references to English literature run throughout his literary output, which includes plays, screenplays, and fiction.

At age 17, Stoppard left school and started working as a journalist, reviewing plays and writing news features for such papers as the Western Daily Press and Bristol Evening World. In 1962, he became a theater critic for Scene magazine in London. Around this time, he also began writing plays for the radio and television, including A Walk on Water (1963) and The Dissolution of Dominic Boot (1964). A novel, Lord Malaquist and Mr. Moon, was published in 1966. Stoppard wrote a one-act play in 1964 called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, which he then rewrote, expanded into three acts, and retitled as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This new version premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966. An extremely successful production at the National Theatre in London in 1967 led to a debut on Broadway in the United States later that year. Stoppard went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright in 1967, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead earned the Plays and Players Best Play Award in 1967 and a Tony Award for Best Play in 1968.

While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead remains Stoppard’s most famous play, his other work has garnered critical acclaim and won several awards. In all, Stoppard has written more than twenty plays. Most are performed in both London and New York City, the two epicenters of theater. Critics generally cite Jumpers (1973) and Arcadia (1993) as his best plays. Among his many accolades are the Prix Italia (for Albert’s Bridge, 1968), Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy (Travesties, 1974), the 1976 Tony Award for Best Play (Travesties), the 1976 New York Critic Circle Award (Travesties), and Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play (The Real Thing, 1984). In the 1970s, Stoppard began speaking out against the imprisonment and treatment of political dissidents in his native Czechoslovakia, including that of fellow playwright Vaclav Havel. A friendship with another political prisoner, Viktor Fainberg, inspired Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1976). Still another work, a play written for television called Professional Foul (1977), was created especially for Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience Year.

Although Stoppard wrote plays throughout the 1980s, he also began working in the movies. His rewrite of the script for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) earned a Best Screenplay Award from the L.A. Film Critics Association. Stoppard wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), and he did an uncredited rewrite on Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). To secure financing for a movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard decided to write the screenplay and direct the film himself (1990). The movie, which starred Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, earned the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1990. His other screenplay credits include Billy Bathgate (1991), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Bond 22 (2007), the next James Bond film in that franchise. His screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (1998) earned Stoppard and his co-writer, Marc Norman, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. This movie imagines a young William Shakespeare, poor and suffering from writer’s block, entering into a passionate but doomed love affair.

Like Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead mines the Elizabethan era for dramatic and comedic effect. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet, a play written around 1600. Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy tells the story of the prince of Denmark, Hamlet, who may or may not be going insane. As the play opens, the ghost of Hamlet’s father visits Hamlet to say that he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Claudius has not only become king of Denmark but has also married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Hamlet pretends to be insane to trick Claudius into believing that he is safe, but, as the play progresses, Hamlet’s anger and revenge fantasies may actually drive him insane. Claudius sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two childhood friends of Hamlet, to watch over Hamlet, but Hamlet does not confide in his friends, confuses them with riddles, and eventually sends them to their deaths. Hamlet also convinces a group of actors to perform a play that closely mimics the murder of Hamlet’s father, and the play greatly disturbs Claudius, who decides to send Hamlet to England under the care of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet escapes, goes back to Elsinore, and dies, as do most of the other characters. Stoppard borrows heavily from Shakespeare, not only re-imagining the play’s plot but also quoting directly from Hamlet whenever his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters speak to Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, or Polonius.

In 1997, Stoppard was knighted by the British Crown. He lives in London and has four sons, two from his first marriage to Jose Ingle, from 1965 to 1971, and two from his second marriage to Dr. Miriam Stoppard, from 1972 to 1992. He continues to write for the screen and stage. His recent plays The Coast of Utopia (2002), a nine-hour opus that explores the reasons for the Russian Revolution, and Rock ’n’ Roll (2006), about the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, have been commercially and critically successful. As one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking playwrights working today, Stoppard is generally considered to be a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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