A Czech refugee working in theater in England, Stoppard had been playing with language and writing metatexts for years, but without intellectual pretense — he came up in a theater full of demanding audiences who needed to be entertained, not lectured to. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead realized the best of this, with a fun riff on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot and mathematics and probability that’s genuinely touching and funny. It’s a rare achievement in art.
A low budget film version, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman helped usher in a vital 90s independent film movement and put Stoppard in a good position to write Shakespeare in Love another classic from the time.
Meanwhile, Stoppard became ever more ambitious in theater, perhaps topping R&G with the expansive Coast of Utopia trilogy and the fantastic Rock’n’Roll.
Happy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern day to you all!
Gertrude Stein lived the very best of literary lives because she was both an artist and an appreciator. The writers, painters, sculptors and musicians that she nurtured made the world a better place, as did her own writing, particularly The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody’s Autobiography.
I do wonder what she’d make of our own lost literary generation.
I remember reading The Seagull in college, around the time when I’d delved head first into Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche and began nibbling around the edges of Dostoevsky. This is also when I’d begun studying playwriting and new professors exposed me to unfamiliar ideas. I entered the dramatic writing program at the University of New Mexico with Stephen Sondheim in my head as the master experimental writer. Soon, I was surrounded by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Tom Stoppard and then Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch and Heiner Müller — just giving you a sense of where my head was at when I first cracked The Seagull. This was a huge period of awakening for a guy who really loved his Neil Simon and A.R. Gurney (and I still do!)
I was so enamored of Konstantin’s passionate attempts to create new forms of theatre and storytelling and very much identified with his disappointment and despair at being ignored by the literary establishment, personified Boris Trigorin, who doesn’t even bother to cut the pages of the journals that publish Konstantin’s work. Also, I found Masha’s lovesick nihilism to be… quite profound.
So then I called a friend of mine, who was performing in a production of The Seagull at a college in the pacific northwest and talked about my take on the play and she had been cast as Masha in a production that, as was fashionable in the 90s, presented Konstantin as a sort of Kurt Cobain figure and she said to me, after listening patiently to my explication — “Don’t you think all of that is meant to be funny?”
Of course, she was right and I had to reread and reconsider The Seagull in that light and I also had to reread and reconsider everything that had led me to read so much earnest intent into the script in the first place.
It was a valuable lesson about how where I am in life so greatly affects my reading.