Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: the Theatrical Ripple Effects

Hamlet is, of course, influential. Oft-referenced. Quoted. A touchstone for inspiration.

This is not surprising.

What is surprising? That two of its most peripheral characters have seen themselves (if they existed) becoming central characters in not one, but two, theatrical plays, plus an independent film comedy (sort of).

In the mid-1870’s, WS Gilbert–yes, Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan–wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids, which in its description feels much more modernist than I would expect. In a comic twist, Claudius’ main crime is writing a bad play in his youth, a tragedy that never saw a complete performance because of audience laughter. When he and Gertrude turn their attention to Hamlet, they’re concerned about Hamlet’s mental state and his “tendency to long soliloquy.” They bring in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to cheer up Hamlet, but unbeknownst to the royal couple, Rosencrantz is in love with Ophelia, who is engaged to Hamlet but wants out. The plan here is to have the players play Claudius’ play for the king, have him get upset and sentence Hamlet to death. Sounds crazy, and it must have to theater owners as well because it didn’t get its theatrical premiere until 1891.

Nearly a century after Gilbert penned his version, Tom Stoppard wrote his absurdist play (comedy? tragedy? tragicomedy?), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In this version, the events of the play are shot through the prism of the courtier’s eyes, from their arrival at Elsinore to the boat trip mission to take Hamlet to England. The play centers on the absurdity of their situation and toyed with the idea of how all of this is a play (within a play). It made Stoppard a rising star in the theatrical world, and he turned it into a film in 1990 starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth as the courtiers and Richard Dreyfuss as the player king; the film was met with somewhat positive critical approval.

Then in 2009 a little over half a century after Stoppard wrote his play, Jordan Galland wrote and directed his independent film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead. It follows the production of a play, sharing the film’s title. As the audience learns, Horatio was a vampire who has battled Hamlet through the ages in a quest for the Holy Grail. And through the years, Horatio (also known by Theo Horace… get it, not Hora-tio but Theo Horace) has used many theatrical play to bait Hamlet into revealing himself so that Horatio can kill him. Those plays? You guessed it, Hamlet, Gilbert’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Hadn’t even heard of the first play up until this week. Have seen the second only as a film, which I thought was pretty good (though a little slow). And the last is one I’ve been tempted to view, but have never found the time.

Has anyone out there seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead? Thoughts? Is it worth the time?

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