Front Cover
 Front Matter
 Title Page
 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are...
 Travesties or Tom Stoppard sorts...
 Conclusion or the importance of...
 Biographical sketch
 Back Cover
 Grant of permissions

Title: In defense of play
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00095872/00001
 Material Information
Title: In defense of play a reassessment of Tom Stoppard's theaters
Alternate Title: A reassessment of Tom Stoppard's theaters
Physical Description: vi, 258 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Stephenson, Barbara Jean, 1958-
Donor: unknown ( endowment )
Publisher: Barbara Jean Stephenson
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 1985
Copyright Date: 1985
Subject: English thesis Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Statement of Responsibility: by Barbara Jean Stephenson.
Thesis: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1985.
Bibliography: Bibliography: leaves 253-257.
General Note: Typescript.
General Note: Vita.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00095872
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: alephbibnum - 000863937
oclc - 14291371
notis - AEG0694

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    Front Matter
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    Travesties or Tom Stoppard sorts is out
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    Conclusion or the importance of being playful
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Full Text
9Lll~Ill ~dC~ke-l-,- 4_11 1 I r I I

II- I I-1







for my husband, Matthew Furbush, who made this,

and so many other dreams, come true


I owe sincere thanks to several friends for their help

on this project: to Ms. Cathy Griggers, for working so

closely with me in the early, theoretical stages; to Mr.

Scott Barnes, for proving a cheerful and able proof-reader

at the end; to Dr. David Shelton, who graciously joined my

committee at a late date, bringing with him an impressive

knowledge of the theater; to Dr. Robert Thomson, for sharing

his enthusiasm about Stoppard as well as his books; to Dr.

Jack Perlette, for his remarkably careful comments and sug-

gestions and for introducing me to critical theory years

ago; to Dr. Brandon Kershner, who invariably proved more

than willing to share his immense knowledge and keen cri-

tical insights, and whose special friendship made possible

many informal discussions which directly shaped large sec-

tions of this dissertation. In particular, though, I am

deeply grateful to my director, Dr. Sidney Homan, for pro-

viding time to complete this project, for arranging that

wonderful meeting with Stoppard, for sharing his insights,

but most of all, for teaching me to love the theater as

he does.




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS..................................... iii

ABSTRACT........................................... ... v

INTRODUCTION.......................................... 1

Notes............ ....................................... 43

DOESN'T KNOW........................................ 50

Notes ............................................ 124


Notes............................................ 203


Notes............................................ 249

BIBLIOGRAPHY..................................... ..... 253

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH................................... 258

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate
School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Barbara Jean Stephenson

December 1985

Chairman: Sidney R. Homan
Major Department: English

Tom Stoppard's first major play, Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead, ignited a divisive critical contro-

versy that has persisted until the present. Though the play

enjoyed long initial runs and continues to be performed and

anthologized, it has faced bitter charges of theatrical

parasitismm" and political irrelevance. Only recently have

critics begun to develop an effective rebuttal to these

charges, but even as the hostile critical consensus began

to be replaced by more perceptive readings of Stoppard's

early, playful derivativeness, the author, apparently in

response to the attacks on his overt borrowing and perceived

irrelevance, started to write serious, "original," plays

directly addressing social and political issues.

I defend the early, playful works, especially Rosen-

crantz, arguing that their overt derivativeness and resis-

tance to closure constitute a structural challenge to a

highly conservative model of authorship, a challenge

complemented by the content of the plays. After investi-

gating the theological and exclusively masculine roots of

the traditional concept of the author, I argue that inasmuch

as this model works to preserve both patriarchal authority

and a theocentric world view, Stoppard's efforts to topple

it--by defying "originality" and refusing to present

authorial Truth--can only be read as politically progressive.

The bulk of this study, however, is devoted to close

readings of Rosencrantz, Travesties, and The Real Thing.

I contend that the open-ended and boldly derivative Rosen-

crantz is not only Stoppard's most theatrically effective

play, but his most profoundly political achievement as well.

I read Travesties as a transitional play, for while its

first half explicitly challenges "originality" in author-

ship, the second half takes a regrettable turn toward Truth,

sacrificing both the play's critique of authorial authority

and its theatrical effectiveness. Although Stoppard attempts

in The Real Thing to revive the play of styles which graced

Rosencrantz, I find that the "realistic" controlling frame

reduces the potentially dislocating impact of these games,

so that the play unfortunately remains closer to the style

of Stoppard's later, socially "committed" plays than to the

delightfully derivative, playfully uncertain style of



When the curtain rises on Tom Stoppard's Travesties,

James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin are seated in a

Zurich library during World War I, writing. Tzara works

in the best Dadaist fashion by cutting paper, word by word,

into a hat and reading the nonsense results. But Tzara's

nonsense poem, beginning "Eel ate enormous appletzara"'

happens to make sense as awkward French, "Ii est un homme,

s'appelle Tzara,2 more sense, it seems, than the phrases

Joyce dictates to his aide, Gwendolen, from the scraps of

paper he pulls not from a hat, but from his pockets:

"Morose delectation .. Aquinas tunbelly . Frate

porcospino" (p. 19). Meanwhile, Lenin is searching for

material to use in his work on imperialism in the books

brought to him by Cecily, the librarian, when his wife,

Nadya, enters to announce a "revolutsia" (p. 19) in St.

Petersburg. Upon Nadya's reassurances that the news is

true--"Da, da, da!" (p. 20), she affirms in Russian, sound-

ing, of course, like Tzara "explaining" Dadaism--Lenin

hurriedly gathers his papers so that he may rush to attend

to the revolution, dropping one of them in the process.

After Joyce picks up Lenin's dropped paper and reads it



aloud, the scene is taken over by Henry Carr, a British

consular officer, who begins orally "writing" his memoirs

of Zurich during the First World War. But in Carr's faulty

memory, which controls the play, his recollections of sharing

Zurich in the late 1910s with Joyce, Tzara, and Lenin are

dominated by his obsession with his own "personal triumph

in the demanding role of Ernest, not Ernest, the other one"

(p. 21), in fact, Algernon of The Importance of Being

Earnest, the play performed by members of the English speak-

ing community in Zurich under the management of James Joyce.

Political revolution, artistic revolution, art assembled

from scraps of paper--even before this brief opening scene

is over, Travesties has introduced many of the issues which

have become central to Stoppard criticism. What is the

proper relationship between art and politics? Can writing

produced by pulling scraps of paper from a hat properly be

called art? Or is such derivative writing inferior to

"original" art which stems solely from the creative genius

of the artist? Is there a connection between pulling art

out of a hat and fostering political revolution? In

Travesties, only Tzara sees such a connection, for Dadaists

contend that political revolution requires a smashing of

the great traditions of art, performed by cutting master-

pieces into scraps. Joyce finds art politically neutral,

yet he produces his writing by pulling scraps of paper from

his pockets, assembling the already written Odyssey and the


Dublin Street Directory for 1904 into Ulysses, just as

Tzara produces his writing by pulling scraps of paper from

his hat, reassembling the already written Shakespearean

sonnets into his nonsense poems, which, in Stoppard's hands,

sometimes turn out to make sense after all. Not only does

art come out of a hat, Travesties indicates, but so does

all writing, for Lenin makes his book on imperialism by

gathering existing writing on economics and placing it in

a new context. And no doubt Carr's attempts to write a

history of Zurich during World War I illustrate Tzara's

contention that "history comes out of a hat too" (p. 83).

If Travesties does not provide the final word on the

relationship between art and politics, it does point un-

equivocally to the inevitable derivativeness of all writing.

Not only does Stoppard make this point repeatedly and

emphatically within the play--scissors, hats, and pockets

form a recurring motif, and characters discuss copyrights

and the relative merits of pockets and hats as sources of

art--but Stoppard's own construction of Travesties also.

underscores the point yet again: Travesties itself comes

out of a hat, for the play is a collage of The Importance

of Being Earnest, excerpts from Lenin's Collected Writings,

snippets from Ellmann's biography of Joyce, bits from Eliot

and Shakespeare, segments of songs, and numerous other

sources. What is true of Travesties is true of other major

Stoppard plays as well. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are


Dead likewise comes out of a hat, a hat containing most

notably Hamlet, and, unmistakably, Waiting for Godot. And

like Travesties, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ex-

plores the concept of authorship within the play as well.

Even The Real Thing, one of Stoppard's most "realistic"

plays, incorporates Strindberg's Miss Julie and Ford's 'Tis

Pity She's a Whore into the play's larger exploration of

authorship and the validity of "political" art.

All writing may be derivative, but few writers call

more attention to the derivativeness of their writing than

Stoppard, for he does not just quietly borrow as so many

writers before him did: Stoppard flaunts his borrowing,

making it a central issue in his plays, borrowing even title

characters from Hamlet, easily the most well-known play in

English. In choosing such a strategy, Stoppard challenges

the traditional model of the God-like Author who creates

his original masterpiece out of nothing, for the model

cannot peacefully coexist with such foregrounding of the

derivativeness of art. Furthermore, the model of author-

ship Stoppard challenges is, as we shall see, inherently

conservative, for it is both an exclusively masculine model,

tightly linked to male procreation, and an essentially

theological model, inasmuch as the mythic account of God

creating the universe out of nothing heavily shapes and

structures it.


Given his intense focus on derivativeness as a central

fact of writing, and given the conservative political affili-

ations of the model of authorship challenged by this focus

on derivativeness, the critical response to Stoppard seems

particularly ironic. Critics attack Stoppard precisely for

his derivativeness, condemning him as a "parasite" who

borrows from other, more "original" writers to make his

derivative, hence inferior, plays. Then, apparently over-

looking the political implications of his challenge to the

traditional model of authorship, they complain that his plays

are apolitical or politically conservative and should,

therefore, be devalued. These complaints, remarkable in

themselves, are even more remarkable for their unusual

vehemence and characteristic tone of moral indignation, for

we are accustomed to thinking, albeit wrongly, of critical

judgments, and the critical tools employed in making such

judgments, as morally and politically neutral, and thus

unlikely to incite passion.

The tone of the debate surrounding Stoppard's worth as

a playwright has been so passionate, in fact, that David

Bratt resorted to battlefield imagery in his excellent

scholarly review of Stoppard criticism, depicting supporters

and detractors as members of two warring camps trading heated

blows. Centering his overview on the issue of derivative-

ness, Bratt explained that the anti-Stoppard camp rallies

around the "charge that Stoppard lacks a voice of his own"3


and is therefore reduced to "borrowing more or less ir-

responsibly from his betters."4 Robert Brustein set the

tone for the debate in 1967 when he derided Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead as a "theatrical parasite, feeding off

Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, and Six Characters in Search of

and Author."5 He condemned the play as "derivative"6 and

asserted, "Stoppard does not fight hard enough for his in-

sights--they all seem to come to him, prefabricated, from

other plays."7 Lurking behind Brustein's complaint is the

Romantic notion that an author must suffer miserably, "fall

upon the thorns of life,"8 so to speak, if his writing is

to enjoy any authority. Christopher Nichols responded to

Rosencrantz with a subdued version of Brustein's complaint,

stating that "despite the ballyhoo, I found no deep search,

no stinging innovation"9 in the play. Art must not only be

a deep search, he apparently assumed, but it must also

sting if we are to embrace it as authentic.

The most outraged response to Stoppard's borrowing in

Rosencrantz was to come in 1970 when C.O. Gardner, writing

in response to R.H. Lee's critical analysis of the play,

"The Circle and Its Tangent,"10 argued that Lee's article

was misguided because "it takes seriously, not to say

solemnly, a play which does not merit serious critical

attention."1" "The thing is in fact a swill," he asserted,

"composed of second-hand Beckett, third-hand Kafka, and the

goon show,"12 so the only proper critical response is to


ignore this "thing" completely in the hope that it will

disappear. Again, of course, we see a Romantic vision of

authorship structuring the condemnation. Rosencrantz is a

cheat, "a swill," because Stoppard filters the play through

layers of art rather than going straight to life for

material to produce an unmediated vision based on authentic


The legacy of Brustein's famous charge against Rosen-

crantz has continued to haunt Stoppard criticism in general,

and we find critics filing the same complaint of derivative-

ness against later Stoppard plays. John Simon, for example,

summed up Stoppard's stage plays to date by depicting them

as parasites: "What they all [Enter a Free Man, Rosencrantz,

Jumpers, After Magritte, The Real Inspector Hound, and

Travesties] have in common to some degree is what I have

at various times described with images culled from the

animal and insect worlds, where the eggs or larvae of one

species may be unconsciously hatched by the efforts, or fed

by the very organisms, of another species."13 Simon went

on to describe "this parasitic quality"l4 of Stoppard's work

with an elaborate parasite/host-organism metaphor that

continued for the duration of the article.

Taking a slightly different tack, Philip Roberts con-

demned Stoppard for lack of seriousness in an article

entitled "Tom Stoppard: Serious Artist or Siren?" He

criticized The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte,


saying, "In both, what appears central is the opportunity

for wit, parody, and metaphysical dalliance to do with the

nature of perception."15 And then, managing a sidelong

reference to the disease imagery which forms a motif in

Stoppard criticism, he charged, "The plays reel away from

seriousness as from a contagious disease."16 Though the

terms of the attack differ, the assumptions underlying

Roberts's condemnation are drawn from the same Romantic

notion of authorship that informed earlier complaints; that

is, "serious" art, art worthy of our deepest consideration,

stems not from wit and intellectual games, but from a

somber, preferably painful engagement with the stuff of


Robert Brustein's "A Theater for Clever Journalists"

picked up the disease motif referred to by Roberts and used

so extensively by Simon. Reviewing Night and Day, Brustein

said the following of Stoppard: "He has insinuated himself

into the affections of smart people like a heartworm,

usurping whatever place might once have been reserved there

for genuine artists"17 (italics mine). Returning again to

the issue of seriousness that recurs in Stoppard criticism,

Brustein asked, "Can anyone really take Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern seriously after seeing the plays on which it

was based, Six Characters in Search of an Author and

Waiting for Godot?"18 (italics mine). Brustein tried to

dismiss Stoppard with the following pronouncement: "As a


dramatist, Stoppard is a dandy."19 The intended insult

likely stems from the idea that a dandy is concerned only

with appearances and surfaces while a "genuine artist" (to

use Brustein's term) shares his experiences of real life

in all their emotional richness.

Joan Juliet Buck's article on Stoppard's The Real Thing

revealed the same set of underlying assumptions about the

role of a genuine artist. Her combination interview-play

review featured in bold print, "The theater's foremost

gamesman takes on 'The Real Thing,'"20 a statement which

implies that the game-playing and derivativeness that

characterize Stoppard's early work are not as authentic as

the love relationships portrayed in The Real Thing. As

Buck told it, she spent her two-hour interview with Stoppard

trying to get him to discuss how his personal experiences

found their way into his latest play. Stoppard tried re-

peatedly to redirect the questioning before saying, "There's

something wrong with the question . there must be some

false premise in it, and it's probably to do with your

underestimating the mechanical level of writing a play."21

Stoppard closed the interview by reiterating his

doubts about the validity of the prevailing view of the

author, a view which sees the author creating art not from

other art, but from gut-wrenching life experiences:

The main trouble with the premise is that none
of these thoughts is a consideration while writing
a play. It's all kind of fake, and the interview
makes you fake by allowing retrospective ideas to


masquerade as some form of intention. One of the
problems is that writers don't think about their
work in that external way.22

While Stoppard makes every effort, both in interviews

and through his plays, to emphasize the derivative nature of

writing, critics and interviewers somehow overlook or mis-

read this challenge to the traditional model of authorship

and condemn Stoppard for not conforming to the very model

of original creation his work seeks to dismantle. Such a

misreading is far from unprecedented, though, for we recall

that Beckett's Waiting for Godot met with early hostility

as critics complained that the play did not have much of a

plot. But just as the lack of traditionally defined plot

is vital to Godot's point about the disintegration of

linear movement in a world without a Creator, so Stoppard's

lack of traditionally defined originality is vital to his

challenge to the traditional concept of the author as the

creating God of his work. Far from being the overriding

weakness in his work, Stoppard's open derivativeness may

be his most important contribution to the canon.

By recognizing Stoppard's celebration of borrowing as

a challenge to the traditional concept of authorship, we

put ourselves in a strong position for rebutting the second

major complaint against Stoppard, the complaint that his

plays are apolitical or politically conservative and thus

not as worthy as other, more "politically relevant" plays.

In filing this complaint, critics overlook the political


implications of his challenge to a conservative critical

model and focus their attention on Stoppard's outspoken

denunciation of Marx ("he got it wrong" 23) and Lenin ("in

the ten years after 1917 fifty times more people were done

to death than in the fifty years before 1917" 24) and on the

absence of any endorsement of Marxist or socialist prin-

ciples in his plays. Because so many critics currently rely

on a rather simplistic equation of Marxism and political

progressivism, the perception "that Stoppard is a political

reactionary"25 has become one of "two fairly often voiced

anxieties"26 about Stoppard's reputation.

Kenneth Tynan's New Yorker Profile, for example,

centers around a vague disapproval of what Tynan perceives

as Stoppard's conservative politics. Noting that "Stoppard

is a passionate fan"27 of cricket, Tynan generalizes

"Cricket attracts artists who are either conservative or

nonpolitical."28 Tynan also divides British dramatists

since the 1960s into two groups, the "heated, embattled,

socially committed playwrights, like John Osborne, John

Arden, and Arnold Wesker"29 and the "cool, apolitical

stylists"30 like Stoppard. Echoing Tynan's evaluation of

Stoppard's politics, though not his disapproval, Joan

Fitzpatrick Dean, author of Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a

Moral Matrix, says, "Stoppard's plays tend toward the

right."31 In his 1982 Tom Stoppard's Plays, Jim Hunter

attempts to dismiss summarily this perception of Stoppard's


politics by pointing out that "the intellectual orthodoxy

of live theatre--in sharp contrast, usually, to the box

office orthodoxy--tends in any age to be radical, and in

Western capitalist countries to be socialist."32 Stoppard,

he continues, voices moderate political opinions and so

should not be labeled reactionary. While Hunter's conclu-

sion that Stoppard is no reactionary is undoubtedly correct,

his contrast between the box office and intellectual ortho-

doxies of live theater seems, in effect, to concede that

Stoppard's plays are essentially conservative. In making

this concession, Hunter basically accepts the superficial

and misleading conception of "political art" put forward

by detractors.

The same flaw mars the reasoning of critics who argue

that Stoppard's work has gotten progressively better as he

has turned from the open derivativeness and game playing

of early plays to more serious concerns like "politics,"

for these critics also overlook the political implications

of his challenge to originality in authorship and simply

assume that art overtly endorsing political goals is in-

herently valuable and should be embraced. Tynan, for

example, notes approvingly in his Profile that "There are

signs . that history has lately been forcing Stoppard

into the arena of commitment."33 In Beyond Absurdity: The

Plays of Tom Stoppard, Victor L. Cahn also nods his approval

of the shift in the content on Stoppard's plays as his


career has continued. Cahn traces a transition from resig-

nation to involvement on the part of the characters who

populate Stoppard's plays. He says, for example, "Stoppard's

growing concern with political matters reaches new inten-

sity in Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,"34 a 1978 play set

in a cell in a Soviet mental hospital for political dis-

sidents. Cahn concludes his book by praising the "dig-

nity"35 of later Stoppard plays which show characters

"struggling, not surrendering,36 characters who "seek faith

in rationality . faith in human emotions . faith in

relationships with other people . faith in their

humanity."37 Undoubtedly, then, Cahn shares the assumption

that a direct treatment of political topics makes for a

better play.

As recently as 1983, critics were still avidly praising

Stoppard for his enlarged commitment to social issues.

Carol Billman concludes her useful article on the manipula-

tion of history in Travesties by noting approvingly that

many of Stoppard's more recent plays, such as Professional

Foul, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, and Night and Day,

"truly represent social engagements on Stoppard's part:

these plays face squarely such issues as governmental

restriction of individual freedom.38 Bobbie Rothstein

devotes her entire article to praising "The Reappearance

of Public Man" in Professional Foul. She observes that

"Stoppard's current work implies that a retreat by the self


from the public world is untenable--a stance diametrically

opposed not only to absurdism, the most important current

in postmodern writing, but also to his own earlier work."39

She applauds Professional Foul because its characters take

a stand and condemns Jumpers because its characters ignore

pressing philosophical and political issues within the play.

She says the "New Stoppard"40 has "shifted gears from the

playful play of words to more serious intellectual drama,"41

again using the term "serious" to indicate approval. To

shift gears, Rothstein explains, Stoppard has had to reach

"somewhat backwards in dramatic history for characters who

are publicly committed to action in the political sphere."42

I would never want to argue that the shift these critics

perceive has not in fact occurred. Like those who argued

that Stoppard's early plays are derivative, and like those

who said Beckett's plays lack plot, these critics are

right--many of Stoppard's later plays have indeed adopted

more overtly political themes. Rothstein is also correct

in pointing out that Stoppard has, paradoxically, had to

reach somewhat backwards in dramatic history to make his

ostensibly progressive change, for characters who struggle

against the odds and end up making the world a better place

to live are most at home in a teleological world that un-

folds linearly, with man at the helm, always ultimately

realizing his preordained destiny in the great scheme of

things. My question at this point, though, is whether this


great leap backwards to overt political content in the form

of socially committed characters does, in fact, constitute

an improvement in Stoppard's playwriting, and whether, in

the end, such political content even makes a play more

politically valuable or effective.

Stoppard expressed similar reservations about the value

of writing plays on politics in a 1974 Theatre Quarterly

interview--before he started producing the plays critics

praise as politically important. The interviewer broached

the topic by saying, "You clearly don't feel yourself part

of a 'movement' either, and your plays could hardly be

called social or political."43 Then, he posed the follow-

ing, fairly typical question to Stoppard: "Does this mean

you have no strong political feelings, or simply that

they're not what you want to write plays about?"44 Stoppard's

response--"Look, can we clear a few decks to avoid confu-

sion?"4--likely revealed his irritation at being misunder-

stood and unjustly maligned yet again. He continued by

listing ten recent plays that he assumed[] all [went] into

[the] political bag,"46 before offering his instructive

explanation of the relationship between plays and politics.

"There are political plays which are about specific situa-

tions, and there are political plays which are about a

general political situation, and there are plays which are

political acts in themselves, insofar as it can be said

that attacking or insulting an audience is a political


act."47 But Stoppard challenged the idea that simply using

political content, such as setting a play in South Africa,

makes a play political: "There are even plays about politics

which are about as political as Charley's Aunt."48

Stoppard is not alone in questioning the value of overt

political content in art, but it is highly ironic, given the

context of his remarks, that his critical comrades, so to

speak, include many Marxist literary critics. In Marxism

and Literary Criticism, for example, Terry Eagleton issues

a strikingly similar warning against "the 'vulgar Marxist'

mistake of raiding literary works for their ideological
content,"49 for "the true bearers of ideology in art are

the very forms, rather than the abstractable content, of

the work itself."50 With Stoppard's work, there is for-

tunately no need to insist upon a rigid (and ultimately

untenable) separation of form and content, for the content

of his plays reinforces the point made by the method of

construction he chooses: both undermine the traditional

concept of the author. If we can move beyond the prevail-

ing, simplistic definition of political art (i.e., art

explicitly endorsing specific political causes equals

politically progressive, hence valuable art), we can begin

developing the kind of analysis needed to correct some of

these remarkable oversights in Stoppard criticism. This

analysis requires a careful investigation of the model of

originality in authorship, for we cannot begin to grasp the


import of Stoppard's challenge to this misleading and

highly conservative critical tool without a thorough under-

standing of what interests are.represented by the model,

what values are reinforced by the model--in short, what is

at stake here. In the course of this investigation, we also

gain a clearer understanding of the critical response to

Stoppard--particularly of the remarkable vehemence and tone

of moral indignation which characterize this response--for

we begin to see that the traditional concept of originality

in authorship does indeed involve morals in a profound way.

As a first step, let us turn to an early, but still highly

influential model of creation to discover the roots of the

traditional view of the Author.

The groundwork of the traditional concept of the

author and the valorization of originality in artistic

creation is laid in Genesis, the first book of the First

Book, the book that describes the original act of creation.

The first words of the Holy Book read, "In the beginning

God created the heavens and the earth."51 The sole male

deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition created light, dark,

Heaven, Earth, land, oceans, plants, animals, the sun, the

moon, the stars, and man himself. He created all this by

His word: "And God said."52 The New Oxford Annotated Bible

notes that "Creation by the word of God expresses God's

absolute lordship and prepares for the doctrine of creation

out of nothing."53 The story of the creation links God with


the Word or "logos" (the original Greek word meaning,

according to the OED, not only "word," but also "speech,"

"reason," "discourse," and often used to designate Jesus

Christ, the Son of God54). It also provides artists with

a model of creation, reminding them that the original way

to create is ex nihilo.

Here, then, is our culture's sacred model of the act

of creation. Predictably, this model pervades and struc-

tures traditional critical thinking about the role of

authors, positing the author as the sole origin of his work

as God is the sole origin of the world. As Sandra M.

Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain in their discussion of the

concept of authorship in The Madwoman in the Attic, "the

patriarchal notion that the writer 'fathers' his text just

as God fathered the world is and has been all-pervasive in

Western literary civilization."55 This "metaphor of

literary paternity" that Gilbert and Gubar describe is

shaped by the biblical account of the creation and points

to the intricate links between God, the Author, and the

Father in much received critical thinking. Beginning more

than a thousand years after the Genesis account, Gilbert

and Gubar trace the metaphor of literary paternity in the

West from the classical Greek period until the present and

find that "the mimetic aesthetic that begins with Aristotle

and descends through Sidney, Shakespeare, and Johnson im-

plies that the poet, like a lesser God, has made or


engendered an alternative mirror-universe."56 They point

to "the network of connections among sexual, literary, and
theological metaphors"57 in medieval philosophy that con-

tinues to influence thought even in the twentieth century

and conclude that "in patriarchal Western culture, therefore,

a text's author is a father, a progenitor, an aesthetic

patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power

like his penis."58

Because Gilbert and Gubar seek primarily to examine

the ways in which the traditional model of authorship has

been used to exclude women writers from the canon, their

approach is specifically feminist, and as such, it tends to

minimize historical variations on the model in the interest

of presenting the larger remarkably consistent, and exclu-

sively masculine tradition of authorship. But one such

variation is of particular relevance to the charge of

derivativeness that serves as a cornerstone of Stoppard

criticism. Before the Romantic era, authors borrowed freely

from existing writings and made no effort to cover the

tracks of their borrowing. Their critics, in turn, expected

such borrowing and would never have attacked their work for

lacking "originality" in the sense that the term is used

today. But economic changes coinciding with the ascendancy

of Romanticism brought a new emphasis on "originality," and

borrowed art came to be seen as not only artistically

inferior, but as tantamount to theft as well. In both


their poetry and their criticism, Romantic poets placed a

premium on art which created the impression of being an

unmediated representation of life. Skill in craft became

secondary to the authenticity of transferring real life

experiences and emotions directly to the page. To use

Wordsworth's famous formulation of the Romantic credo, poetry

should be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings

. . recollected in tranquility."59

While critical theorists have long since demonstrated

that Romantic poetry is far from unmediated, popular criticism

continues to value the impression of originality very highly,

in part because, as Michel Foucault argues, the notion of

originality is supported by bourgeois economic values. He

explains that literature "was not originally a product, a

thing, a kind of goods; it was essentially an act--an act

placed in the bipolar field of the sacred and the profane,

the licit and the illicit, the religious and the blas-

phemous."60 We only began to think of texts as having

authors when "authors became subject to punishment"61 for

writing transgressive, illicit, blasphemous tests. When

"a system of ownership for texts came into being . at

the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nine-

teenth century,"62 "literary discourses came to be accepted

only when endowed"6 with an author or owner. Once authors

and their works were "placed in the system of property that

characterizes our society,"64 "once strict rules concerning


author's rights, author-publisher relations, rights of

reproduction, and related matters were enacted,"65 borrow-

ing became a scandal. To avoid charges of theft, authors

had to make great efforts to feign originality, to cover the

tracks of their borrowing.

In spite of all the energy writers have expended trying

to cover up the scandal of borrowing, few critical theorists

have been fooled. Especially in the twentieth century,

literary theorists have actively worked to demonstrate that

all writing is borrowed, that the concept of originality is

grounded in untenable assumptions. As Gilbert and Gubar

summarize, "That writers assimilate and then consciously

or unconsciously affirm or deny the achievements of their

predecessors is, of course, a central fact of literary

history, a fact whose aesthetic and metaphysical implica-

tions have been discussed in detail by theorists as diverse

as T.S. Eliot, M.H. Abrams, Erich Auerbach, and Frank


Even as notoriously conservative a critic as T.S.

Eliot, for example, writes in "Tradition and the Individual

Talent" of the widespread but misleading "tendency to in-

sist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work

in which he least resembles anyone else."67 Eliot explains

that if we put such prejudices aside, "we shall often find

that not only the best, but the most individual parts of

his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors,


assert their immortality most vigorously."68 Great poetry,

Eliot maintains, has little to do with a "realistic" trans-

lation of personal emotions into poetry: "It is not in his

personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events

in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or

interesting."69 Instead, great poetry is that which makes

most full use of the tradition of poetry, drawing existing

works into a new fusion of writing.

J. Hillis Miller and Bertolt Brecht go considerably

further than Eliot in exposing the baselessness of the

traditional concept of originality in authorship. Miller

approaches the issue by demonstrating the inevitability of

derivativeness in art. In "The Critic as Host," he states

that "The poem, however, any poem, is, it is easy to see,

parasitical in its turn on earlier poems, or contains

earlier poems as enclosed parasites within itself, in

another version of the perpetual reversal of parasite and

host."70 Thus, Miller more than defuses the charge of

parasitism by celebrating borrowing in artistic creation.

Brecht, on the other hand, broaches the topic by challenging

the traditional God-like authority of the author, saying,

"People are used to seeing poets as unique and slightly

unnatural beings who reveal with a truly god-like assurance

things that other people can only recognize after much sweat

and toil."71 As a practicing playwright, Brecht is in much

the same position that Stoppard found himself in when he


tried to convince Joan Juliet Buck that dramatists do not

write plays because they have some special, omniscient

understanding of life. Stoppard's mundane alternative to

the god-like playwright--the writer as a craftsperson with

a facility for language and dramatic structure--certainly

pales in comparison to the "unique and slightly unnatural

beings" of the popular view of the author, but Stoppard

apparently felt compelled to admit that playwrights are not

gods. Brecht follows his comment about god-like authors

with a similar admission: "It is naturally distasteful to

have to admit that one does not belong to this select band.

All the same, it must be admitted."72

Roland Barthes follows suit in viewing the God-like

Author and the privileging of originality as erroneous

critical notions and offers brief comments on the political

implications of revising these concepts. In his explora-

tion of the traditional concept of Authorship, Barthes

describes the old conception of the Author as being "in the

same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his

child,"73 using the metaphor of masculine procreation noted

by Gilbert and Gubar. Barthes contrasts the outdated

Author (a term he capitalizes to emphasize the traditional

link between the Author and God) to the contemporary

scriptor, who is seen as a weaver of codes, essentially a

collage-maker, rather than as the originator of his writing.

Like Eliot and Miller, Barthes acknowledges the impossibility


of originality in art, describing the text as "a tissue of

quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture,"74

and not drawn, as the old view had it, from the life ex-

periences of the Author. As Barthes explains, "We know now

that a text is not a line of words releasing a single

'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but

a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings,

none of them original, blend and clash."75

This revised view of the author demands a revision of

the critical activity, for if the Author is no longer seen

as the origin of his text, he can no longer provide the key

to determining its "meaning." "Once the Author is removed,"

Barthes explains, "the claim to decipher a text becomes

quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit

on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close

the writing."76 During the reign of the Author, the critic

sought to discover the Author beneath the work, thereby

"explaining" the work. But when the work is accepted as

a collage of existing writings, accepted as having many,

ultimately untraceable "origins," the critic can no longer

close the text by discovering its "single 'theological'

meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God)."77 Barthes

describes the revised task of the critic: "In the multi-

plicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing

deciphered; the structure can be followed, 'run' (like the

thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level,

but there is nothing beneath."78


Inasmuch as it contributes to a decentralization of

authority, Barthes sees "truly revolutionary" implications

in this revised critical activity: "In precisely this way

literature (it would be better from now on to say writing),

by refusing to assign a 'secret,' an ultimate meaning, to

the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be

called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is

truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in

the end, to refuse God and his hypostases--reason, science,

law."79 In Barthes's view, the authority vested in the

Author by the old model shuts out the reader, reducing him

or her to passively discovering the secret message encoded

in the text by the Author-God. Barthes's primary goal in

advocating "the Death of the Author" is to restore the

active role of readers, for under the revised model, readers

rather than writers are the locus of meaning: "The reader

is the space on which all the quotations that make up a

writing are inscribed without any of them being lost."80

In spite of his primary concern with restoring the

active role of readers, Barthes also sees a role for writers

in bringing about this desired revision. "Though the sway

of the Author remains powerful (the new criticism has often

done no more than consolidate it), it goes without saying

that certain writers have long since attempted to loosen

it."81 He cites the case of Mallarm4, in whose work "it is

language which speaks, not the author."82 Certainly Stoppard


numbers with Mallarm6 among those scriptors whose texts

illustrate that writing is always a collage of other texts

rather than some sort of direct transference of life ex-

periences into art. Unfortunately, the critical response

to Stoppard illustrates just as vividly that "the sway of

the Author remains powerful," for there has been all too

little recognition of Stoppard's strides in dismantling

the concept of the Author/Father/God and all too much con-

demnation of his plays for not rendering life experiences

"realistically" on the stage. This misreading has in turn

led critics to overlook the possibility of there being

"truly revolutionary" implications in Stoppard's demysti-

fication of the Author.

In his thought provoking essay, "The Discourse of

Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," Craig Owens also

investigates the political ramifications of dismantling the

"crisis of cultural authority, specifically of the authority

vested in Western European culture and its institutions"83

as the sine qua non of postmodernism and proceeds to raise

some compelling questions about the work of Sherrie Levine

that we might just as appropriately raise about Stoppard's

work. Levine takes photographs--Walker Evans's photographs

and Edward Weston's photographs--and redisplays them, much

as Stoppard takes Shakespeare's Hamlet, Beckett's Waiting

for Godot, and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and

replays them. Owens asks about Levine's work:


Is she simply dramatizing the diminished possi-
bilities for creativity in an image-saturated
culture, as is often repeated? Or is her refusal
of authorship not in fact a refusal of the role
of creator as "father" of his work of the paternal
rights assigned the author by law?84

Though Owens argues that such a refusal of authorship has a

different meaning when performed by a woman instead of a

man--"when women are concerned, similar techniques have very

different meanings" 85--it seems to me that Stoppard's bla-

tant borrowing amounts to a refusal of authorship quite

similar to Levine's: regardless of their respective genders,

the strategies of both seem equally clear-cut refusals of


Owens explores the political dimension of mastery as

he contrasts modernism and postmodernism. He characterizes

modernism as the era of the grands recits or master narra-

tives such as Marxism which sought to be the "single

theoretical discourse,"86 thought to provide the final

answer. In the postmodern era, "the grands recits of

modernity--the dialectic of the Spirit, the emancipation

of the worker, the accumulation of wealth, the classless

society--have all lost credibility."87 Owens is clearly

not sad to observe the passing of master narratives, for

he finds their effect far from liberating; in fact, he finds

them enslaving and imperialistic:

For what made the grands r4cits of modernity
master narratives if not the fact that they were
all narratives of mastery, of man seeking his
telos in the conquest of nature? What function


did these narratives play other than to legitimize
Western man's self-appointed mission of transform-
ing the entire planet in his own image?88

The desire of Western man for domination and control has

been palpably challenged in the twentieth century by "the

emergence of Third-World nations, the 'revolt of nature'

and the women's movement--that is, the voices of the con-

quered." At least two options are open to those faced

with the "tremendous loss of mastery"90 which characterizes

the postmodern era: "therapeutic programs, from both the
Left and the Right, for recuperating that loss" or the

more gracious and politically progressive, not to mention

inevitable, acceptance of this loss of mastery, even refusal

of mastery, as both Stoppard and Levine have done.

Owens's essay is invaluable for the light it sheds not

only on the specific critical response to Stoppard but also

on the larger, currently fashionable, but facile assumption

that adherence to Marxism serves as proof of political

progressivism. Owens's stinging indictment of the arrogance

underlying master narratives, of the arrogance of mastery

itself, helps provide the sort of perspective needed to go

beyond easy assumptions about what makes art political and

ask more enlightening questions about what is truly pro-

gressive. It goes without saying that Stoppard's politics

appear far less suspect when viewed in light of Owens's

remarks, for the blatant borrowing that characterizes

Stoppard's work seems more a deliberate refusal of the


mastery of authorship than a sign of incompetence and

inferiority. This reading of Stoppard's borrowing as a

refusal of mastery is buttressed by the playwright's re-

peated insistence that he does not write to present the

final truth to his audience. "I write plays because writing

dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting your-

self. I'm the kind of person who embarks on an endless

leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position,

rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation."92

Stoppard goes so far as to designate his lack of certainty

as the dominant characteristic of his work: "What I think

of as being my distinguishing mark is an absolute lack of
certainty about almost anything."93 Thus, it seems clear

that Stoppard is intent upon refusing the white robe and

beard of the God-like Author who creates his original master-

piece out of nothing and presents his audience with the

final "Truth."

While Owens's exploration is extraordinarily useful in

understanding the political implications of refusing Author-

ship, we still might feel compelled to wonder about the

remarkable vehemence of the attacks on Stoppard's work. Why

do critics so often assume a tone of moral indignation when

they discuss the derivativeness of his work? Why do disease

and parasite metaphors form such recurring motifs in the

condemnations? Why does the critical hierarchy favoring

originality over derivativeness continue to carry so much


weight in spite of an entire body of critical and creative

writing which establishes the impossibility, indeed the un-

desirability, of originality in art? What is at stake


What is at stake when an author borrows as boldly as

Stoppard does is something more than a specifically Romantic

notion of authorship. Such blatant borrowing is also more

than a mere transgression of property rights. Far from

being a relatively recent historical development, the aver-

sion to derivativeness, the fear of copies, reaches all the

way back at least to its codification in the second and

third chapters of Genesis, where we find, in fitting proxi-

mity to the first chapter's sacred tale of creation, the

still very influential story of the dangers of copied art.

As virtually every Westerner over the age of five knows,

"the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and

breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man be-

came a living soul."94 In contrast to Adam, who was

sculpted by God Himself, Eve is a mere copy made from

original man. "The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall

upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and

. . made he a woman."95 To underscore the difference

between Adam, God's original art work, and Eve, the copy,

Genesis presents Eve as a bodily creature while Adam is

specifically described as possessing a soul. When God

breathed life into Adam, "man became a living soul"96 (my


italics); but we search in vain for mention of Eve's soul

and find instead Adam's pronouncement: "This is now bone

of my bones and flesh of my flesh: and she shall be called

Woman because she was taken out of man."97

The connection between the manner of creation and the

relative status of the work in question is highlighted by

the Hebrew myth of Lilith, whose story is part of Jewish

lore, though not part of the authorized scriptures. Lilith

was Adam's first wife, but like him she was created by God

from the dust of the earth, and was not, therefore, copied

from the original. Since she was made in the same way as

Adam, Lilith "considered herself his equal" and "objected
to lying beneath him." When Adam tried to force Lilith

into submission, she ran away and refused to return even

after God vowed to put a hundred of her demon babies to

death every day until she submitted. Though the main func-

tion of the Lilith myth is undoubtedly to illustrate the

dangers of autonomous woman, it also points clearly to the

importance of the means of creation in determining the

status of what is created. When man and woman are both

created by God from the dust, as in the Lilith myth, both

are original creations and there is no relationship of

superiority and inferiority.

While the second chapter of Genesis points to the in-

herent superiority of original art (Adam has a soul while

derivative Eve is only body), the third chapter goes further


by warning of the dangers of giving in to the enticement

of a mere copy, the enticement of Eve, for it was Eve who

listened to the serpent and caused the fall of humanity.

The Scriptures describe the fall in terms of succumbing to

desire: "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for

food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to

be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof,

and did eat."00 When Eve, the derivative one, gave in to

sensual desire and the desire for knowledge, she enabled

culture to invade the inside of Eden, originary nature. But

the fall was not complete until Eve offered the fruit to

Adam, and man, made by God in his own image, succumbed to

the enticement of derivative woman, thereby corrupting the

soul of man forevermore.

In this manner, the widely disseminated myth teaches

that derivativeness is inferior to originality just as the

body is weaker than the soul and woman is inferior to man.

But derivativeness is more than just inferior to origin-

ality; it is a constant danger that threatens to corrupt

the soul and elicit God's wrath. Given the power of the

tale in Western culture, and given the countless reitera-

tions of the values embodied in the tale, it is no wonder

that the prejudice against derivativeness is so pervasive

and persistent.

Thus, one of the legacies of the Adam and Eve myth is

a powerful revulsion to derivativeness which manifests


itself in critical values. This deep-seated mistrust of

derivativeness clearly operates in Stoppard criticism,

fueling disease and parasite metaphors, feeding indignant

insistencies that Stoppard's derivative work should be

excluded from the canon, kept out of the garden of original

theater. The tone of moral indignation found in so much

anti-Stoppard criticism begins to make sense when we recog-

nize that original and derivative have never been innocent

critical terms, devoid of mcral and political implications.

Instead, the terms are caught up in an entire structure of

-c-als and values which are situated at the heart of the

vest:_n tradition.

Jacques Derrida refers to this structure as the "meta-

physics of presence" or "logocentrism." Translator Barbara

Johnson summarizes Derrida's view that Western thought "has

always been structured in terms of dichotomies or polari-
ties": original versus derivative, soul versus body,

man versus woman, good versus evil. The terms do not, how-

ever, enjoy equal status. As Derrida explains: "In a

traditional philosophical opposition we have not a peaceful

coexistence of terms but a violent hierarchy. One of the

terms dominates the other (axiologically, logically, etc.),

occupies the commanding position."102 In the original/

derivative hierarchy, it is originality which dominates and

commands, drawing its power from a whole framework of sup-

porting opposition in which good, man, and soul occupy

commanding positions over evil, woman, and body.


These hierarchies are instances of the "metaphysics

of presence" or "logocentricism" because the first terms

in the above list of pairs--original, soul, man, good--are

seen as being in a position of relative proximity to

presence, to God, to logos, or to a source. Derrida explains

that "all the terms related to fundamentals, to principles,

or to the center have always designated the constant of

presence-- . consciousness or conscience, God, man, and

so forth."03 While the first or favored terms have in

common the constant of presence, the second terms in the

li3t--derivative, body, woman, evil--are devalued because

tiey _re defined by their removal from presence. The Adam

and Eve myth provides a vivid manifestation of this

phenomenon: man, possessor of a soul, was made directly

by God and is, therefore, defined by his nearness to the

source, to logos, while bodily woman, the disfavored member

of the pair, was made from Adam and is thus defined by her

removal from the presence of God, the source. "Original"

art is likewise favored because it is seen as stemming

immediately from the Author-source while derivative art

is disfavored because it is seen as being removed from the

Author-source inasmuch as it is "copied" from other art.

Derrida and other deconstructionists, including many

feminist critical theorists, seek to dismantle such

philosophical and critical hierarchies. Perhaps the first

step in deconstructing a hierarchy is "to work through the


structural genealogy of [the] concepts in the most scrupulous
and immanent fashion"104 in order to demonstrate "the sys-

tematic and historical solidarity of the concepts and

gestures of thought that one often believes can be inno-

cently separated.05 By tracing, for example, the original/

derivative hierarchy back to its codification in the Book of

Origins, we reveal the complicities between the favoring of

originality over derivativeness and the favoring of man,

soul, and good over woman, body, and evil. While we are

accustomed to thinking of originality and derivativeness as

merely innocent critical terms, terms without moral or

political significance, deconstruction brings the recogni-

tion that the original/derivative hierarchy cannot be

innocently separated from the hierarchies which support

it--and these supporting hierarchies (man/woman, soul/body)

have moral and political implications which are impossible

to overlook.

In On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler focuses on the

importance of this kind of recognition in his discussion of

the impact of deconstruction on literary criticism: "By

disrupting the hierarchical relations on which critical

concepts and methods depend, [deconstruction] prevents con-

cepts and methods from being taken for granted and treated

as simply reliable instruments. Critical categories are

not just tools to be employed in producing sound interpre-

tations but problems to be explored."06 Rather than


accepting critical tools as reliable instruments, decon-

struction often works by "revealing the interested,

ideological nature of [the impositions]"107 on which critical

concepts and methods depend. In this manner, Culler explains,

deconstruction "can be seen as a politicizing of what might

otherwise be thought a neutral framework."108 An important

distinction must be made here. A deconstructive move does

not suddenly transform a neutral, apolitical discourse into

a politicized one. Instead, deconstruction encourages the

recognition that literary criticism has always been inter-

ested and ideological, even though these political implica-

tions have long been ignored. In "The Conflict of Facul-

ties," Derrida explains that while many people will be

incapable of tapping the political potential of deconstruc-

tion, this political potential is nevertheless there:

deconstruction is "at the very least, a way of taking a

position, in its work of analysis, concerning the political

and institutional structures that make possible and govern

our practices, our competencies, our performances. . .

This means that, too political for some, it will seem

paralyzing to those who only recognize politics by its most

familiar roadsigns."109

Fortunately, many feminist critical theorists have

avoided both traps. Recognizing the obvious political

implications of logocentrism's disfavoring of women, they

have worked to reveal the ways in which the metaphysics of


presence, or to use the Derridean term they prefer,

"phallogocentrism unites an interest in patriarchal author-

ity, unity of meaning, and certainty of origin."110 These

are precisely the concerns which have been so central to

the critique of Stoppard's work: according to the tradi-

tional view, the derivativeness of Stoppard's plays makes

their origin highly uncertain, thereby disrupting their

unity of meaning and reducing their patriarchal authority.

Feminist critical theorists have simply not accepted the

traditional view of authorship implied in such an assess-

me't. Instead, they "investigate whether the procedures,

assumptions, and goals of current criticism are in complicity

with the preservation of male authority."111

Their investigation of this complicity has followed

many avenues, but perhaps none is more pertinent to an

assessment of Stoppard's work than the investigation of the

assumptions underlying the traditional view of the author.

From a feminist perspective, the all-encompassing concern

with certainty of origin in authorship seems symptomatic of

a transference to the critical realm of masculine anxieties

about procreation and legitimacy. Culler summarizes

Dorothy Dinnerstein's observation that "fathers, because

of their lack of direct physical connection with babies,

have a powerful urge to assert a relation, giving the child

their name to establish a genealogical link."'12 In addi-

tion, men have traditionally made great "efforts to control


the sexual life of women to make sure that the children

they sponsor really do come from their own seed."113

Patriarchal criticism adopts these bio-sexual concerns,

treating the text as the author-father's child, assigning

the author-father legal rights to the text, and as is clearly

seen in Stoppard criticism, treating any text of uncertain

origin as a bastard-text.

Undoubtedly, then, the traditional model of authorship

is interested on many, if not all levels, and the interests

it represents are too clear to require further comment.

Recognizing that the model is indeed interested and ideo-

logical, we move closer to understanding why the model re-

mains so powerful even though so many critical theorists

have shown it to be a highly misleading critical tool. As

Eliot realized, the tendency to praise what is "original"

and "individual" in art leads us to overlook the very thing

that made the work "great"--the work's incorporation of

existing writing. By continuing to insist on originality

in art, by clinging to a theological jodel of authorship,

critics misrepresent the process of artistic creation, for

earthly authors have never created ex nihilo. The one truly

original act of creation is mythic, and critics could pro-

ceed more productively if this mythic model were placed


Furthermore, a look at the canon indicates that the

standard of originality has always been inconsistently


applied, revealing that critics have, perhaps necessarily,

been of two minds on the issue. Oedipus Tyrranos, for

example, has long been highly valued even though we know

that Sophocles wrought the play from widely known material.

We value the play as much for its incorporation of cultural

values, made possible because the play is derivative, as

for its excellent craft. Similarly, we know that Shakespeare

made Hamlet from earlier versions of Hamlet, that Beckett

and Brecht draw heavily on existing theatrical traditions

to make their plays. "Stylistically speaking, there is

nothing all that new about the epic theatre," Brecht ex-

plains. "Its expository character and its emphasis on

virtuosity bring it close to the old Asiatic theatre.

Didactic tendencies are to be found in the medieval mystery

plays and the classical Spanish theatre, and also in the

theatre of the Jesuits.14 With the possible exception of

medieval mystery plays, the sources Brecht names are all

relatively unfamiliar to most of us, suggesting that we do

not readily recognize these sources when we watch a per-

formance of a Brecht play. Similarly, due to historical

distancing, we may not readily recognize the sources

Sophocles and Shakespeare used. This distance from or

unfamilarity with sources makes it possible for us to join

the critics, the keepers of the canon, in forgetting, will-

fully or otherwise, the highly derivative nature of plays

we value. This "forgetting," in turn, allows us simul-

taneously to value derivative plays and to value originality


in art. If we could cast aside the blinders imposed by the

theological model of authorship, we might resolve this

contradiction by seeing that derivativeness is far more

essential to the art we value than originality.

We might see further that the insistence on originality

poses a far greater threat to the garden of theater, to the

canon, than the misplaced fear of derivativeness. Though

we are indeed fortunate that, through the process of "for-

getting," many plays have escaped censure for derivative-

ness, the canon remains at risk nevertheless, for as long

as critics insist on the phallogocentric model as the sole,

legitimate model, we risk exclusion of any play that does

not conform to this rigid, interested prescription. Since

the model is exclusively masculine, it works toward the

exclusion of all non-masculine authors. Another look at

the canon reveals the paucity of women playwrights, and we

recognize that the model works first to discourage women

from writing (lacking a penis, she cannot hope to effec-

tively wield a pen, the patriarchs have often repeated5,

and then, for those few who overcome an entire tradition

and write anyway, it works to cast their writing as suspect,

illegitimate, or parasitic.

Moreover, the model works to exclude male authors such

as Stoppard who choose an authorial strategy other than the

single, legitimate one prescribed by the model. Of course,

Stoppard's plays have not in fact been shut out of the


canon--they are widely anthologized, frequently performed,

and constantly written about. But the plays have been

accepted in spite of widespread, lingering suspicion that

their derivativeness is a weakness that detracts from their

artistic merit. Robert Egan accurately describes the evolu-

tion in the critical response to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Are Dead by noting that although "we are well beyond Robert

Brustein's early charge of 'theatrical parasitism,'" "several

studies that have since appeared echo Brustein's definition

(though without the pejorative sense) of Stoppard's play in

terms of Beckett's."116 The same sort of evolution can be

traced in the critical response to other Stoppard plays: in

general, while critics no longer openly denounce the plays

as inferior theatrical parasites, they still tend to

apologize for Stoppard's derivativeness, tend to explain

away the open borrowing as an unfortunate weakness in

otherwise worthy plays.

What has been lacking in Stoppard criticism, though,

is the vital next step in this evolution, namely, the

recognition that Stoppard's borrowing is a thing greatly

to be desired. Far from being an unfortunate weakness,

Stoppard's derivativeness' is an integral part of his multi-

level challenge to the traditional model of originality, a

model that is politically conservative, morally suspect,

and highly misleading as a critical tool. Because Stoppard

so vividly foregrounds his borrowing, he forces us to come


to terms with the inevitable derivativeness of all writing.

We cannot watch or read a Stoppard play and leave with our

functioning ambivalence intact: the plays do not allow us

the convenient process of "forgetting" that art is deriva-

tive. Not only are we confronted with unmistakably borrowed

material--undisguised segments from Hamlet, The Importance

of Being Earnest, Eliot's poetry, and whatever else was in

Stoppard's hat when he assembled the play in question--but

we are also, via the content of the plays, drawn into ex-

tended consideration of the nature of authorship. Rosen-

crantz and Guildenstern Are Dead asks us to consider the

author's role in determining the fate of characters as the

usually buried metaphor equating the playwright with God,

the source of fate, is exhumed, opened up for investigation.

In Travesties, we face squarely the question of the origin

of art, as "authors" with widely diverging political views

all nevertheless make their art in the same way--by pulling

it out of a hat. The Real Thing coyly tempts us to identify

Henry, the character-playwright, with Stoppard, the "real"

playwright, and then pulls the rug out from under us

repeatedly as the play discredits the view of authorship

implicit in such identification.

By reading Stoppard's open derivativeness as a challenge

to the traditional model of authorship, we gain a more

integrated understanding of the relationship between the

form and content of his plays, and we move, not incidentally,


toward a more productive, less prejudiced set of critical

tools. Moreover, we lose nothing in the process, for in

leaving behind the theological, phallocentric model of

authorship, we assign to the scrap heap a model that has

always been highly misleading, has always misrepresented the

process of artistic creation. And as we scrap this outdated

model, we also move closer to dismantling the related

original/derivative hierarchy that has likewise always been

more a morality laden pair of blinders than a useful tool

for assessing the value of art.


Tom Stoppard, Travesties (New York: Grove Press,
1975), p. 18. All further quotations refer to this edition
and will be cited parenthetically within the text. Unless
otherwise noted, ellipses are Stoppard's.

2Jim Hunter, Tom Stoppard's Plays (London: Faber and
Faber, 1982), p. 240. Hunter provides a full "translation"
from nonsense to French to English of Tzara's opening
four-line poem.

3David Bratt, Introduction to Tom Stoppard: A
Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982), p. xviii.

Bratt, p. xviii.

5Robert Brustein, "Waiting for Hamlet," New Republic,
4 November 1967, p. 25.

6Brustein, "Waiting," p. 26.

Brustein, "Waiting," p. 26.

8Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind," in The
Norton Introduction to Literature, shorter 3rd ed., eds.
Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter (New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1982), p. 497.


Christopher Nichols, "Theater: R & G: A Minority
Report," National Review, 12 December 1967, p. 1394.

1R.H. Lee, "The Circle and Its Tangent," Theoria: A
Journal of Studies in the Arts, Humanities and Social
Sciences 33 (October 1969): 37-43.

1C.O. Gardner, "Correspondence: Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead," Theoria: A Journal of Studies in
the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences 34 (May 1970): 83.

2Gardner, p. 83.

13John Simon, "Theater Chronicle," Hudson Review 29
(Spring 1976): 79.

14Simon, p. 79.

15Philip Roberts, "Tom Stoppard: Serious Artist or
Siren?" Critical Quarterly 20 (Autumn 1978): 86-87.
Roberts, p. 87.
'Robert Brustein, "Robert Brustein on Theater: A
Theater for Clever Journalists," New Republic, 5 January
1980, p. 23.
18Brustein, "Clever Journalists, p. 23.
19Brustein, "Clever Journalists," p. 23.

20Joan Juliet Buck, "Tom Stoppard: Kind Heart and
Prickly Mind," Vogue, March 1984, p. 454.
21ck, p. 514.
2Buck, p. 514.
Buck, p. 514.

23Tom Stoppard, "Ambushes for the Audience: Toward a
High Comedy of Ideas," Theatre Quarterly 4 (May-July
1974): 13.

24Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 12.
25Hunter, p. 197.
2Hunter, p. 197.

27Kenneth Tynan, "Profile: Withdrawing with Style from
the Chaos," New Yorker, 19 December 1977, p. 43.
28Tynan, p. 43.
Tynan, p. 43.


29Tynan, p. 42.
3Tynan, p. 42.

Tynan, p. 42.

31Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a
Moral Matrix (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1981),
p. 108.

3Hunter, p. 197.

3Tynan, p. 45.
3Victor L. Cahn, Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom
Stoppard (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press,
1979), p. 143.
35Cahn, p. 155.
3Cahn, p. 155.

3Cahn, p. 155.

SCarol Billman, "The Art of History in Tom Stoppard's
Travesties," Kansas Quarterly 12 (Fall 1980): 52.

39Bobbie Rothstein, "The Reappearance of Public Man:
Stoppard's Jumpers and Professional Foul," Kansas Quarterly
12 (Fall 1980): 35.
40Rothstein, p. 40.
4Rothstein, p. 40.

4Rothstein, p. 40.


4Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 11.

44Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 11.

4Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 11.

46Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 11.

47Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 12.

48Stoppard, "Ambushes," p. 12.

49Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), p. 24.

50Eagleton, p. 24. Eagleton is summarizing and con-
curring with an argument made by Georg Lukacs.


5Genesis 1:1, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, revised
standard version, eds. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977).

52Genesis 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1:11, 1:20, 1:24, and 1:29,
The New Oxford Annotated Bible.

53The New Oxford Annotated Bible, footnote, p. 1.

5I use the definitions offered by the Compact Edition
of the Oxford English Dictionary.

55Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in
the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 4.
56Gilbert and Gubar, p. 5.

57Gilbert and Gubar, p. 5.

58Gilbert and Gubar, p. 6.

59William Wordsworth, "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," in
Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (Atlanta:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), p. 441.
60Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?" in Textual
Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism,
ed. Joseu Harari (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979),
p. 148.
61Foucault, p. 148.

6Foucault, p. 148.

63Foucault, p. 149.

64Foucault, p. 149.

65Foucault, p. 148.

66Gilbert and Gubar, p. 46.
67T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (Atlanta:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), p. 784.

6Eliot, p. 784.

6Eliot, p. 787.

70J. Hillis Miller, "The Limits of Pluralism. III. The
Critic as Host," Critical Inquiry 3 (Spring 1977): 446.


71Bertolt Brecht, "Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for
Instruction," in Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willet (New
York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 73.

7Brecht, p. 73.

73Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," in Image-
Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang,
1977), p. 145.

74Barthes, p. 146.

7Barthes, p. 146.

76Barthes, p. 147.
77Barthes, p. 146.
7Barthes, p. 147.

79Barthes, p. 147.

0Barthes, p. 148.

81Barthes, p. 143.
8Barthes, p. 143.
8Barthes, p. 148.

Postmodernism" in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern
Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay
Press, 1983), p. 57.
84Owens, p. 73.

85Owens, p. 73.

86Owens, p. 64.

87Owens, p. 64. Owens refers to Jean-Francois Lyotard,
La condition postmodern (Paris: Minuit, 1979), p. 8.

88Owens, pp. 65-66.

8Owens, p. 67.

9Owens, p. 67.

91Owens, p. 67.

92Mel Gussow, "Stoppard Refutes Himself, Endlessly,"
New York Times, 26 April 1972, p. 54.


9Cited in Ronald Hayman, Tom Stoppard, Contemporary
Playwrights Series, 3rd ed. (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1979), p. 40.
9Genesis 2:7. All further biblical references are to
the Kind James Version.

9Genesis 2:21-22.

9Genesis 2:7.

9Genesis 2:23.
98Gilbert and Gubar, p. 35.
9Gilbert and Gubar, p. 35.
Gilbert and Gubar, p. 35.

100Genesis 3:6.

0Barbara Johnson, Translator's Introduction to Dis-
semination, by Jacques Derrida (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago
Press, 1981), p. viii.
J0acques Derrida, Positions, quoted by Jonathan
Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after
Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), p. 85.
Jacques Derrida, L'ecriture et la difference, quoted
in Translator's Preface to Of Grammatology by Jacques
Derrida, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), p. xxi.

104Jacques Derrida, Positions, quoted in Culler, p. 86.

1Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 13-14.
Culler, p. 180.

07Culler, p. 166.

108Culler, p. 156.

109Derrida, "The Conflict of Faculties," quoted in
Culler, p. 156.
110Culler, p. 61.
lllCuller, p. 61.

112Culler, p. 60.
Culler, p. 60.


3Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur:
Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper &
Row, 1977), p. 80.

114Brecht, pp. 75-76.

5Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate in the introduction
to The Madwoman in the Attic the consistent linking of the
pen with the penis. See pages 3-16.

6Robert Egan, "A Thin Beam of Light: The Purpose of
Playing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Theatre
Journal 31 (March 1979): 59.


Dislocation of an audience's assumptions is an
important part of what I like to write.

--Tom Stoppard1

Even before the curtain rises on Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard has begun the process of

dislocating his audience's assumptions, for the very title

indicates a central, "dislocating" fact about the play, the

fact that has been at the heart of the critical controversy

surrounding Stoppard's first major stage success: the play

is derivative. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are drawn, not

from life, but from art. And once the curtain rises, this

dislocation of assumptions continues unabated as we realize

that Stoppard is not only replaying Hamlet, but is incor-

porating essential elements of Waiting for Godot as well.

Stoppard's borrowing operates at virtually all levels, from

the all-encompassing frame of Hamlet, to repetitions of

Hamlet as the play-within-the-play, to the Beckettian

scenario of two men waiting on a vacant stage, to specific

echoes of lines from Hamlet, Godot, and other works. This

blatant and pervasive borrowing specifically dislocates



assumptions about originality in art, for Stoppard clearly

makes no effort to pretend that Rosencrantz is an unmediated

representation of life. Such an implicit challenge to the

primacy of originality in art in turn raises questions about

the concept of authorship and the nature of representation

(what do authors do if not look at life and then represent

it in art?), questions which, not coincidentally, have a

direct bearing on the major thematic issues explored within

the play.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, modelled after Vladimir

and Estragon, caught up in the script of Hamlet, develop an

interest in sources and origins, and as we join them in

trying to determine where they came from, the derivativeness

of the play intensifies the futility of our joint search,

for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like the play, have no

single origin. The play's derivativeness intervenes in the

same way as we participate in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's

search for their end, their fate. Stoppard juxtaposes the

Renaissance tragic vision of Hamlet (death is part of a

grand design) with the modern absurdist vision of Godot

(death is as meaningless as life), unmasking both, reveal-

ing them as artificial constructs based upon different

assumptions about life, neither of which is endorsed as a

uniquely valid way of representing reality. This juxta-

position leaves us, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with

no firm ground to stand on as we try to explain their


deaths. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die because, as the

Player explains, "It is written"2--no God, not even an

absent Godot, only an implied author passively assembling

an already written story. Thus, the whole concept of fate

is thoroughly undermined as Stoppard refuses us the stable

ground of a fixed theatrical mode which corresponds to life;

the end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is refracted and

reflected through layers of art which may not at all be

rooted in a valid relationship with life. Lest we try to

push aside the realization that both the origin and the end

of Rosencrantz and Guildensternare art, not life, Stoppard

foregrounds debates, discussions, and demonstrations con-

cerning the possibilities and limitations of illusion and

representation. Guildenstern tells a series of stories

espousing the virtues of believing in an illusion which is

clearly at odds with reality; the Player teaches several

lessons concerning the conventions of the theater; and we

see "death" performed repeatedly in a variety of theatrical

modes only to hear the performance critiqued by the onstage

audience immediately afterwards. In the end, the deaths of

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become an opening into the

question of how the theater works, and the assumptions

audiences traditionally rely on to frame their responses

are completely dislocated.

While it seems clear that Stoppard's blatantly deriva-

tive authorial strategy is a uniquely well-suited vehicle


for exploring the issues raised within the play, surprisingly

enough, critics are only beginning to ask the rather old-

fashioned New Critical question of how the form works with

the content of Rosencrantz. Critics have for the most part

overlooked the relationship between the outside and the

inside, addressing either the derivativeness of the play or

its content, but only rarely asking whether the two work

together in any special way. Early reviewers often focused

on Stoppard's derivativeness, and they found nothing to

admire. Robert Brustein's complaints are easily the most

well-known--he labelled the play a "theatrical parasite,

feeding off Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, and Six Characters

in Search of an Author" and rechristened it "Waiting for

Hamlet"4--but his was by no means a lonely, dissenting

voice. C.O. Gardner joined the chorus of condemnations,

denouncing the play as "a swill, composed of second-hand

Beckett, third-hand Kafka, and the goon show,"5 and, as

such, thoroughly unworthy of "serious critical attention."

Likewise, Christopher Nichols found the play's stage suc-

cess surprising since he saw "no stinging innovation"7 in

Rosencrantz. According to the early critical consensus,

then, the derivativeness of Stoppard's play constituted an

artistic weakness of the most grave nature, a weakness of

sufficient magnitude to relegate the play to the ash-heap.

Instead of fading into oblivion, however, Rosencrantz

is, as Robert Egan observes (borrowing one of the play's


own lines), "gathering weight as it goes on."8 As the play

began to show signs of becoming a "modern classic," the

critical response slowly grew more accommodating, but the

legacy of Brustein's charge has continued to haunt the play.

Normand Berlin saw some good in the play, arguing in

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Theater of Criti-

cism" that "what Stoppard does best" is "to help us realize

'how remarkable Shakespeare is.'"10 But while Berlin thought

the play might succeed as criticism of Hamlet, he thought

it largely failed as a play, agreeing whole-heartedly with

Brustein's assessment: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Are Dead is a derivative play, correctly characterized by

Robert Brustein as a 'theatrical parasite.'"' After re-

peating Brustein's version of the play's genealogy, he

elaborated, "Stoppard goes to Shakespeare for his charac-

ters, for the background to his play's action, and for some

direct quotations, to Pirandello for the idea of giving

extradramatic life to established characters, to Beckett

for the tone, the philosophical thrust, and for some comic

routines."12 Berlin's move toward some sort of critical

accommodation is clearly a small step, for while it is true

that criticism is an important part of Rosencrantz, Berlin

sees this critical element as strictly limited to an eluci-

dation of Hamlet rather than as an exploration of the

tragic genre and even of the nature of theater, and more

importantly, he retains the assumption that criticism is


itself basically parasitical, so that Stoppard's play about

art is less worthy than a play about life.

As the play continued to gather more weight, critics

largely dropped the condemnations of Stoppard's borrowing

as they embarked on detailed source studies, treating

Stoppard's borrowing in much the same way they might treat

Chaucer's or Shakespeare's borrowing in the pre-Romantic

period, before criticism began to place such a premium on

"originality" in art. Margarete Holubetz, for example,

argued that the fake death scene in Webster's The White

Devil is very close to, and may have served as a source for,

the fake death scene in Rosencrantz13 while Ruby Cohn, in

Modern Shakespeare Offshoots, detailed the evidence of

Stoppard's thinking about two bit-players from Hamlet

"through the absurdist twilight of Beckett's Godot."14 "In

performance," she observed, "the Godot quality of Stoppard's

couple is evident in their music-hall exchanges, their

games, their boredom, their lack of memory, and their

general uncertainty about their condition."15 Cohn accu-

rately noted other similarities between Godot and Rosen-

crantz: "In both plays, two friends ask each other ques-

tions, tell each other stories, play with puns, cliches,

pauses, repetitions, and impersonations.16 Cohn found

that, "more obviously than Beckett, Stoppard introduces

philosophy into the music-hall patter of his pair," and

she deemed this philosophical dimension valuable. But her


summary of Stoppard's use of source plays contained hints

that the earlier bias against the borrowing in Rosencrantz

was still at work: "Extremely skillful in dovetailing the

Hamlet scenes into the Godot situation, Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead is a witty commentary rather than a

theatrical exploration into either great work."18 While

the source plays are great, her comments suggested, the

derivative Rosencrantz is merely witty.

Ronald Hayman and Jill L. Levenson similarly wrote of

Stoppard's play in terms of source material, observing the

borrowing without condemning it, and even, in the case of

Levenson, praising the derivativeness as a source of textual

richness. Noting that "the public was ready for a depar-

ture from the mould of working-class anti-hero that John

Osborne had established in 1956,"19 Mayman argued that

"Stoppard appeared at the right moment with his beautifully

engineered device for propelling two attendant lords into

the foreground."20 "Stoppard," Hayman continued, "was not

the first playwright to incorporate generous slabs of

Shakesperian dialogue into a modern text, but he was the

boldest and the cleverest."21 Writing in Shakespeare Survey,

Levenson began by observing that

As soon as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are
Dead appeared in performance, reviewers and
academic commentators recognized its derivation
not only from Shakespeare's Hamlet, but also
from Beckett's Waiting for Godot. They have
noticed other influences as well: Pirandello,


T.S. Eliot, Wilde, Kafka, and Pinter have left
theatrical or literary traces, and Ludwig
Wittgenstein's late Investigations provide
philosophical bearings.2

In Levenson's view, Stoppard's borrowing served as both "a

means for solving practical problems of composition" 23and

a source of allusions and reverberations that make the text

richer. Hamlet provided Stoppard with "a familiar text

whose interpretation he could share with his audience,"24

and his many other sources worked with Hamlet as threads

which converge or, to use Levenson's preferred image, "trans-
parencies stacked on top of one another."25 Levenson saw

Stoppard's borrowing as a major source of "the wit which
has continually engaged Stoppard's audiences,"2 a wit

which "arises not only from his verbal ingenuity but also

from the meeting of points--sometimes whole lines--in the

Undoubtedly, these more recent studies of Stoppard's

use of sources are far more productive than the earlier

blanket condemnations of Stoppard's theatrical parasitism,

but we need at this point to take heed of William E. Gruber's

words of caution about accepting even this more fruitful

approach as an adequate frame for discussing Stoppard's

play, which Gruber believes "has no clear theatrical prece-

dent."28 Reviewing the commentaries of Cohn, Hayman, and

Thomas Whitaker, Gruber observes, "Such language--'skillful

in dovetailing,' 'beautifully engineered,' 'clever pastiche'--

condemns while it praises, subtly labeling Stoppard's play


as a derivative piece of workmanship."29 He continues with

a most accurate comment about the critical response to art

in general: "We tend to mistrust anything which is not

obviously new, not wholly original."30 And I could not

agree more with Gruber's observation that "Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead ought to cause us to acknowledge some

inadequacies in the vocabulary we currently use to discuss

plays,"31 for "a workshop vocabulary proves unable to explain

what occurs when the script of Hamlet mingles with the
script of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.32 The

scope of this problem becomes acutely apparent when we

read, for example, Richard Corballis's conclusion to the

Rosencrantz chapter in his 1984 Stoppard: The Mystery and

the Clockwork. Seeking to praise the play at the end of a

chapter which fruitfully examines Stoppard's conflation of

Hamlet and Godot, Corballis must, in the absence of more

appropriately descriptive terminology, resort to a vocabu-

lary that does not at all describe how Rosencrantz works:

"Stoppard," he writes, "created an original masterpiece."3

In spite of these "vocabulary" problems--and I submit

that this weakness in critical terminology is rooted in an

underlying conceptual problem that cannot be entirely re-

solved by a mere substitution of words--three studies that

have appeared since 1979 (including Corballis's) repre-

sent major strides in the evolution of the critical response

to Rosencrantz. All three critics, Robert Wilcher, Corballis,


and Michael Hinden, treat Stoppard's borrowing as an integral

part of the play, praising his incorporation of a Renais-

sance world view, via Hamlet, into the absurdist vision of


Robert Wilcher's 1979 "The Museum of Tragedy: Endgame

and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," the earliest of

the studies, may be most properly classified as a transition

essay, for Wilcher retains a central feature of older

approaches to the play, namely, the viewing of Stoppard's

play in terms of Shakespeare's. "My chief purpose," he

states, "is to see what light is thrown on the plays of

Beckett and Stoppard by reading them in the context of

Hamlet in particular and of the tradition of tragic art

alluded to by Hamm [in Endgame] in general."34 But Wilcher's

reading clearly goes beyond the view of Brustein and com-

pany, who see Rosencrantz as an inferior parasite feeding

off great plays, and beyond that of Berlin as well, for

Wilcher reads the play as a window onto the entire tradition

of tragedy rather than as a commentary only on Hamlet, and

he does not work from the assumption that the play's cri-

tical function is essentially parasitical. Instead, he

suggests that his study of the relationship between the

tradition of tragedy and Rosencrantz and Endgame may "have

some bearing upon the death or survival of tragedy in the

modern age."35 Thus, Wilcher sees the contemporary plays

as potentially life-giving rather than as life-sapping



Wilcher begins by observing that "tragedy is no longer

viable as an art-form in the mid-twentieth century"36 since

the ethical conventions and Providential world order they

rely on are no longer part of a broadly shared cultural con-

sensus. Rosencrantz, he argues, raises "the question of the

relation of modern drama to the tragic art of the past quite

explicitly."37 Since Stoppard cannot rely on the shared

Providential world view which previously provided the basis

for the structure of tragedy, he substitutes the script of

Hamlet as an alternative "for a cultural consensus about

the nature and meaning of the universe."38 By incorporating

"fragments of Shakespeare's play"39 into the action,

Stoppard presents "the script as a viable theatrical alter-

native to Destiny or Grade."40

But Stoppard's substitution is not designed to keep

alive a mode of theater that has outlived its usefulness;

it works instead as an expansion of the insights Pirandello

offered about the theater. The traditional "distinction

between the reality of life and the unreality of the stage

has been blurred and inverted in the twentieth century"41

so that, after Pirandello, all the world is no longer a
stage, "but the stage is itself a world with its own laws."42

Whereas in the Renaissance tragedy reflected a shared view

of the world as essentially orderly, in the twentieth

century, only art is orderly, and the orderly world of the

stage reflects only the order of art, not of life, which is


viewed as fundamentally chaotic. Stoppard's play differs

from Pirandello's in that Stoppard does not have to "tell us

the story in which his Characters [are] trapped as he [goes]

along."43 He "can rely on his audience's knowledge of the

source play, Hamlet."44

Thus, Wilcher argues, "The universe of the modern

characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is not the Renais-

sance macrocosm of Prince Hamlet, Shakespeare, and the

Elizabethan-audience, but Hamlet the play--and it is impor-

tant to stress again that it is not a view of the world but

a familiarity with Hamlet that is shared by Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern, Stoppard, and the twentieth-century audience."45

By using Hamlet as a "formal equivalent for the agreement

between dramatist and audience on which tragedy depends,"46

Stoppard's presentation of the deaths of Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern becomes an opening onto the workings of tragedy

and of the theater as a whole. Why, Wilcher asks, "should

Shakespeare bother to tell us what happened to two insig-

nificant attendant lords?"47 "Such is the fate of those

who inhabit the world of the stage," we realize, "where

aesthetic laws apply as well as moral ones."48 The divinity

that shapes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's ends, unlike the

Divinity that shapes Hamlet's end, does not extend beyond

the world of the stage. While the death of Hamlet reaches

out of the play to confirm a world view, the deaths of

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no less in Shakespeare's


play than in Stoppard's, are mandated by the order of art,

which requires that there be no loose ends. While Wilcher

suggests that Stoppard's confirmation of the order of art

allows us to "still share a belief in the creative power of

the artist"49 in an age "when we may doubt the existence of

a Creator or a Providence,"50 I believe Stoppard's extension

of Pirandello's strategy may have the opposite effect. In-

stead of reinforcing the Author/Father/God topos, Stoppard

unmasks the model, revealing that the deaths of Rosencrantz

and Guildenstern never had any connection to Providence,

that Shakespeare was not so much presenting Divinity at work

as simply tying up a thread in the plot in order to produce

a well-made, orderly play.

In his 1980 "Extending the Audience: The Structure of

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (which he revises

slightly for his book on Stoppard), Richard Corballis begins

with a different emphasis but treats Stoppard's use of

Hamlet in much the same way as Wilcher. Noting that critics

who do not accept Brustein's assessment of the play tend

to accept Berlin's, Corballis dissents, arguing that "al-

though the 'overt' themes of the play may look derivative,

'forced and jejune' on the page, I have always found them

highly effective and even moving in the theatre.51 He

similarly rejects the consensus that Stoppard communicates

his themes "by sheer 'rhetoric'"52 and suggests that

"Stoppard has contrived a very sophisticated strategy for


the presentation of his ideas."53 This strategy is, of

course, Stoppard's incorporation of Hamlet into the "mani-

festly bizarre"54 world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Corballis also finds inadequate the standard explanation

of Stoppard's use of Hamlet--"Stoppard's play turns

Shakespeare's inside out"55 so that the bit-players,

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, move to the center, usurping

Prince Hamlet and pushing him to the periphery--for it

"implies that Stoppard tinkered (albeit ingeniously) with

an (or should I say the?) established dramatic masterpiece

for no better reason than that 'it was there.'"5

For Corballis, "the play is based upon a much more

substantial foundation than this";57 namely, "the inversion

of the Hamlet action is merely a symptom of a thoroughgoing

inversion of conventional assumptions about life."58

Corballis essentially argues that, "as a result of 'the

death of tragedy' in modern times, Hamlet had to be re-

defined."59 Stoppard redefines tragedy by juxtaposing the

disorderly world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the

orderly world of Hamlet so that the modern couple is "por-

trayed as an extension of the audience and therefore as

'real' people"60 while "the Hamlet characters . are

made to appear all the more artificial, stagy, and 'un-

real.'"61 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin the play as

spectators of Hamlet, but as they are gradually drawn into

the script, the "fortuitous" gives way to the "ordained"


(Corballis borrows a line from Guildenstern here) as their

random, Beckettian world is taken over by the Providential

world of Hamlet, which "comes to symbolize the 'ordaining'

power over which Stoppard's protagonists struggle to impose

a measure of personal control."62

Corballis explains that the Players work at first as

a link "between the real world of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern

and the audience and the artificial, stage-world of

Hamlet,63 but "they make one decisive shift--late in Act 1--

from the 'real' to the 'artificial'"64 so that they serve "to

develop the abstract antithesis between the world of Hamlet

and the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into a dramatic

confrontation full of fear and menace." In Corballis's

view, the contrast between these two worlds "constitutes

the core of Stoppard's play,"66 for the Hamlet "world (un-

like the 'real' world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) has

form and meaning; and death (which so perplexes Rosencrantz

and Guildenstern) is an accepted part of its design."67

While Corballis's reading provides insight into the

function of the Hamlet script, I am not comfortable with

his classification of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "real"

(even though he calls the term into question by using

quotation marks), for they seem every bit as stagy and

artificial as the Hamlet characters, perhaps more so, since

they are doubly derived from art (and thus emphatically

removed from life), existing as the conflation of


Shakespeare's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Beckett's

Vladimir and Estragon. The Renaissance world view under-

lying Hamlet seems, from the perspective offered by

Rosencrantz, no more an artificial construct than the

absurdist world view underlying Godot. Rather than endorsing

the absurdist view as more real than the Renaissance view,

Stoppard seems instead to juxtapose two equally artificial

(or two equally "real," for that matter, since the dis-

tinction is no longer clear) modes of theater--without

endorsing either--in order to undermine the concept of

"realism." If we at first respond to Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern as "real" and to the Hamlet characters as

artificial, it is, we begin to realize, because we have

been taught since the mid 1950s to respond to absurdism as

a valid representation of life, as more "realistic" than

preceding theatrical modes. But once again, Stoppard's

overt derivativeness intervenes to undermine any comfortable

assumptions we might attempt to rest on, for the repeated

attention given within the play to theater as only a set

of conventions works with this juxtaposition of two incom-

patible dramatic modes to render the notion of "realism"


In his 1981 "Jumpers: Stoppard and the Theater of

Exhaustion," Michael Hinden makes regrettably brief com-

ments about Rosencrantz which support just such a reading.

Like Corballis, he begins by disagreeing with the critical


view that Stoppard's derivativeness constitutes an artistic

weakness: "Some critics have confused Tom Stoppard's use

of earlier dramatic tradition (Shakespeare in Rosencrantz

and Guildenstern Are Dead and Wilde in Travesties) with

parody, lack of originality, or want of purpose."68 Unlike

Wilcher and Corballis, though, Hinden's alternative context

for reading Stoppard's borrowing is not the death of tragedy

in the contemporary era, but John Barth's "The Literature

of Exhaustion," in which Barth puts forth the thesis that

"the used-upness of certain forms" is "by no means neces-

sarily a cause for despair" and should not be equated with

"physical, moral, or intellectual decadence."69 Hinden

argues that "Like Barth, Stoppard finds himself in the

predicament of having to succeed not only classical tradi-

tion (Shakespeare), but the newly defined (and therefore

defunct) tradition of absurdism as well."70 Hinden believes

"Berlin misses the point"1 when he labels Rosencrantz

"criticism, not literature"72 and describes the play

"feeding on" its source plays. "Stoppard," he argues,

"does not 'feed on' Shakespeare, Beckett, and Pirandello;

he dines with them."73 Hinden gives substance to this

substitution of words by citing Barth's remark that "if

Beethoven's Sixth were composed today, it would be an

embarrassment; but clearly it wouldn't be, necessarily, if

done with ironic intent by a composer quite aware of where

we've been and where we are."74 "By analogy," Hinden


continues, "Stoppard does not reinvent the world's most
famous play so much as he encounters and subverts it."

With all due deference to the intentional fallacy, I think

we can safely conclude that Stoppard did not intend to

quietly pass off Hamlet as his own invention; he clearly

uses the source play with an awareness "of where we've been

and where we are." In Barth's view, such an informed use

of the art of the past works to replenish art by confronting

"an intellectual dead end" and turning it "against itself to

accomplish new human work."76

Thus, Hinden sees Stoppard's position in relation to

the history of the theater as analogous to Barth's position

in relation to the history of fiction. Just as Barth "ties

himself self-consciously to Joyce and Beckett in repetition

of the way Joyce tied himself consciously--but not self-

consciously--to Homer,"77 so Stoppard ties himself self-

consciously to Shakespeare and Beckett in repetition, we

ought to realize, of the way Shakespeare and Beckett tied

themselves to the many sources they used in constructing

Hamlet and Godot. Hinden goes on to describe how Rosencrantz

"telescopes dramatic history, contrasting tragedy with

theater of the absurd,"78 duly noting the differences between

the two theatrical modes which are highlighted by Stoppard's

conflation of his two primary source plays. But his major

contribution lies not so much in his discussion of the

specific insights which emerge from Stoppard's juxtaposition


as in the Barth frame he provides for reading Stoppard's

borrowing in general.

Post-modern aesthetic principles like Barth's provide

a much more adequate frame for reading Stoppard's borrowing

than either a Romantic aesthetic of originality in author-

ship (on which the vehement condemnations of Stoppard's

parasitismm" are based) or a pre-Romantic aesthetic that

sidesteps the originality question (on which the relatively

non-judgemental source studies are based), for neither a

Romantic nor a pre-Romantic aesthetic can account for the

implications of Stoppard's overt derivativeness. Critics

locked into a Romantic conception of originality in author-

ship fail to recognize that Stoppard's authorial strategy

directly challenges the aesthetic of originality, and as

a result, they produce little more than wholesale condemna-

tions of Rosencrantz. While commentators working from pre-

Romantic assumptions generally produce more insightful

studies, they too fall short of the mark. Stoppard's

borrowing cannot simply be treated in the same way as

Chaucer's or Shakespeare's, for in the contemporary era,

when the popular view of authorship is still very much in

tune with early nineteenth century Romantic ideals, borrow-

ing, especially borrowing as blatant as Stoppard's, means

something very different than it did in the days of yore

before critics embraced the creative genius of the Author

as a central aesthetic tenet. In short, critics, as much


as authors, must work from an awareness "of where we've

been and where we are." And where we are is limbo--caught

between a play that demands an awareness of contemporary

critical theory, and an applied criticism that is still

stuck where we have been, still stuck with outdated critical

assumptions that render it unable to account for a play like


Rosencrantz offers us a fun-filled ride out of limbo

land, and it will escort us safely to the shores of a re-

vised aesthetic theory if only we will hop aboard and leave

our heavy, outdated critical baggage behind. Stoppard does

not just abruptly confront us with his blatant, jarring,

"dislocating" derivativeness and leave us empty-handed,

unable to reconcile our old ideas about art with this play

that so outrageously flies in the face of those ideas.

Instead, he fills his play with dialogue and situations

which guide us toward a series of insights about the nature

of the theater. As we watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

struggle with their lessons about the theater, we join

them in pondering the nature of representation, fate, and

dramatic structure. Berlin was at least partially correct

in calling Rosencrantz Theater of Criticism, for the play

does in fact function as criticism, prodding us, as so much

contemporary critical theory does, to revise our notions of

"originality" and "realism." But it also works as theater.

And this may be Stoppard's greatest achievement--while he


teaches us that theater is a self-contained set of conven-

tions with nothing behind or beneath it, no god-like Author

working in collaboration with Providence, no special rela-

tionship with life, he also shows us that we can, as

Guildenstern advises, still "Enjoy it. Relax" (p. 40).

Theater has never needed God to provide fate, life to pro-

vide "realism"; it has always been a set of conventions,

complete unto itself, always a matter of "playing at [. .]

words, words" (p. 41).

We feel no sense of loss at being asked to abandon our

old notions about art because while Stoppard is undermining

"realism" and "originality," he is simultaneously reassuring

us that theater still works perfectly well without these

aesthetic assumptions, reassuring us that we can give up

these old notions without sacrificing one iota of the joy

we have always found in the theater. Stoppard gives us a

play that not only defies "realism" and "originality," but

is also about death--the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guilden-

stern, the death of tragedy, the death of old assumptions

about representation. All these gloomy ingredients,

however, do not add up to a gloomy play, for Rosencrantz

is decidedly a joy--and a large measure of the joyful

playfulness that pervades it is made possible by the

loosening of the constraints imposed by old aesthetic

rules. The deaths of tragedy, representation, "original-

ity," and "realism" are, to borrow Barth's phrase, "by no


means necessarily a cause for despair.79 In Rosencrantz,

Stoppard taps the potential of these deaths, demonstrating

that they make room for new life--and that the room is

bigger, for the limits of theater have been extended.

In Act One, Guildenstern comments, "The only beginning

is birth and the only end is death--if you can't count on

that, what can you count on?" (p. 39). In Rosencrantz, you

cannot count on either, for neither the beginning nor the

end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a simple, single

point. In "The Death of the Author," Roland Barthes argues

that "a text is not a line of words releasing a single

'theological' meaning (the message of the Author-God) but

a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings,

none of them original, blend and clash."80 While Barthes

is describing a contemporary theoretical view of writing

in general, no play has ever more vividly manifested this

description than Rosencrantz. And the consequences of this

blatant blending and clashing could hardly be more far-

reaching for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and for us.

At the beginning of the play, they are most concerned

with their own beginnings, and they try repeatedly, though

unsuccessfully, to determine where they came from. Eventu-

ally, as the play progresses and the "fortuitous" gives way

to the "ordained"--the randomness and stagnation symbolized

by the coin toss give way to the outcome ordained by the

script of Hamlet--the question of their origins becomes


moot, and they become ever more concerned with determining

their end. The blending and clashing of writings confounds

their search for their end even more profoundly than it

does their search for origins. And when death finally comes

to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it raises more questions

than it answers, leaving us to carry on the search for an

explanation in their absence. Is this death as it was

written in Hamlet? If so, were the deaths of Rosencrantz

and Guildenstern ever part of tragedy's Grand Design, even

in Hamlet? Or were their deaths required in Shakespeare's

play merely to tie up a loose end? Or is this death accord-

ing to Godot, pointedly absurd? Or is this death, as John

Perlette argues, according to Freud, "death" which demon-

strates our psychological inability to believe that we

cease to exist, even as spectators?81 Or is this death by

magic trick--"Now you see me, now you--(and disappears)"

(p. 126).

It is death by all of these, death as "It is written"

(p. 80), in a variety of styles that blend and clash end-

lessly, with no origin in a single Author-Father-God and,

as Barthes argues, therefore no end. "To give a text an

Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it

with a final signified, to close the writing.82 Rosencrantz

and Guildenstern's inability to find their origins and ends

points to the generalized lack of origins and ends in the

entire play. Stoppard and Barthes, however, both encourage


us to think, not in terms of a lack of origins and ends,

but in terms of a freedom from the limits formerly imposed

on the text by the Author-Father-God. By declining to pose

as the Author, Stoppard frees himself from the constraints

of feigning "originality." He is no longer compelled to

cover the tracks of his borrowing in an effort to pass

Rosencrantz off as an unmediated representation of reality.

Nor is he compelled to give us the Truth, the final answer,

the single 'theological' meaning in the form of an endorse-

ment of one mode of theater at the expense of all the others.

If Rosencrantz offers us any truth, it is that theater never

depended on Truth. Rosencrantz does not rely on the truth

of the tragic vision--"There's a divinity that shapes our

ends"83 --any more than it relies on the Truth of the

absurdist vision--there is no divinity shaping any aspect

of life--or on the Truth of the Freudian or even of the

magic trick vision.

The text does not offer us Truth, which inherently

requires closure. It offers play--an endless play of styles

of writing. The text becomes, as Guildenstern explains,

"a prize, an extra slice of childhood when you least expect

it, as a prize for being good, or a compensation for never

having had one . ." (p. 40). The play is clearly a prize

for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for they get to play--

title roles this time, not bit parts as they did in Hamlet.

And when they are not futilely searching for their


untraceable origins or their inscrutable ends, they are

very often playing--playing games, role-playing. Egan

believes Rosencrantz's "truest debt to Waiting for Godot"84

lies not in a shared absurdist vision, but in a more full

realization of the potential of play suggested by Godot.

"One of the few consolations Didi and Gogo have in their

limbo state, besides the uncertain pleasure of one another's

company, is their sporadic ability to improvise games,

thereby endowing their existence with an artificial sense

of form and meaning,"85 he observes. In Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead, the tenuous and wry note of hope

represented by this sense of play becomes a major chord and

a dramatized philosophy."86

The major chord of hope stemming from Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern's ability to sustain play--Stoppard's ability

to sustain play--in the absence of Truth, "realism," and

"originality" (ingredients formerly thought necessary to

make a play work) turns Rosencrantz into a prize for us as

well. After all the focus on what we have lost in the

twentieth century--we have lost God, lost order, lost mean-

ing, suffered a crisis of cultural authority--Rosencrantz

moves beyond the gloom of expounding our losses and demon-

strates what we have gained. Without the limits imposed

by Truth, theater is no longer restricted to endorsing a

single theatrical mode at the expense of all others. To

put it another way, theater is no longer restricted to


representing "life" and, in doing so, reinforcing a single

world view. We recall Craig Owens's distinction between

modernism--the era of master narratives--and post-modernism--

the era when master narratives have lost their credibility,

when we have developed a healthy skepticism of attempts to

provide the single theoretical discourse. Stoppard fosters

this healthy postmodern scepticism by refusing to endorse a

single theatrical discourse. Rather than embarking on a

therapeutic program for recuperating "the tremendous loss

of mastery"87 characteristic of our era, Stoppard warmly

embraces the loss of mastery, treating it not so much as a

loss, but as an opening, an opportunity for extending the

limits of what theater can do.

To signal the extension of the limits of theater,

Rosencrantz opens with a coin toss which Stoppard describes

as "impossible" (p. 11), and the Players make their final

appearance, moments before the play's end, by emerging

"impossibly" (p. 122) from a barrel. The impossible opening

situation, in sharp contrast to the impossible barrel trick

near the play's end, provokes a lengthy consideration of

the nature of reality and order. Guildenstern's first

sustained response to the bizarre run of heads clearly

indicates that his faith in the order of reality has been

shaken: "A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his

faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of proba-

bility" (p. 12). As still more coins consistently turn


up heads, Guildenstern grows ever more aware of the un-

settling implications and seeks an explanation, sensing

that the lop-sided coin toss "must be indicative of some-

thing" (p. 16). While the appearance of the ghost at the

beginning of Hamlet indicates only that there is something

rotten in the state of Denmark, the "impossible" coin toss

at the beginning of Rosencrantz reaches beyond mere plot

implications to indicate that the order of theater is

separate and distinct from the order of reality.

Guildenstern, however, does not immediately grasp these

broad implications. He first tries a variety of explana-

tions to account for the impossible run of heads in terms

of reality as he has known it. He suggests that perhaps

he is willing it, that time has stopped dead, that the

divine has intervened, or that maybe the bizarre results

are "a spectacular vindication of the principle that each

individual coin spun individually (he spins one) is as

likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should

cause no surprise each individual time it does" (p. 16).

When the ninety-second coin he has just spun turns up heads

as well, he tries a trio of syllogisms which serve more to

undermine the whole concept of logic than to explain the

coin toss in terms of reality.

The failed syllogisms drive him to continue "with tight

hysteria, under control" (p. 17) with one last attempt to

contrive a realistic explanation of the impossible coin toss


before the approach of the Players prompts him to take a

different tack. "The equanimity of your average tosser of

coin depends upon a law, or rather a tendency, or let us

say a mathematically calculable chance," Guildenstern ex-

plains, "which ensures that he will not upset himself by

losing too much nor upset his opponent by winning too often"

(p. 18). Desperately searching for a realistic explanation

of this event which has shaken his faith in the order of

reality, Guildenstern begins by referring to the "law"

which kept the world in balance. But he quickly reduces

that binding certainty to a "tendency," then a "probability"

before finally settling on "chance" as the principle of


In accounting for his indebtedness to Beckett, Stoppard

told Ronald Hayman that "the Beckett novels show as much as

the plays" in Rosencrantz "because there's a Beckett joke

which is the funniest joke in the world to me."88 The joke,

he continued, "consists of a confidement statement followed

by immediate refutation by the same voice. It's a constant

process of elaborate structure and sudden--and total--

dismantlement."89 Guildenstern's lengthy speech is clearly

built on the Beckett joke--a confident statement about the

order of reality, followed by refutations that dismantle

the whole structure he has just built.

Rosencrantz, who has not been at all disturbed by the

implications of winning ninety-two coins in a row, responds


to Guildenstern's elaborate discourse with a typically

inappropriate comment: "Another curious scientific phenom-

enon is the fact that the fingernails grow after death, as

does the beard" (p. 18). Lightly dropped, apparently without

significance, this inappropriate remark unobtrusively intro-

duces the topic which will gradually grow into an obsession--

death. But Guildenstern is not yet interested in their

end. "Tensed up by [Rosencrantz's] rambling" (p. 19), he

tries to redirect their discussion to an issue which seems

to him more appropriate at this early stage--their begin-

ning. "Do you remember the first thing that happened

today?" (p. 19), he asks. They connect again as Rosencrantz

recalls "that man, a foreigner" (p. 19)--a messenger from

Hamlet--"we were sent for" (p. 19). "That's why we're here"

(p. 19), he asserts triumphantly, as though certainty has

suddenly been restored. Of course, it has not, for they

do not even know where they are, except as Rosencrantz

lamely explains, "Travelling" (p. 19). Guildenstern's

suggestion that "We better get on" (p. 20) takes them all

the way to the footlights, where Rosencrantz asks, "Which

way do we--(He turns round.) Which way did we--?" (p. 20).

They are temporarily saved from fruitless contempla-

tion of where they came from by the sound of a band which

signals the approach of the six Tragedians. Rosencrantz

responds to the music, which is not yet audible to those

of us in the audience, by flatly stating, "It couldn't be


real" (p. 20). In a way, of course, he is right--the

Tragedians are always "on," "always in character" (p. 34),

always in a play, and thus never in reality. Before they

arrive, though, Guildenstern proposes another explanation

of their situation to Rosencrantz which shares a rhetorical

similarity with his second syllogism but marks a departure

from his previous attempts to reconcile the impossible coin

toss with "reality." When Guildenstern was still trying to

account realistically for the coin toss, he instructed

Rosencrantz to "Discuss" (p. 17) a syllogism centered on

the operation of probability in "un-, sub- or supernatural

forces" (p. 17). Now, as illusion is about to intrude in

the form of a troupe of actors, he instructs Rosencrantz

to "demolish" (p. 20) the following proposition: "'The

colours red, blue and green are real. The colour yellow

is a mystical experience shared by everybody'" (p. 20).

Rosencrantz does not demolish this proposition any

more than he discussed the syllogism, so Guildenstern

further explores the nature of reality and illusion with

an expanded story about "a man breaking his journey between

one place and another at a third place of no name, charac-

ter, population, or significance" (p. 21)--an apt synopsis

of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's situation--who "sees a

unicorn cross his path and disappear" (p. 21). A second,

third, and fourth man report the same sight, "and the more

witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more


reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality"

(p. 21). The mystical encounter with the unicorn is by

degrees robbed of its magic until it is explained away as

"a horse with an arrow in its forehead" (p. 21).

Unable to reconcile the impossible coin toss with

"reality," Guildenstern embraces illusion as an equally

plausible way of interpreting events. Why not unicorns?

Stoppard asks us through Guildenstern. Why stubbornly ad-

here to the limits imposed by "realism" when the difference

between reality and illusion is on the whole rather arbi-

trary--why should yellow be mystical and red real?--and a

matter of collective consent, not some distinction based

concretely on authentic divisions in the world? The uni-

corn tale's disappointed "thin as reality" assessment

indicates that the usual privileging of reality over

illusion has been turned on its head, for the case of the

unicorn at least, believing in illusion offers a more

interesting way of perceiving the world. The point of

Guildenstern's unicorn tale is lost on Rosencrantz, but

it is not lost on those of us in the audience. Theater

itself is a kind of unicorn, Stoppard is showing us, but

it is better than a unicorn because it does not lose its

magic when seen by multiple witnesses. Theater, like

unicorns, depends on "a choice of persuasions" (p. 21)--

we can choose to believe in its magic, or we can explain

it away in realistic terms as "a horse with an arrow in

its forehead" (p. 21).


Guildenstern's last wistful comment on the topic--

"I'm sorry it wasn't a unicorn. It would have been nice

to have unicorns" (p. 21)--provides the vocal accompaniment

for the musical arrival of the six Tragedians. In a way,

Guildenstern misreads the Players, for they are unicorns,

at least in some limited sense, for, as Egan argues, "despite

their sorry condition, the Player and his troupe are that

very hint of magic for which Guildenstern has been look-

ing."90 But while the Players may share the unicorn's

magic, they prove a bitter disappointment to Guildenstern

on other levels. "He has hoped for an omen, such as the
hero of a romance might receive at the outset of his quest,"91

Egan observes. Instead of an immortal unicorn replete with

associations of virginity, Guildenstern finds "a comic

pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes" (p. 27) whose

forte is the performance of death. "I can do you blood and

love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and

rhetoric without the love [. .] but I can't do you love

and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory--

they're all blood" (p. 33), the Player explains.

Reality may be unfathomable for Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern, but illusion is no calm, safe harbor either,

for the illusion Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just

about to get caught up in ends in death every time. And

when the Hamlet script intrudes moments after the Player's

"Blood is compulsory" speech, it serves to underscore the


Player's explanation of fate: "We have no control" (p. 25).

Like the Players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are charac-

ters in a script over which they have no control, but

Stoppard emphasizes their lack of control even in Hamlet by

incorporating Act Two, scene two into Rosencrantz. After

Claudius instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to draw

Hamlet "on to pleasures" (p. 36) and thereby glean what

afflicts him, "They both bow" (p. 36) and respond with

metrically identical speeches emphasizing their powerless-

ness to refuse the will of the King and Queen:

Rosencrantz: Both your majesties
Might, by the sovereign power you
have of us,
Put your dread pleasures more into
Than to entreaty.

Guildenstern: But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves in the
full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded. (p. 36)

Their twin speeches, however, belie the real differ-

ences in their responses to the intrusion of the Hamlet

script, for while Guildenstern seems sincere in giving him-

self freely "To be commanded" (p. 36), Rosencrantz imme-

diately proclaims that he wants no part in this new script:

"I want to go home" (p. 37). Guildenstern, who was very

concerned about the randomness of the coin toss, finds the

certainty of the Renaissance play comforting, but Rosen-

crantz, who was never disturbed by the randomness of their


initial situation, somehow senses, amidst great confusion,

the ultimate implications of accepting the roles offered by

the King and Queen: "I tell you it's all stopping to a

death, it's boding to a depth, stepping to a head, it's all

heading to a dead stop--" (p. 38).

Thus, Guildenstern now plays the soothing "nursemaid"

(p. 38) as Rosencrantz panics about the growing number of

questions and the diminishing number of satisfactory answers,

reversing the roles they played when the script was random

and Guildenstern was the one in a panic. When Rosencrantz

complains, "I remember when there were no questions"

(p. 38), Guildenstern disagrees: "There were always ques-

tions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter"

(p. 38). For Guildenstern, though not for Rosencrantz,

the opening random .script raised a multitude of questions

about the nature of reality. In exchanging one theatrical

mode for another, they merely swap sets of questions--"no

great matter," according to Guildenstern.

Rosencrantz, though, does not like all this inter-

changeability--the interchangeability of their names, their

roles, the scripts. He wants to know, once and for all,

who he is, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. "I don't care one

way or another," he tells Guildenstern, "so why don't you

make up your mind" (p. 38). "We can't afford anything quite

so arbitrary," Guildenstern replies, not wanting to risk

falling back into the pointed arbitrariness from which they


have just been saved by the ordered Renaissance script.

"Nor did we come all this way for a christening. All that--

preceded us" (p. 39). Guildenstern's remarks indicate that

he is beginning to grasp the potential significance of the

script for them. Certainly, the "christening" preceded

them, for Shakespeare named them long before. As Guildenstern

tries to explain to Rosencrantz, they would be in a much more

uncertain predicament were it not for the author who named

them: "We are comparatively fortunate," he argues. "We

might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomen-

clature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own

portraits . ." (p. 39). While they may still be uncertain

of which one is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern, the

roles offered by the new script narrow their options from

"the whole field of human nomenclature" to just two names:

"At least we are given alternatives" (p. 39), Guildenstern

explains. "But," and here is the rub, "not choice" (p. 39),

he quickly adds.

As the attributes of fate begin to accrue to the

script, Rosencrantz by steps reveals that God does not

control fate as much as the author controls the script,

for in this play, destiny is defined and choice is limited,

not by the fate ordained by God, but by the script written

by the author. The blending and clashing of theatrical

modes undermines the Truth value of both the random,

Beckettian initial mode and the ordered Renaissance mode


which intrudes. For Guildenstern, it is "a choice of per-

suasions" (p. 21), one set of questions or another. But

as Rosencrantz indicates with his "anguished cry," "Con-

sistency is all I ask!" (p. 39), the blending and clashing

of modes is as unsettling for him as the impossible coin

toss was for Guildenstern. Unmoved, Guildenstern answers

Rosencrantz's anguished cry with the first of many scrambled

versions of the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily

mask" (p. 39). What was in times past (when God controlled

the fate of characters) a prayer to God for bread to sustain

life now becomes a prayer to the author of the script for

a role--a mask--to sustain play.

Rosencrantz, however, still wants "to go home" (p. 39).

What he does not realize is that, as Wilcher observes,

"Characters, in the Pirandello sense, have no being and no

'home' but the text and the stage; when they are not on

stage, speaking the lines written for them, then they cease

to exist."92 Although Stoppard will illustrate this abstract

point more fully after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have

had another encounter with Hamlet, he suggests it fleet-

ingly here with Rosencrantz's repetition of the question,

"Which way did we come in?" (p. 39). The pair will never

answer that question and will never be able to find the

"home" Rosencrantz seeks. To get there, they will have to

redefine "home" as the text and the stage.


Guildenstern, who feels more at home with the new

text, tries to encourage just such a redefinition as he

delivers perhaps the most beautiful speech in the entire

play, a speech directed as much to us in the audience as

to Rosencrantz, for most of us likely share Rosencrantz's

apprehension about the blatant blending and clashing of

theatrical modes. "We'll be all right" (p. 40), Guilden-

stern assures Rosencrantz and us. Rosencrantz, still

skeptical of the script, vaguely sensing what we already

know to be true about the ultimate end of Hamlet, asks,

"For how long?" (p. 40). "Till events have played them-

selves out" (p. 40), Guildenstern convincingly answers.

"There's a logic at work--it's all done for you, don't worry.

Enjoy it. Relax" (p. 40). In any play, characters are only

all right until events have played themselves out, only

all right as long as the script lasts.

Besides, Guildenstern continues, the script is in it-

self a kind of prize, a chance to play: "To be taken in

hand and led, like being a child again, even without the

innocence, a child--it's like being given a prize, an extra

slice of childhood when you least expect it, as a prize for

being good, or compensation for never having had one .

(p. 40). We in the audience should relax and be taken in

hand, for though we have lost our innocence--we know what

happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the end of

Hamlet and we are being shown the error of our naive


assumptions about "originality," "realism," and Truth in

the theater--this loss of innocence need not stop play.

And for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the play is decidedly

a prize, an answer to Guildenstern's prayer for a mask, for

Rosencrantz gives them new roles to play, starring roles

this time. Even though the outcome will be the same--

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will still be dead--the chance

to play their roles again is a prize all the same, compen-

sation either for being good or for never having had a

childhood (they were "born" as adults in both Hamlet and

Godot, after all). By reusing an old contextx, Stoppard

has, in effect, given them new "life" as characters.

Guildenstern follows this speech by declaring, "It's

a game" (p. 40), and indeed, after some pointed allusions

to Hamlet and Godot--Guildenstern tells Rosencrantz he is

playing at "words, words" (p. 41), echoing both Hamlet93
and Vladimir,94 and Rosencrantz describes the business of

being a spectator as "appalling" (p. 41), recalling Vladi-
mir's ". . appalled. (With emphasis.) AP-PALLED" 95

they engage in the most sustained period of playing in

Rosencrantz. First, they pursue Rosencrantz's suggestion

to "play at questions" (p. 42), a most appropriate activity

since they have had no luck with answers. The question

game, which is won by always answering each question with

another question, is intended to serve as practice for their

match with Hamlet, the idea being that they will ask


questions to glean what afflicts the Prince without giving

away any information about themselves in the process.

Helene Keyssar-Franke, observing that in this game,

"one loses when one answers a question,96 argues that "the

sense conveyed is that an answer is a box, an enclosure

which stops action and creates the death of the speaker;

questions are vital, freeing; answers are dead and en-

slaving."97 What is true for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,

she suggests, "is also true for the audience." Although

Keyssar-Franke is intent primarily upon illustrating the

appearance of free will in the actions of Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern, her comments about the vitality of endless

questions and the enslaving nature of final answers ring

true as a statement about the general strategy of the play.

While audiences may initially share Rosencrantz and Guilden-

stern's sense of dislocation about the lack of final

answers, the lack of a fixed theatrical mode corresponding

to a fixed world view, both the content and the open-ended

structure of the play push toward a revision of the pre-

ference for a clear-cut origin and a final message in art.

Rosencrantz encourages us to replace the old aesthetic

model of a god-like Author providing both the single origin

and the final answer with a model which recognizes neither

origins nor ends, but which celebrates instead endless

play--play of questions, play of styles, play of "words,



Interestingly, the actual questions of the question

game also point to the death of the old aesthetic, for God,

upon whose existence the old aesthetic ultimately depends,

is first mentioned by name in the question game. When

Guildenstern poses the question "What in God's name is going

on?" (p. 42), Rosencrantz declares "Foul! No rhetoric"

(p. 42). Similarly, when Guildenstern responds to Rosen-

crantz's "Is there a choice?" (p. 43) with "Is there a God?"

(p. 43), Rosencrantz again declares a foul on the grounds

that the game allows "No non sequiturs" (p. 43). God has

been rendered irrelevant to choice, mere rhetoric, under-

scoring the idea that the fate of characters lies not in

God's hands, where traditional assumptions placed it, but

in the hands of the author. The game winds down with

Rosencrantz's asking a question which will become the

central question as the play continues, "Where's it going

to end?" (p. 44), to which Guildenstern replies with the

statement, "That's the question" (p. 44). Rosencrantz

aptly sums up the general situation with his lament, "It's

all questions" (p. 44).

As they reach a new dead-end, Hamlet wanders on stage

briefly, providing a new impetus for dialogue. His appear-

ance first prompts them to return to their earlier preoccu-

pation with determining their names, a pursuit that offers

some initial success--just by randomly guessing, they are

right half the time--but no sustained certainty. When


Rosencrantz answers to the name of Guildenstern, Guilden-

stern is "disgusted" (p. 45) and exclaims, "Consistency is

all I ask!" (p. 45), taking over Rosencrantz's earlier line.

Then, just as they are about to engage in another extended

game, Rosencrantz quietly states, "Immortality is all I

seek . ." (p. 45). Guil-denstern's rhymed response is

another version of the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our

daily week . ." (p. 45), which is, in effect, a reitera-

tion of Rosencrantz's call for immortality, a prayer for a

week for each day they are allotted. These requests for

immortality are strategically placed in the midst of their

most obvious, extended playing, illustrating the inverse

of Wilcher's observation that "when they are not on stage,

speaking the lines written for them, . they cease to
exist."99 As long as they are on stage, speaking their

lines, they continue to exist--play gives them, if not im-

mortality, at least remarkable longevity.

And play they do. For the first of many times in

Rosencrantz, they engage in role-playing, an activity with

overt metadramatic implications. Guildenstern suggests that

he play Hamlet and that Rosencrantz question him, again with

the intent of practicing for the upcoming match with Hamlet.

The immediate effect is greater confusion, since there are

now three roles instead of just two, and Rosencrantz cannot

figure out who he is supposed to play, Rosencrantz, Guilden-

stern, or Hamlet. Once the verbal slapstick stemming from


this identity confusion subsides, the role-playing yields

an admirable explanation of what afflicts Hamlet: "Your

father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back

to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young

brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby

offending both legal and natural practice" (p. 51), Rosen-

crantz summarizes. "Now why exactly are you behaving in

this extraordinary manner?" (p. 51), he asks. The humor

of this scene arises at least in part from Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern's ability to somehow arrive, amidst great

fumbling and bumbling, at what seems a better explanation

of Hamlet's behavior than did T.S. Eliot in his well-known

and very serious "Hamlet and His Problems." Rosencrantz's

explanation undermines Eliot's declaration that Hamlet "is

most certainly an artistic failure" 100because "Hamlet (the

man) is dominated by an emotion which is . in excess of

the facts as they appear."101 If Rosencrantz, whose

strengths do not include a keen intellect, can account for

Hamlet's behavior in terms of the facts as they appear, the

facts cannot be nearly as obscure as Eliot claims.

This amusing scene of rare, triumphant insight degener-

ates rapidly into confusion as Rosencrantz once again hears

the sounds of a band. But this time, his announcement

heralds the second appearance of Hamlet, not the Players,

and their long-awaited match with Hamlet finally comes in

the form of the latter part of Act Two, scene two of

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