By Stuart Mitchner
We do onstage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance to somewhere else.
—from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
When the director Jean-Luc Godard died, an “assisted suicide,” five days after Queen Elizabeth’s monumental passing, I took a YouTube tour of the “most cinematic” images from his work. Accompanied by Georges Delarue’s warm, richly romantic soundtrack for Le mépris /Contempt (1963), the result was an uncharacteristically humane, borderline sentimental memorial for a director who set out to attack “all civilized values” in the 1968 Rolling Stones film One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil. Godard’s version of doing “onstage the things that are supposed to happen off” was to punch the film’s English producer in the face onstage at the 1968 London Film Festival.
The onstage/offstage lines are spoken by the one of the players visiting Elsinore in Sir Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press 1967). The notion of the play as a “scoop” came to mind as I read Maureen Dowd’s September 7 New York Times profile of Stoppard, which opens with the teenage journalist who “loved wearing a mackintosh and flashing his press pass, operating in the spirit of a British contemporary, Nicholas Tomalin, who wrote: ‘The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.’ “
Call it what you will, a coup or a scoop, it took a world of cunning and more than a little literary ability to become the first playwright to claim the untold story between and behind the lines of two of the most fascinating and well-spoken minor characters in Shakespeare (although Gilbert and Sullivan had a shot in 1892 with a farce that ends with Rosencrantz marrying Ophelia). Hamlet’s Wittenberg classmates are clearly on a higher theatrical level than sycophants such as Osric of Elsinore (“Dost know this water-fly?”), who are mercilessly mocked, or slain onstage, like Goneril’s servant Oswald, his last words (“oh untimely death”) recorded for all time in the closing seconds of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.” Besides holding their own bantering with Hamlet as “the indifferent children of the earth” who live in “the secret parts of fortune,” they put in play phrases like “the shadow of a dream” and “a shadow’s shadow” that suggest how much there is to be imagined or discovered offstage. Jump ahead four centuries and Stoppard’s Guildenstern is speaking of the “half-lit, half-alive dawn” wherein a man was “just a hat and a cloak levitating in the grey plume of his own breath.” more