Columbia Library columns (v.42(1992Nov-1993May))

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  v.42,no.1(1992:Nov): Page 13  

The Play's the Thing


Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was
first performed on The Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival in
1966. Fifteen years later, in The Festival Times for August
13, 1981, Stoppard recalled some of the excitement that accompa¬
nied that opening. The director resigned before the play went into
rehearsal in Edinburgh. The players were rehearsing with a script
that had been "typed by somebody who knew somebody who
could type.. .." The actors' "touching faith in [the] play" caused
them faithfully to speak their lines complete with typographical
errors with fairly hilarious, albeit unintended, consequences. Stop¬
pard arrived in Edinburgh for the last rehearsals and had to step in,
discovering as he has said, a "latent desire to stick my oar in every
five minutes during the rehearsals. . .."

A few dozen people turned up on opening night to see what
Stoppard had insisted be billed as a comedy. "The amount of laugh¬
ter which the play generated hardly justified my insistence." A com¬
mon reaction seems to have been bemusement. Scottish newspaper
reviews were discouraging. One was headlined with the plaintive
words, "What's it all about, Tom?"

Stoppard remembers finding all this only moderately depressing
since his first novel. Lord Malquist and the Moon, was about to be
published and seemed to hold more promise. However, on his
return home to England, Stoppard found a telegram from Kenneth
Tynan, then literary director of the National Theatre, askingto read
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The play opened at the Old Vic in
April 1967. The Sunday Times drama critic called the play "the
most important event in the British professional theatre of the last
nine years" or since the opening of Harold Pinter's The Birthday
Party. Writing in the New Yorker in 1977, Tynan observed that the
play and the playwright were "hailed with rapturous. . . unanim¬
ity." The New York production was greeted with a mixture of
enthusiasm and bafflement but won the Tony Award for best play
m 1968.

  v.42,no.1(1992:Nov): Page 13