Edward H. Bart IV
History of World Literature II
Dr. Wendy Faris

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern & Six Other Characters aren't Real

        Metatheater gained a foothold in the art form of playwriting in 1921 when Luigi Pirandello presented his play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, to the world. The metatheatric form became more firmly established decades later, after the second World War. In 1966, Tom Stoppard’s sophomore play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, mined the same source of ideas that Pirandello’s play did. One of the things that metatheatre does is question the nature of what is real, and what is fictive. The suspension of disbelief crucial to the enjoyment of plays is challenged, allowing- even forcing- reality and fiction to be questioned. Both plays made extensive use of the play-within-a-play. This element probed the distinction between the real and the fictional. A careful analysis of both plays spotlight clues as to the life of fictive characters, their identities, and ultimately their deaths.
        Pirandello divides the real and the fictive in his play by having two different groups for the audience to see, the Characters and the Actors. The Actors are ostensibly real actors who happen to be rehearsing a play in front of the audience until they are interrupted by six Characters. When the Characters explain their nature to the Actors and the Producer, the ‘real’ people reject the claim that a figment of imagination could take on physical form, like a person would in real life. The Actors actually laugh at the Characters when the Father makes his claim. Since the Actors reacted in a realistic fashion, the audience now accepts the Actors as real, and the Characters as fictive. The distinction between the two groups, the Actors as being real and the Characters as being fictive, is somewhat unusual in itself because the Actors are fictive after all; only characters in Pirandello’s play. This actually goes to the heart of the suspension of disbelief required of all audiences in order for them to enjoy theater or other forms of entertainment. The audience accepts that the actors playing the Actors are ‘real’ people, and just the same as the Actors, they cannot accept that words from literature can come to life as Characters. Stoppard’s play goes one step further by blurring the distinction between the real and the fictive. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were not created by Stoppard, but by Shakespeare centuries earlier. The typical theatergoer knows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters from Hamlet, and when they introduce themselves to the Player, the audience now knows who the two actors on stage are portraying. However, the play they are watching is not Hamlet, but on occasion enters the play’s realm. This causes the audience a problem. “[They] cannot with comfort divide the metafictional characters into the fictive and the real, for [they] cannot consider the coinflippers ‘real’ without being haunted by their preexistence” as characters in Hamlet (Schlueter, 99). Interestingly enough, a non sequitur spoken by Guildenstern echoes the masked fictional Characters. “Give us today our daily mask,” he says, rhyming off Rosencrantz’s panicked outburst, “Consistency is all I ask!” after they encounter characters from the other play (39). Still, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ambiguous in terms of their reality, because they don’t know they aren’t real, whereas the Characters are able to make this distinction for themselves.
        The line between real and fictional characters differs in the two plays. Pirandello’s Characters and Actors allow the audience the ability to choose the distinction between real and unreal. Stoppard’s main characters do not allow their audience that opportunity. This is an indicator of the times between each playwright’s audience. In 1921, metatheater was nascent. Pirandello could not afford to thrust his audience too deeply into the concepts of metatheater. Allowing them the easy choice of fixing the Actors as real and the Characters as fictive was essentially Pirandello’s act of tossing a life preserver. Decades later, Stoppard knew his audience, already weaned on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, could handle the depths of metafictional characters existing in their own play and someone else’s play. Today, the audience can ponder on the dilemma that the Actors are portrayed by actors themselves and go deeper into the Russian doll-like idea that Pirandello’s play has Characters, portrayed by actors, who want to be portrayed by Actors, who are portrayed by actors. The identity of who is whom becomes more complex.
        Identities, particularly names, come into play in the realm of fictive characters. “Critics have assumed and commented on the namelessness of the Characters.... however the Six Characters are not nameless; they are listed as the Father, the Mother...” (Licastro, 217). In the beginning, the Characters are only concepts, listed with descriptive names such as ‘Father, Mother, Son’ and so on. As they perform their stories, revealing their identities, their names come to light. The Stepdaughter calls out to the Little Girl “No, Rosetta, no!” (1763), showing that the Little Girl does have a name. The Mother’s name is revealed to be “Amalia” when the Producer starts assigning the Actors their roles. The Russian doll dilemma causes the Father to falter in his confidence when the Producer objects to having the Mother character named the same as the real Mother, saying “we can’t use her real name!” “But why not?” the Father replies, “[t]hat is her name... But perhaps if this lady is to play the part.... [Indicating the ACTRESS vaguely with a wave of his hand.] I don’t know what to say... I’m already starting to... how can I explain it... to sound false, my words sound like someone else’s” (1745). When the Characters are secure in their own identities, they know their names. When their realities, or rather, identities, are transferred to others, they weaken. This can be seen as Pirandello’s suggestion that actors dilute their characters. Other critics have seen this idea, such as Anne Paolucci, who briefly mentions the “dissolution of character” in her critique of Pirandello (48). This idea will be addressed later. Also, the Producer’s objection not only signifies his continued disbelief that the Characters are fictive, but also is an indicative of the need to draw a distinction between real and unreal. Descriptive names, such as the ones the Producer (and Pirandello) bestows on the Characters are acceptable on fictional characters; but when more reality is infused into the characters, the situation becomes uncomfortable for the Producer, and the audience as well. Naming a fictive character after a supposedly real person blurs the line between the real and fictional, and the metatheatrical question of reality looms larger, confronting the audience.
        Stoppard plays games with identity as well, taking his cue from the original insignificance of Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As Cahn points out in Hamlet, “the two are virtually indistinguishable, from the rhythm of their names, to their actions, even to the number of syllables in their speeches” (40). Their first meeting with Claudius has the king addressing each man by the other’s name. Stoppard carries this confusion further so that not even Rosencrantz or Guildenstern are sure of their own names. The first time the main characters introduce themselves, as they meet the Player, it is not clear to the audience who is whom. Rosencrantz says, “My name is Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz,” then amends his statement with “I’m sorry- his name’s Guildenstern, and I’m Rosencrantz” (22). The stage direction indicates that Rosencrantz is not embarrassed by this confusion. Later, it becomes a game for them. When Guildenstern suddenly calls for Rosencrantz by the correct name, they are pleased. Rosencrantz says it felt “instinctive” to respond (45). Rosencrantz wants to call Guildenstern’s name so he can experience the feeling of having an identity as Rosencrantz did. The exchange exhibits a rare and brief moment of security for the characters which is soon lost. In fact, as they die, they are not confident in who is whom. “Rosen-? Guil-?” Guildenstern calls out, as Rosencrantz disappears when he ‘dies’ (125). Pirandello’s Characters have ‘real’ names that arise out of their stories, but Stoppard’s characters already have ‘real’ names but they aren’t real; they are a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. So they have no real identity beyond Hamlet. The blurred line between fictive and real characters continues in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with the Tragedians and the Player. The Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “We’re actors... we pledged our identities” away, hoping that an audience would be watching (64). So even the actors in Stoppard’s play have no identities, no names beyond a descriptive name, such as “The Player.” In fact, they know they are characters in a metatheatrical statement that Guildenstern unwittingly makes.

                GUIL: Well...aren’t you going to change into
                           your costume?
                PLAYER: I never change out of it, sir.
                GUIL: Always in character.
                PLAYER: That’s it (33-34).

The Tragedians are always in character because they are characters in Stoppard’s play. The Player and his troupe have no identities outside of the play. In the same vein, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are always in character, because they are both the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Stoppard’s play and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Shakespeare’s play. The Actors of Pirandello’s play do not have this metatheatrical awareness that the Player and his troupe have; but the Characters have this awareness. They can be nothing else but who they are.
        The Father in Six Characters... tells the Producer that the Characters’ situation “doesn’t change, it can’t change, it can never be different, never, because it is already determined, like this, for ever... We are an eternal reality” (1759). A sense of permanence is fixed to the characters in both plays. Stoppard sets up an “eternal reality” for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the improbable coin-flipping opening scene. Guildenstern has been flipping coins and each time, the coin comes up heads. He suggests one possibility, “time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated” (16). A moment earlier, he had a violent reaction, grabbing Rosencrantz and saying “This is not the first time we have spun coins!” Rosencrantz replies, “Oh no- we’ve been spinning coins for as long as I remember” (14-15). The beginning of the play evokes a timelessness. The very creation of a script sets things in stone for characters, making them eternal. The Producer tells the Prompter to “try to get the lines down” as the Characters tell their stories, and says “the characters are there in the script” (1744). When Guildenstern asks the Player who decides what happens, the Player is surprised and says “Decides? It is written” (80). As the Father says, “A man will die, a writer... but what he has created will never die!” (1731). The written word is fixed and since all characters arise from the written word, their lives will never change; they are always kept in a state of preservation. “Ros and Guil have no future, only a series of to-days,” Andretta says (34). He points out Guildenstern’s line, “One is, after all, having [the future] all the time... now... and now... and now...” (70). The Mother indicates this also in her line, “[the agony] repeats itself endlessly and vividly” (1756). Both plays, through metatheater, speak towards the nature of character as a eternal, fixed object. Characters appear onstage, develop, then go offstage within the span of the play. By saying this, Pirandello and Stoppard may be cautioning other playwrights to be careful of what they write, for it may endure forever and thus influence society in later times. This may also be a sly dig at actors who feel it is within their prerogative to change the lines of their characters. The script is treated reverentially by the Player, and the Characters need their words to be spoken by the actors exactly, otherwise they must wander phantom-like. The writer gains a God-like status in both plays, as the creator who “decides” what is to happen. These characters can do nothing else but obey God’s will. Only at the very end do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize that they are characters, fixed in a script that must be played out. Just before Guildenstern ‘dies’ he says, “Well, we’ll know better next time” (126), because he knows they will repeat the whole process again.
        Guildenstern’s final words, to borrow Stoppard’s device, shows the flip side of the coin which is death. Since characters are eternal, then how can they really die? The answer is, they can’t. Real death is not the end for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, nor for the Characters. The Father tells the Producer and the Actors, “whoever has the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. Because a character will never die!” (1731). Guildenstern’s only self-aware line, about “next time,” indicates the eternal life of a character. Pirandello and Stoppard grasp this concept, and see the inherent metatheatrical problem. How can death and mortality be portrayed on the stage when the audience knows death does not exist for these characters? In Six Characters..., Pirandello alludes to this problem when he has the Mother faint. The Actors all exclaim, “Is it real? Has she really fainted? etc.” (1733). A fictive character cannot do something real without it consciously being viewed as something false. Pirandello uses the Actors as a mirror of the audience, voicing the thoughts the audience can’t; for if the audience doubts the Mother’s fainting spell, then they must doubt everything they hear and see on the stage. And if they do this, then there is no reason to watch the play at all. Now, if a fainting spell by a Character is doubtful, then what of a more grave situation, death? Pirandello and Stoppard address this issue, although Stoppard is more explicit. Pirandello teases the audience with the question by having the Father start telling the Mother’s story, confusing the Producer. “How is she a widow, if you’re still alive?” (1733). It turns out that the Father is not the man who is dead. However, there are two Characters who are dead, the Little Boy and Little Girl. Yet they exist on stage during the play. They have life, and they have names, as mentioned earlier. As the end of the play occurs, death occurs. The Little Girl drowns in a stage prop, and the Little Boy shoots himself with a nonexistent gun. The reaction of the Actors are divided in two camps. One camp believes the boy has really wounded himself. The other believes it’s merely a trick. “It’s reality!” the Father shouts (1766). The children’s deaths do not come as a surprise to the Characters because it is part of their innate scripts. The Mother is terrified when the children step onto the garden set because she knows what will occur. It is, after all, part of the agony that “repeats itself endlessly” (1756). The children have no lines. They exist solely to die at the end of the play, as part of the Mother’s drama. When their part is done, they disappear from the family tableau at the final scene. Were their deaths real or illusionary? The case can be easily be argued for both. Their deaths are real to the Characters, while the deaths are illusionary to the Actors and the audience. As noted earlier, the distinction between the real and unreal is easily drawn in Pirandello’s play as opposed to Stoppard’s work.
        Death and mortality is a recurrent theme in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern..., more specifically, death on stage versus real death. Shakespeare made use of the play-within-a-play to explore this concept. In Hamlet, the device is used psychologically to “catch the conscience of the king,” as Hamlet says. The fictional death of a kingly character on stage strikes Claudius as deeply as a real death, because a real death had occurred in Claudius’s experience. However, Stoppard probes the play-within-a-play further, bringing out the metatheatrical elements. Guildenstern takes the extreme position of an audience, complete disbelief. “Actors! The mechanics of cheap melodrama! That isn’t death” he tells the Player, “You die so many times; how can you expect [the audience] to believe in your death?” (83). This raises the very question regarding eternal characters versus their deaths. The Player presents the other point of view, that the audience can believe in stage death. “They’re conditioned to it,” the Player replies, “Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in” (84). He proves his point by faking his own death near the end of the play, fooling Guildenstern. “You see it is the kind they do believe in-- it’s what is expected” (123), he says. However, Guildenstern’s take on what he terms ‘real’ death is actually what happens to Rosencrantz and himself, leading one to think Stoppard is positing what death is for characters. Death is put on view by the Tragedians, different characters dying by various means. Guildenstern contradicts the Tragedians’ version of death. “No... no... not for us,” he says.

                GUIL: Death is not anything... death is not...
                           It’s the absence of presence, nothing
                           more... the endless time of never coming
                           back... (124).

The Little Girl’s and Little Boy’s deaths follow Guildenstern’s line of reasoning. Their parts are completed, they do not appear anymore on stage. Guildenstern’s definition of death actually turns out to be what death is for characters. Characters have a unique life of their own, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they have their own death. When characters are not on stage, they are dead. Pirandello touches upon this as he has the Father say, “We want to live, sir.... only for a few moments-- in you,” he asks the Producer and Actors (1731-32). The Characters are dead unless they are on the stage. What happens to characters when they follow stage directions such as ‘Exit Stage Right?’ They die as well. Death is also “an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced,” Guildenstern says (84). This may seem to contradict what the Player says, regarding an “exit being an entrance somewhere else” (28), but that is not the case. When there is nothing to enter, there is death. Stoppard’s play is an entrance for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s exits from Hamlet. When they both exit Stoppard’s play for the last time, there is no entrance for them to go back into Hamlet, because they have already left Shakespeare’s play for the last time. “Now you see me, now you--” Guildenstern says as he dies (126), referencing an earlier line he spoke regarding death. “It’s a man failing to reappear, that’s all-- now you see him, now you don’t” (84). Their bodies disappear from the stage. Guildenstern has a belated epiphany. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are dead characters.
        Why was it so difficult for Shakespeare’s duo to recognize this fact about themselves? This is another element of metatheater that one can look to Pirandello to address. Through the metatheatrical juxtaposition of Characters next to Actors, Pirandello points out some of the problems of acting. The Father and Stepdaughter reenact their meeting in a bordello for the Actors, and two Actors repeat the scene. The Stepdaughter disrupts the Actors when she laughs at them, and the Father attempts to explain, saying the Actors struck the Characters as funny. “However much they want to be the same as us, they’re not... It’s something to do with... being themselves, I suppose, not being us,” he says (1753). Pirandello writes the Father as having a difficult time explaining the idea to the Actors, perhaps as a means to dwell on the topic longer, giving the audience more time to grasp what Pirandello himself is trying to say. After a few stumbling starts, the Father finally explains the idea of Actors playing Characters, saying “it will be more an interpretation of what I am, what he [the Leading Actor] believes me to be, and not how I know myself to be” (1746). His confusion here, along with the confusion he develops over the debate as to his wife’s real name being used for a role seems to support the idea that actors dilute characters. Characters become less real when they are performed. Part of this is due to the necessity of stage conventions, the “mechanics of cheap melodrama.” When the Stepdaughter begins speaking her piece, the Actors shout for her to speak up, unable to hear her. “What we’re talking about you can’t talk about loudly,” she says, but the Producer replies, “Here in the theater you have to make yourself heard!” (1748). The Characters also balk at the impromptu set formed for the brothel’s room. When the Stepdaughter outlines what happened in the brothel, the Producer stops her, saying, “This is the theater you know! Truth’s all very well up to a point but...” (1754). Already, Pirandello shows a number of things that prevent the Characters and their stories from being fully realized in a stage performance.

                GUIL: ...We can do what we like and say what
                           we like to whomever we like, without
                ROS: Within limits, of course.
                GUIL: Certainly within limits (116).

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in a comic verbal exchange, hit upon the very idea of their own limitations. The dilution of their characters is so much that they cannot recognize their true natures when its dangled in front of their faces. In Elsinore, the Tragedians put on a dumb-show which goes on to illustrate every event in Hamlet, including two Spies which play Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s roles. The stage directions show Rosencrantz nearly gripping the idea.

                What brings ROS forward is the fact that under their cloaks the two SPIES are wearing coats identical to those worn by ROS and GUIL, whose coats are now covered by their cloaks. ROS approaches “his” SPY doubtfully. He does not quite understand why the coats are familiar. ROS stands close, touches the coat, thoughtfully... (82).

However, Rosencrantz fails to connect his counterpart to himself. The Player asks Guildenstern if he knows the play. Guildenstern doesn’t, although it unnerves him. Neither he nor Rosencrantz can recognize themselves as played by actors, paralleling the Characters’ problem with the Actors in Six Characters... Guildenstern’s problem with the Player and his troupe’s dramatization of death can be seen as another aspect of dilution. A character’s death cannot be portrayed by someone else, otherwise it loses its impact. “You can’t act death,” Guildenstern says (84). That death is reserved only for the character. Another convention of acting is the need to find the ‘motivation’ of that character. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t actors, they do not need to be told their motivation. “Who are we?” Guildenstern asks the Player, who then tells them, “You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough” (122). As mentioned earlier, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are always in character.
        They, like six other Characters, aren’t real. As fictive characters, Rosencrantz and the Father, et al., are all bound by a different set of rules. They have a different form of existence, one born of words in a script; a life dependent on the stage. Ironically, being dependent on the stage means characters are dependent on actors, which is the very thing that weakens them most. The plays-within-the-plays in Pirandello’s and Stoppard’s plays illustrate the rules which aid in making the distinction between the real and the fictive in plays, which metatheater demands of the audience. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and six other characters aren’t real. As a matter of fact, the ultimate distinction an audience can make is that any characters in any play are not real.

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