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TABLE OF CONTENTS Common Core Standards 3 Massachusetts Standards in Theatre 4 Artists 5 Themes for Writing and Discussion 8


by Tom Stoppard Directed by Peter DuBois Sept. 20 – Oct. 20 Huntington Avenue Theatre

© Huntington Theatre Company Boston, MA 02115 September 2019 No portion of this curriculum guide may be reproduced without written permission from the Huntington Theatre Company’s Education Department. Inquiries should be directed to: Meg O’Brien Director of Education This curriculum guide was prepared for the Huntington Theatre Company by: Dylan C. Wack | Teaching Artist Fellow Alexandra Smith | Manager of Curriculum and Instruction Ivy Ryan | Teaching Artist Fellow

Mastery Assessment 11 Further Exploration 12 Suggested Reading 13 Suggested Activities 14 Notes 17


STANDARDS: Student Matinee performances and pre-show workshops provide unique opportunities for experiential learning and support various combinations of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. They may also support standards in other subject areas such as Social Studies and History, depending on the individual play’s subject matter. Activities are also included in this Curriculum Guide and in our pre-show workshops that support several of the Massachusetts state standards in Theatre. Other arts areas may also be addressed depending on the individual play’s subject matter. Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details 1

Reading Literature: Craft and Structure 5

Grades 9-10: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Grades 11-12: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Grades 9-10: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks), create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

Grades 11-12: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details 2 •

Grades 9-10: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text. Grades 11-12: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Reading Literature: Craft and Structure 6 •

Grades 9-10: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

Grades 11-12: Analyze a case in which grasping point of view required distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details 3

Reading Literature: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7

Grades 9-10: Analyze how complex characters (e.g. those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the themes.

Grades 11-12: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop related elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Grades 9-12: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g. recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist).




1.7: Create and sustain a believable character throughout a scripted or improvised scene (By the end of Grade 8).

1.12: Describe and analyze, in written and oral form, characters’ wants, needs, objectives, and personality characteristics (By the end of Grade 8).

1.13: In rehearsal and performance situations, perform as a productive and responsible member of an acting ensemble (i.e., demonstrate personal responsibility and commitment to a collaborative process) (By the end of Grade 8).

1.14: Create complex and believable characters through the integration of physical, vocal, and emotional choices (Grades 9-12).

1.15: Demonstrate an understanding of a dramatic work by developing a character analysis (Grades 9-12).

1.17: Demonstrate increased ability to work effectively alone and collaboratively with a partner or in an ensemble (Grades 9-12).

AUDIENCE ETIQUETTE Attending live theatre is a unique experience with many valuable educational and social benefits. To ensure that all audience members are able to enjoy the performance, please take a few minutes to discuss the following audience etiquette topics with your students before you come to the Huntington Theatre Company. •

How is attending the theatre similar to and different from going to the movies? What behaviors are and are not appropriate when seeing a play? Why?

Remind students that because the performance is live, the audience’s behavior and reactions will affect the actors’ performances. No two audiences are exactly the same, and therefore no two performances are exactly the same—this is part of what makes theatre so special! Students’ behavior should reflect the level of performance they wish to see.

Theatre should be an enjoyable experience for the audience. It is absolutely all right to applaud when appropriate and laugh at the funny moments. Side conversations with your friends during the performance, however, are not allowed. Why might this be? Be sure to mention that not only would the people seated around them be able to hear their conversation, but the actors on stage could hear them, too. Theatres are constructed to carry sound efficiently!

Any noise or light can be a distraction, so please remind students to make sure their cell phones are turned off (or better yet, left at home or at school!). Texting, photography, and video recording are prohibited.


2.7: Read plays and stories from a variety of cultures and historical periods and identify the characters, setting, plot, theme, and conflict (By the end of Grade 8).

2.8: Improvise characters, dialogue, and actions that focus on the development and resolution of dramatic conflicts (By the end of Grade 8).

2.11: Read plays from a variety of genres and styles; compare and contrast the structure of plays to the structures of other forms of literature (Grades 9-12).


4.6: Draw renderings, floor plans, and/or build models of sets for a dramatic work and explain choices in using visual elements (line, shape/ form, texture, color, space) and visual principals (unity, variety, harmony, balance, rhythm) (By the end of Grade 8). 4.13: Conduct research to inform the design of sets, costumes, sound, and lighting for a dramatic production (Grades 9-12).


Strand 6: Purposes and Meanings in the Arts — Students will describe the purposes for which works of dance, music, theatre, visual arts, and architecture were and are created, and, when appropriate, interpret their meanings (Grades PreK-12).

Food, gum, and drinks are not permitted in the theatre or lobby. This includes our lobby spaces before, during, and after the performance.

Strand 10: Interdisciplinary Connections — Students will apply their knowledge of the arts to the study of English language arts, foreign languages, health, history and social science, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering (Grades PreK-12).

Students should sit with their group as seated by the Front of House staff and should not leave their seats once the performance has begun.


Did you know the Huntington Theatre Company’s website provides students and teachers opportunities to more deeply explore the season’s offerings and learn about upcoming events in the Education department? Utilizing the website at find the answers to the following questions:

Who is the Artistic Director of the Huntington Theatre Company? Who is the Managing Director? How long have they each been in their respective positions? What are the primary responsibilities of each of these jobs?


Your friend broke her foot and needs to use a wheelchair. What accessibility services does the Huntington provide for patrons like her?



Did you know the Huntington Theatre Company is on Facebook? Like us at and



Which other plays by Tom Stoppard have been produced at the Huntington Theatre Company? When was the last time a play by Stoppard appeared in the Huntington’s season? ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD CURRICULUM GUIDE

ARTISTS Mr. DuBois served for five years as Associate Producer and Resident Director at The Public Theater in New York City, preceded by five years as artistic director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. Mr. DuBois has directed multiple episodes of the podcast “Modern Love,” including its debut with Broadway actress Lauren Molina, who has also appeared in productions at the Huntington. Prior to his work at Perseverance Theatre, Mr. DuBois lived and worked in the Czech Republic where he co-founded Asylum, a multi-national squat theatre in Prague. “Prague was this place I was just drawn to like a magnet,” DuBois recounted to the Boston Globe in December 2007. “The idea that there was a country being run by a playwright, Vaclav Havel. I saved up some money and got on a plane. that was my first experience really being in an artistic community, and that really made me feel like a thriving artist, alive and excited.” “Where I think institutions have real value is in the way that they can support artists,” he continues. “Artists who work in the performing arts have nothing if they don’t have an audience, and they have nothing if they don’t have institutions behind them. So I love having a home for me to do my work as an artist, but also providing a home for other artists to do their best work.” Peter DuBois

PETER DUBOIS: DIRECTOR AND THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY’S ARTISTIC DIRECTOR The 2019-2020 season marks Peter DuBois’s twelfth season as Artistic Director at the Huntington Theatre Company where his directing credits include many new works by some of the American theatre’s most exciting playwrights and classics by masters of the art form. His Huntington credits include musicals such as Sunday in the Park with George (2016) and A Little Night Music (2015), new plays such as Fall (2018), Can You Forgive Her? (2016), after all the terrible things I do (2015), Smart People (2014), The Power of Duff  (2013), Rapture, Blister, Burn (2013), Captors (2011), Sons of the Prophet (2011), Becky Shaw (2010), Vengeance is the Lord’s (2010), and The Miracle at Naples (2009), and classics such as Tartuffe (2017) and Romeo and Juliet (2019).

1. As a producer and artistic director, Peter DuBois has played an integral part in shaping theatre companies around the world. Research another theatre he has worked for (The Public Theatre, Perseverance Theater, or Asylum). Compare and contrast their mission statements, current and previous seasons, and educational programs with those of the Huntington Theatre Company. 2. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Peter DuBois explained that after two and a half years he left Prague because he “really wanted to explore what it meant to be an American artist.” What

George Hampe and Lily Santiago in the Huntington’s production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Peter DuBois (2019)



His West End London credits include Sex with Strangers and Rapture, Blister, Burn (Hampstead Theatre), All New People (Duke of York’s Theatre), and Becky Shaw (Almeida Theatre). His New York credits include Can You Forgive Her? (Vineyard Theatre); The Power of Duff with Greg Kinnear (New York Stage and Film/Powerhouse Theater); Rapture, Blister, Burn (Playwrights Horizons, 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist); Sons of the Prophet (Roundabout Theatre Company, 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist); Modern Terrorism, Becky Shaw, Trust with Sutton Foster, All New People, and Lips Together, Teeth Apart (Second Stage Theatre); Measure for Pleasure, Richard III, Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?, Biro (The Public Theater); and The View From 151st Street, and Jack Goes Boating with Philip Seymour Hoffman (LAByrinth Theater Company/The Public Theater). His productions have been on the annual top ten lists of The New York Times, Time Out, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Newsday, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, The Evening Standard, The Boston Globe, and Improper Bostonian, and he received an Honorable Mention for 2013 Bostonian of the Year by The Boston Globe Magazine.



makes someone an American artist? What kind of stories are unmistakably American? Based on these definitions, who is an American artist you admire and why? 3. Peter Dubois has directed many genres of theatre from world premiere new plays to beloved musicals to creative spins on classics. He has directed plays in every space imaginable from an abandoned Salvation Army building in the Czech Republic to the historic Broadway-style 890 seat Huntington Avenue Theatre. Looking at DuBois’s eclectic body of work, what can you learn about him as an artist? What patterns emerge in the playwrights or plays he selects? What kind of stories interest you? If you could put any story on a stage tomorrow, what would it be and why?

PLAYWRIGHT TOM STOPPARD Sir Tom Stoppard is a British playwright and screenwriter whose career has spanned over fifty years, and whose works are often regarded by critics and audiences alike as modern classics. His first major play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead has been produced on the West End, Off-Broadway, and on Broadway several times each, and is popular with regional theatres and community theatres around the world. Stoppard was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, in current day southeastern Czechia, as Tomáš Straussler, to non-observant Jews who worked for the Bata shoe company. On the eve of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Straussler family was sent to Singapore where Bata maintained a factory, escaping persecution by the Nazi forces. Once in Singapore, Stoppard’s father began working as a physician for the British army, which evacuated the Strausslers once again before the invasion of Japan in 1942. This time, the family escaped to Australia before and eventually relocating to Darjeeling, India. Stoppard’s father would die in Singapore when Stoppard was four, attempting to escape the



island. In Darjeeling, Stoppard attended an American Christian school, where he began going by “Tom.” His mother married a British officer, who gave Tom and his brother the surname “Stoppard,” and moved the family to Great Britain in 1946. He instilled in his step-sons a great sense of national pride in Britain, teaching them the Cecil Rhodes quote: “To be born an Englishman is to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life.” Stoppard would spend the rest of his life in England, leaving school at seventeen to work as a journalist in Bristol where he was eventually promoted to humor columnist, featured writer, and drama critic, which would lead Stoppard into the world of theatre.


Rene Augesen and Summer Serafin in the Huntington’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (2008)

Playwright Tom Stoppard

Stoppard’s first plays were radio dramas that he wrote while reviewing work at the Bristol Old Vic, a theatre of high esteem that employed actors such as Peter O’Toole, with whom Stoppard became friends. Stoppard’s first play, A Walk on the Water, later retitled Enter a Free Man, was produced in 1960 and was highly influenced by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The piece was picked up by an agent and produced in Hamburg onstage. Later, it was also filmed and broadcast on British television. Stoppard then traveled to London to continue his work as a theatre critic. In 1964, the Ford Foundation, a private fund set up by Henry Ford and his son Edsel to advance the welfare of human life, gave Stoppard a grant which allowed him to live in a mansion in Berlin for five months as something of an artist’s retreat. During this period, Stoppard wrote a one act play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, which would eventually become Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. In the years that followed, Stoppard shifted away from his work as a critic to focus primarily on writing dramatic works. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead received its premiere at the National Theatre in London in 1967 and made Stoppard hugely popular in Britain. He would go on to write other modern classics such as Travesties (1974), Arcadia (1993), and Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006). His newest play, Leopoldstadt, will premiere on the West End in January of 2020. Stoppard’s career includes several writing and co-writing credits on screenplays, including Shakespeare in Love (1998), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and the screenplay of his magnum opus, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990). Additionally, Stoppard has translated works by many artists, including Czech playwright Václav Havel. Stoppard is the recipient of four Tony Awards for Best Play for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1968), Travesties (1976), The Real Thing (1984), and The Coast of Utopia (2007), as well as an Academy Award and the Laurence Olivier Award. In a 1981 interview with Nancy Shield Hardin published in “Contemporary Literature,” Stoppard reflected on his approach to playwriting. “It depends on what you start with,” he explained. “I

suppose some plays start with the desire to write about a certain kind of person: then you have something to go on. But I tend to start with something more abstract: I tend to write about ideas. And then…come the individuals…I rely quite a lot on the actors differentiating between the characters because characters with a capital ‘K’ isn’t something that interests me very much. Quite a lot of my lines could be given to different people in the play without anything odd.” In addition to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the Huntington Theatre Company has produced four other plays by Tom Stoppard: Night and Day (1982), On the Razzle (1984), The Real Thing (2005), and Rock ‘n’ Roll (2008).

QUESTIONS: 1. In his youth, Tom Stoppard lived in several different countries when his family was forced to flee from one country to another during World War II. How might this experience have affected his beliefs about home and stability? How is this reflected in his writing and his style? Why did Stoppard become an absurdist in his early work? 2. Stoppard discussed in the interview with Nancy Shield Harden that he develops ideas before characters in his work, rather than developing characters from the start. Where is there evidence of this approach in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead? How fluid is the language in the play? As Stoppard describes, could the lines of dialogue be given to different people in the play without anything odd coming of it? Why or why not? 3. Stoppard began his career as a theatre critic, which he gave up due his outlook on theatre; “I operated on the assumption that there was an absolute scale of values against which art could be measured. I didn’t trust my own subjective responses,” he said in a New York Times interview in 1989. In what ways can art be critical? Which artists use their work as a form of criticism? Is art an effective medium for criticism?


Alex Hurt as Rosencrantz and Jeremy Webb as Guildenstern in the Huntington’s production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (2019)



THEMES FOR WRITING AND DISCUSSION that Rosencrantz has won eighty-five times in a row, all by calling “heads.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern express deep concern with what they are meant to be doing in that moment and why they should be doing it. In this first scene, Rosencrantz asks his partner what they should do next, to which Guildenstern responds, “Practically starting from scratch ... An awakening, a man standing on his saddle to bang on the shutters, our names shouted in a certain dawn, a message, a summons ... A new record for heads and tails. We have not been ... picked out ... simply to be abandoned ... set loose to find our own way ... We are entitled to some direction ... I would have thought.” Here, Guildenstern has posed the essential question of existentialism: Must humans find their own way without any outside guidance or direction?

Danish Existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (c. 1840)

EXISTENTIALISM Existentialism is a philosophical frame of thinking which wrestles with the concept of free will, and posits that humans are responsible for their own actions and have agency over their fates and lives. This philosophy developed in response to essentialism, the idea that all people are born with an essential quality that they will live up to, no matter what they do, whether it be because of fate, or God’s will, or some other cosmic plan. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), often cited as the first existentialist philosopher, wrote in direct response to his thoughts on Christianity and societal influences. Kierkegard was against the state religion of the Church of Denmark, which he believed corrupted Christian beliefs. He promoted the notion that one’s faith in and love of God should not be subjected to the doctrine of the Church, and that an individual is responsible for their faith in God. His views would evolve over the years to include the concept that existence is not predetermined by a higher power, and that societal roles are not permanent; human existence comes before the essence of a person, and as such the person grows without predestination. Similarly, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) stated in Existentialism is a Humanism that “in life, man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing. No doubt this thought may seem harsh to someone who has not made a success of his life. But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations.” Sartre believed that no moral code or will of another could lead a person down any particular path, but rather the actions of that person lead them to be what and who they are. Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead through an existentialist lens but also as a critique of that philosophy. The play begins with the titular characters playing a game of chance, flipping a coin. As the first scene proceeds, the audience learns 8


Stoppard’s play largely follows the two characters through the same sequence of events they experience in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in pursuit of the reason as to why Hamlet has been behaving strangely. They are dispatched with Hamlet to England where they expect the English to execute Hamlet, however they find the letter that Hamlet has doctored to state that it is actually Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are to be executed. Rosencrantz responds simply to the news. “They had it in for us, didn’t they? Right from the beginning” he says. “Who’d have thought that we were so important?” Here, Rosencrantz muses about another core concept of existentialism: The belief that all human beings possess importance and it is the task of living to discover precisely what that importance is. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not make their own discovery until the very end of the play, thus calling into question existentialism and essentialism. By writing a play about existentialism, Stoppard questions the concept of existentialism itself. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ponder what they were sent for, what they must do, and why it all matters, the two remain characters in a play. By existentialism’s own definition, the two can never fully embody that philosophy because they exist on a page. From the play’s first production in 1966 to the Huntington’s 2019 production and beyond, the two will always begin by flipping coins, and will be whisked away to their deaths in England in Act III. The world of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is inherently essentialist, however Stoppard, at the end of it all, still calls into question the validity of essentialism. In Act II, as the Player and his Tragedians find Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after the two abandoned the troupe, the Player furiously exclaims, “Don’t you see? We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!” Stoppard’s characters, drawing attention to their status as actors, force audiences to self-reflect. If actors are the opposite of people, then the audience is filled with people who are not bound to the same fate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Thus, Stoppard leaves his audience with some degree of hope.

QUESTIONS: 1. What aspects of the world of Stoppard’s play force the play’s characters to question their reality? How do simple things, such as a game of chance or memory, make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know that something is off? 2. Which characters in the play seem more essentialist and which seem more existentialist? Does the presence of Shakespeare’s original characters in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead affect the existentialism of this play or its characters?

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, one of existentialism’s philosophical pioneers, defined this world view by explaining that “existence precedes essence.” In your own words, define existentialism and essentialism. How are they different? Which philosophy do you believe in? 4. Existentialists believe that as humans we control our own destiny. Do you feel that this is true in reality? List some aspects of your life that you feel you do and do not have control over.

ADAPTATION Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which means he draw inspiration from an existing work and then transformed it by adding new elements and perspectives. Stoppard took two minor characters from one of the most produced plays in history and asked the question, “what about them?” The play fills in the details of what Stoppard imagines could have transpired in between the few scenes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear onstage during Hamlet. William Shakespeare was also a master of adaptation. Elements from almost all of Shakespeare’s works can be traced back earlier stories or events that he adapted and reinterpreted for his own purposes. From the influence of the Wars of the Roses on his histories, to the Italian story of Romeus and Juliet that would someday become Romeo and Juliet, to Hamlet itself which is based upon a Danish legend, Shakespeare adapted his source material for the same reasons that Stoppard felt inspired to adapt Hamlet. The stories were already well-known, so working from a familiar source allowed for writers such as Shakespeare and Stoppard to take some liberties by assuming their audience’s prior knowledge. Stoppard, for example, begins Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead with relative stillness and silence. Though many playwrights use their plays’ opening moments to establish characters and lay the foundations for plot points to come later, Stoppard trusts that his audience will already understand his play’s connection to Hamlet based on its title and will patiently wait to see what develops.

THEATRE OF THE ABSURD Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is difficult to define in terms of genre. It is often referred to as a tragicomedy, due to its funny pacing and dark subject matter. As discussed in this Curriculum Guide, it is also often described as existentialist. What unites the play’s many descriptors and philosophies embedded in it is the umbrella of the Theatre of the Absurd. The Theatre of the Absurd was a theatrical movement centered in Europe that began in the middle of the 20th century. The continent was still reeling from the effects of World War II: Millions of people killed in concentration camps across eastern Europe, major bombings from London to Berlin to France, the creation and deployment of the atomic bomb. Is it possible to resume a normal life after surviving these atrocities? How does one make sense of the years between 1939 and 1945? The Theatre of the Absurd asks these very questions. Playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett all helped establish the movement, with their plays Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rhinoceros, and Waiting for Godot, respectively. The Theatre of the Absurd, as the name suggests, deals with absurdity, or the search for meaning in a meaningless world. Theatre of the Absurd often straddles the line between existentialism, the belief that humans are in control of their own lives and actions to fulfill

Artists also adapt earlier works in order to shed new light on the original work’s central subject matter. Hamlet, as discussed in the Further Exploration section of this curriculum guide, is a play about mortality, morality, and familial trust. In the years following World War II, these were all questions with which Stoppard and his fellow existentialists were deeply preoccupied.

QUESTIONS: 1. Stoppard included some of the original text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his play. What does Stoppard achieve by blending the text in this way? How does it change the rhythm of the storytelling and the development of the characters? Does Stoppard’s use of Shakespeare’s words enhance your understanding of the original play in any way? 2. Why do authors choose to adapt other works of literature? What are the unique challenges and benefits of this kind of writing?

Campbell Scott in the Huntington’s production of Hamlet (1996)



3. Research modern adaptations that transform plays, movies, or television shows into another format. What kind of stories seem to get adapted most often? Why might this be? Are there instances in which the new version is considered more successful than the source material?


their purpose, and nihilism, the belief that life has no meaning and no meaning should be imposed upon it. As such, many Absurdist plays have minimal plots. In these plays, language is a barrier to communication and prevents understanding rather than serving as a tool for achieving recognition and clarity. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard plays with the names of the characters. For example, in Hamlet, Claudius misidentifies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, calling each man by the other’s name. In his own play, Stoppard leans into this absurdity of this moment, and writes his version of Rosencrantz as equally uncertain which identity belongs to himself and which to his companion. In addition, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern literally have difficulty understanding what the Hamlet characters are saying. Rosencrantz, in an effort to diagnose Hamlet’s mania, recounts his interaction with the Danish prince moments before: “Six rhetorical and two repetition, leaving nineteen, of which we answered fifteen. And what did we get in return? He’s depressed! . . . Denmark’s a prison and he’d rather live in a nutshell; some shadow-play about the nature of ambition, which never got down to cases, and finally one direct question which might have led somewhere, and led in fact to his illuminating claim to tell a hawk from a handsaw.” In this scene, Stoppard highlights the challenges of understanding Hamlet’s behavior in the Shakespeare’s play, eventually concluding it to be absurd nonsense. Theatre of the Absurd is also characterized by metatheatricality, a device in which a work of theatre expresses awareness that it is theatre. This can be used for comedic effect and provides an unsettling reminder to the audience that the people onstage are just pretending. Halfway through Act II of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, for example, the action pauses for a moment, at which time the following exchange occurs: ROSENCRANTZ: Fire! GUILDENSTERN: Where?

Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Festival d’Avignon (1978)



ROSENCRANTZ: It’s all right — I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists. (He regards the audience, that is the direction, with contempt-and other directions, then front again.) Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes. Here, Stoppard reminds the audience that as they watch the play, they are being watched as well. That Rosencrantz tries to panic the audience and fails is metatheatricality at work. The script calls for it and the audience knows that it’s part of the play, however in an instant, a genuine fear might occur in members of the audience, as it seems that the play has been stripped away and all that is left are actors. The Theatre of the Absurd illuminates the challenges of efforts to make sense of a senseless world. While the absurdist playwrights do not seek specific answers, their works inspires reflection by simultaneously being about everything and nothing. Their world is one in which a simple coin flip can be both mundane and the most important thing in the world.

QUESTIONS: 1. Identify specific elements of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead that qualify it as an absurdist work. 2. What does the phrase “language is a barrier to communication” mean? If language is a barrier to communication in absurdist plays, what is the purpose of the language they use? Provide an example from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to support your answer. 3. The Theatre of the Absurd inspired a myriad of films and television shows, including The Twilight Zone, Fight Club, and Black Mirror. While much of the Theatre of the Absurd was written in response to World War II, what are modern absurdist works responding to? What part of modern society seems to be the catalyst for absurdity?



What does the Player say that actors are?


Who is onstage at the beginning of the play?


What happened during the first performance the Players put on?


How are the characters dressed?


Why does the Player claim that Guildenstern is nobody special?


What are they doing?



How does the coin land every time?

 hat does Rosencrantz claim most people think of the W experience of being dead in a box?


 hat kind of animal does Guildenstern suggest throwing in W the air to test the law of averages?


 hat does Rosencrantz think is better: Being alive in a box or W dead in a box?


How many times in a row does the coin land on heads?



 hat does Guildenstern hear as he is working through his W syllogism (in which a conclusion is drawn from two given or assumed propositions, each of which shares a term with the conclusion, and shares a common or middle term not present in the conclusion)?

 ho do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell about the players W arriving?


Who does Hamlet take offstage with him?


Who is Ophelia to Hamlet?


What did Rosencrantz put under the foot of the Player?


What do the actors perform before the full play is performed for the King and Queen?


Where does Claudius intend to send Hamlet?


 hat kind of art does Guildenstern want to see the Player W present?


 ccording to Rosencrantz, which body parts continue to grow A after death?


Who sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?


 ho joins Rosencrantz and Guildenstern onstage? What do W they call the actors?


Which member of the troupe is named?


 hich element of the blood, love, and rhetoric school must the W actors perform with?


Who is the first character to use Shakespearean language?


What does Claudius ask of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?


Who are Claudius and Gertrude?


Which words does Guildenstern claim to forget how to spell?


 hat do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern expect to be the reason W for Hamlet’s behavior?


 escribe Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and D Guildenstern. How do they know each other?


 hat game do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play to pass W the time?

20. How many people die in the Murder of Gonzago? 21.

Who did Hamlet kill?

22. What does Hamlet bring onstage with him briefly? 23. What must Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do with Hamlet? 24. Who does the Soldier work for?


Where are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?


Why does Guildenstern like boats?


Who is on the boat along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?


What do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do with a coin?


In which hand did Rosencrantz hold a coin?


 hat are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern supposed to give to W the King of England?


Who has the letter?

22. Who exits before the end of the act?


How does Guildenstern compare death to boats?

23. How does Hamlet refer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?


What does Rosencrantz say he does not believe in?


What does the letter ask the King of England to do?

20. How does the game change after they see Hamlet walk by? 21.

What do they notice Hamlet doing?



What sound do they hear on the boat?


What does Guildenstern tell Hamlet at the top of Act Two?


Why must the actors leave for England?


How does Hamlet claim his mother and uncle are deceived?


According to the Player, what happens to old actors?


 ho thinks that things went well in their efforts to discover W what is wrong with Hamlet?


What happens to the boat?


Which direction of the wind means that Hamlet is not crazy?


Who is missing?


 hich body part does Rosencrantz consider licking to discover W the wind direction? What does he ask Guildenstern to do to help?


What does the letter say now?


 ccording to Guildenstern, where did he and Rosencrantz A go wrong?


What does Rosencrantz yell at the audience? Why?


Who kills the Player?


 hat play does Hamlet want the troupe of players to perform W for his uncle?


What is special about the dagger?

20. What news does the Ambassador share to the court? ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD CURRICULUM GUIDE


FURTHER EXPLORATION Claudius employs Laertes to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword and to ensure Hamlet will not survive his return to court, while Claudius poisons the goblet of wine that Hamlet will drink from. During the fight, Gertrude takes a sip of the poisoned wine, Laertes strikes Hamlet and he returns with a fatal blow to Laertes, and before Hamlet dies, he attacks Claudius and kills him. Hamlet dies in the arms of his friend Horatio, who informs the invading Fortinbras, Prince of Norway of what has transpired. The play ends with Fortinbras on the throne of Denmark. Shakespeare’s treatment of the themes of death and mortality in Hamlet did not reflect typical English sentiments about those topics in the 1600s. The ghostly appearance of Hamlet’s father reflected the Catholic belief that souls not forgiven of their sins at the time of their death were sent to purgatory, but England was a Protestant nation in Shakespeare’s time and belief in ghosts was rare. Hamlet also discusses the meaning of life in his “to be, or not to be” speech, which is often interpreted as Hamlet contemplating suicide, but most of Shakespeare’s audience would have viewed suicide as a sin that would send Hamlet directly to hell without hope of salvation. Actress Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet (1899)

SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most produced plays in modern history. It is Shakespeare’s longest play and was originally produced sometime in the late 1590’s or early 1600’s. As one of the bard’s tragedies, Hamlet primarily examines darker themes such as mortality, life after death, and murder. The play centers on Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as he grieves the sudden loss of his father, while his uncle, Claudius, has become king through his hasty marriage to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Early in the play, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who reveals that he was murdered by Claudius. Unsure of whether he can trust the vision of his father, Hamlet decides to “put an antic disposition on” until he can get a better sense of what is going on. Observing an alarming change in Hamlet’s behavior, Claudius and Gertrude send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s friends from university, to try to make sense of his newfound madness. Yet Hamlet remains committed to his act. He speaks nonsensically to whoever will listen, insults Ophelia, the woman he loves, and questions the meaning of life in his famous “to be, or not to be” speech. Hamlet hires some travelling players to come to court and perform a play with a similar plot to the murder of his father. When Claudius angrily storms out of the performance, Hamlet takes this as evidence that the apparition of his father spoke the truth and that Claudius is guilty of the murder. Soon, Hamlet accidentally murders Polonius, the king’s advisor, as he spies on a meeting between Gertrude and Hamlet. Hamlet is banished to England, where Claudius has arranged for Hamlet to be executed. However, Hamlet escapes, condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be executed in his place, and returns to Denmark. Upon his return, he discovers that Ophelia has also died, following the death of her father, Polonius. Polonius’s son, Laertes, challenges Hamlet to a duel. 12


Ultimately, Hamlet is a play about betrayal and the lengths to which human beings will go to avenge those dear to them. Though Shakespeare’s audiences may have been surprised by his interpretation of those themes in Hamlet, the bard’s ability to present universal human emotions, experiences, and truth is what allowed his works to become enduring masterpieces that continue to inspire self-reflection in contemporary audiences.

QUESTIONS: 1. Read Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’ play. What arguments does Hamlet present regarding death and life? Research the context of this moment — is Hamlet genuinely suicidal or is he pretending? Provide evidence from the text to support your answer. 2. Compare and contrast the themes of Hamlet and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Where the plays explore similar themes, describe how the plays treat them differently. 3. Consider the excerpts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that Tom Stoppard incorporated in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Why would Stoppard include these specific scenes? How does Shakespeare’s original text influence the action of Stoppard’s play? 4. Why do you think Hamlet remains a popular play today? What parts of the play speak to you? Is there anything that does not seem relevant to contemporary life?

LIMINALITY AND PALIMPSESTS Theatre of the Absurd strives to make its audience feel uneasy by calling into question the supposed reality onstage that the audience is observing. To accomplish this, absurdist works such as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead rely heavily on liminality, the ambiguity that occurs while going somewhere or completing some task. For example, if someone is on a plane flying from Boston to Chicago, where is the plan once it takes off from Boston’s Logan International

Airport? Obviously, one answer is simply “in the sky.” However, is the plane in Massachusetts if it isn’t touching the ground there? It cannot already be in Chicago. If the plane flies over other states on the way to Chicago, did you visit those places? This is liminality, the grey area that exists during rites of passage, travels, or passages in time. Liminality plays a major role in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and one could argue that the entire plot occurs in a liminal space. We the audience know the characters are in Denmark, though little reference is made to their surroundings outside of the scenes from Hamlet. Even when it is made clear in Act 3 that they are on a boat, a boat is a liminal space, as it is between Denmark and England, and not really in either place while they are in transit. The play’s structure is also liminal. At its core, it is the story of two minor characters while they are offstage of the actual story — that of Hamlet, Price of Denmark. Stoppard’s inclusion of scenes from Hamlet ensures that the bulk of the play feels somewhat like a waiting room where the mundane activities, such as the flipping of coins, can occur. It is also a place where more remarkable events, such as a troop of actors appearing out of nowhere, are also possible. Absurdist theatre, including Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, also makes use of palimpsests, the remnants of something previous in the current version of a thing. When you draw an image on a piece of paper in pencil, and then erase it, there may still be an impression of the original pencil marks on the page or perhaps a smudge from where the eraser did not quite remove all of the graphite. If you were to draw a completely new image on that same piece of paper that covers up and has nothing to do with the previous image, parts of the original still may be somewhat visible. The original image is a palimpsest, or the remains of what was previously in the foreground. The Roman colosseum and the Egyptian pyramids are palimpsests of the former empires that inhabited Rome and Giza, respectively.

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES SHAKESPEAREAN RESOURCES • Folger Shakespeare Library Information about Shakespeare, as well as an online copy of the entire text of Hamlet: • Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry with a detailed biography, contextual articles on Elizabethan literature, art, theaters and culture, and entries on famous Shakespearean actors, directors and scholars.

EXISTENTIALISM • Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” • Crash Course’s video on Existentialism:

FILMS AND VIDEOS • The “In a Box” scene from the National Theatre Revival in London: • Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare’s words act as a palimpsest for the audience. While the audience watches a modern play written in contemporary English, scenes written in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter are interspersed as a reminder of the source material and as a framing device for the story. The effect can be jarring, as the audience hears the two types of dialogue in a scene and will see characters speak in both manners throughout the play. Much like liminality, palimpsests in Stoppard’s play are meant to disorient the audience: If you cannot be sure which era of play you are watching, you cannot be too comfortable as an audience member.

QUESTIONS: 1. Define the terms liminality and palimpsests. In addition to the examples provided in this article, what are some other real-life examples of these two concepts? What additional examples of each are in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead? Do they effectively disorient the audience? 2. Why is it important to disorient the audience in Absurdist Theatre? What is the desired effect on the audience’s experience of the storytelling? 3. Given his personal biography, why might liminality and palimpsests be particularly interesting to a writer like Tom Stoppard? 4. What are the in-between spaces in your life? In what ways do you exist in liminal spaces? What are palimpsests in your own life? ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD CURRICULUM GUIDE



B: Yes.

Playwright Tom Stoppard has said that you could rearrange which character says which lines in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and nothing weird would come of it. In this activity you will explore the ways in which language can be used as a barrier to communication, and how this phenomenon can actually reveal the meaning in the storytelling, regardless of who says what.

A: Good I thought you said you were done.

For this activity, you will need hard copies of the neutral scenes below, as well as scissors. To start, discuss the ideas that make up the Theatre of the Absurd: Language as a barrier to communication, liminality, metatheatricality, and palimpsests. Discuss what it might be like for an audience to watch a play that they don’t totally understand and that they are not even meant to understand. Also define the term neutral scene, a scene that is intentionally vague and leaves it up to the actors to make choices that provide the scene with meaning. No words can be added or taken away from the scene as it is written Find a partner and choose who will play character A and who will play character B. Read the following scene out loud together. A: This is the worst. B: Mmm I know. A: There. B: Happy? A: I am now yes. B: Good are you done? A: OK now your turn. B: OK No, this is the worst.

A: Yes. There. Discuss and decide: What is happening here? Who are these characters and what is their relationship? What are they physically doing? Where is this scene happening? How does the scene resolve? Make notes on your choices and then rehearse the scene, incorporating your selected circumstances to add meaning. Share your work with the rest of the class. Next, take a moment to cut up the scene line by line. Mix the lines up and randomly pull a new order for the lines without looking. Assemble the new scene by either writing it down or laying the strips on a flat surface. Character A will now have the first line, character B will have the second line, and so on, regardless of which character said which lines in the previous version. Read the new scene out loud. Does the scene work if you are the same characters? What about if you trade roles? Do the circumstances you chose for the previous version still work? Or is there a new scenario the characters could be in? Discuss and decide on whether to keep your circumstances or create new ones. Rehearse the scene and share with the class. Next, read the second scene according to each line’s original character assignment. This may mean that one character speaks two or more lines in a row, depending on the random order of the lines. Does this version of the scene work for the original characters? What is the new meaning of the scene? What scenario makes sense for this version? Share with the class.

B: There.

To wrap up, discuss how the scenes changed. How did you make sense of your scene? What is it like to act in a scene that no longer makes sense? How did you approach working on each new version

A: Are you done?

of the scene?

A: Mmm I know.



Colin Keith-Johnston as Hamlet, Walter Hudd as Guildenstern and Patrick Waddington as Rosencrantz in a modern dress production of Hamlet, Kingsway Theatre, London (1925).


B: OK OK now anything else?


Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz and Joshua McGuire as Guildenstern in the 50th anniversary revival of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic (2017)



Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an example of an adaptation that pulls directly from the source material. The titular characters in Stoppard’s play are supporting characters in another play, and the action of the two plays follow the same span of time. Stoppard’s play, however, imagines what is happening in ongoing offstage events while the action of Hamlet, his source material, transpires onstage.

ROSENCRANTZ: Nor do I, really .. . . It’s silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead . . . which should make all the difference . . . shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air-you’d wake up dead, for a start, and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it . . . Because you’d be helpless, wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that, I mean you’d be in there forever. Even taking into account the fact that you’re dead, it isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead, really . . . ask yourself, if I asked you straight off — I’m going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather be alive or dead? Naturally, you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking — well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute someone’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (Banging the floor with his fists.) “Hey you. Whatsyername! Come out of there!”

For this exercise, you will become a playwright of a similar adaptation. Select a film, television series, or play with which you are familiar to serve as source material. Once you have made your selection, list every character from that source material that you can think of in 45 seconds on a piece of paper. Next, choose two supporting characters, minor characters, or characters who do speak with each other during the course of the source material. Imagine a set of circumstances in which the two would have a conversation about an event in the source material and take approximately 10 minutes to write a scene between these two characters. The scene must include the following: • A beginning, middle, and end. • A setting. • A reference to the source material’s protagonist. • A moment of tension between these two characters.


• A surprise exit.

1. How do you imagine Rosencrantz feels as he delivers this monologue? How can you tell?

• A sound. At the end of the 10 minutes, share your scene with a partner or small group. Discuss: What was difficult about creating a scene between these two people? What was easy? What would you title this new story? How would the source material’s protagonist fit into the new scene if you were to continue developing it?

ELA: TEXT ANALYSIS Read this passage from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and answer the questions that follow. ROSENCRANTZ: It could go on forever. Well, not for ever, I suppose. (Pause.) Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?

2. Does Rosencrantz come to a conclusion about life in a box versus death in a box? What does he think about those options? 3. How does Rosencrantz use questions in this monologue? What is he wondering about? 4. Is this monologue grounded in hope or despair? How does it change its perspective throughout? When do these changes happen and what thoughts prompt them? 5. What do you make of Guildenstern’s silence during this monologue?




Alex Hurt as Rosencrantz and Jeremy Webb as Guildenstern in Huntington’s production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (2019)

DESIGN: PHYSICALIZE THE SPACE Among the challenges of staging an Absurdist play is designing a setting that is clear enough for characters to interact with while not being too literal or realistic in its representation of the play’s setting. This is where the concept of liminality and palimpsests may come in handy (see “Liminality and Palimpsests” in the For Further Exploration for more information).


Create a scenic design for a production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead using a blank sheet of paper, a ruler, and pencils. Set up your paper by holding it in a landscape orientation and draw a straight line approximately two thirds the way down the sheet of paper. The larger space above the line is your “stage.” List the locations where various scenes of the play take place, such as the castle at Elsinore, the boat in the third act, halls around the castle, etc. Next, list what details of the play’s setting feel especially important: What details are absolutely necessary in order to make a scene happen? What elements do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern directly interact with?

Consider: Would it be possible to replace a literal object with something more representative or symbolic without changing the way the characters use it? For example, do chairs and tables need to be literal chairs and tables or are there other things the characters could use in the same way? On the stage space of your paper, sketch out a scenic design that is simultaneously representative of nowhere but can also be used to represent very specific settings in the play. Do your best to draw what you would want the scenery to look like but remember that your ideas are the most important part of this assignment! Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz in the film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

Present your design to your class and compare and contrast what your peers created. What elements appear across multiple designs? What elements are unique to individual designers’ interpretations? Discuss: How would your design help tell this story? In a non-literal piece of theatre, why is it important to be specific in your design work?






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