This is a King Kong-sized discussion, the place where we get into "meta-theater." Quite simply, meta-theater refers to plays about plays. In it, the characters might show an awareness that they are just actors in a play or the themes and dialogue of the play might reflect back on the nature of theater itself.
Hamlet is a very famous early example of meta-theater because it contains a play-within-a-play. The Murder of Gonzago is how Hamlet plans to affect the mind of Claudius, and bring him face-to-face with what he has done. In Shakespeare's play, art is taken from the past and it's meant to change the future. Hamlet sees theater as didactic: he uses it to teach a lesson to his usurping Uncle, and he's not very subtle.
Stoppard's play is extremely meta-theatrical, and for him things are much more complicated than they are for Hamlet. One of the big themes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is what the distinction is between art and reality. With the Player and the Tragedians running about, dress rehearsals getting broken up by "real life," and plays forecasting events in the real world, it's not too easy to figure out.
In an interview, Stoppard commented that one of the reasons he thought that the play was such a big success was that the character's predicament is very much like the playwright's. We've touched on this here and there, but we'll really try to nail it down. Stoppard is writing within the context of Shakespeare's play. There are certain fixed limits to what he can and cannot do. The action of his play is already pre-determined, but there are certain spaces that he can take advantage of, opportunities for freedom of action, chances for him to be spontaneous.
Now let's look at Guil and Ros. For them, the course of events is controlled by what happens at the court in Denmark. They're hapless and inactive and never have any idea what to do until someone tells them what to do. When Claudius or Hamlet enter the scene, they quickly become wrapped up in events that are bigger than them, events that they cannot control. Yet there are certain moments where they have some "free time." There are moments where they have nothing to do, and they can fill up the time as they please. In these moments, the characters are capable of writing their own fates, so to speak. They are free.
What's great about this is that the meta-theatrical moments feel extremely natural. Many lines resonate with dual meanings because they are said within a theater, but they also make sense in the context of the play. For example, Guil tells the young tragedian Alfred, "we could create a dramatic precedent here" (1.248). This makes sense in the play because Alfred has told Guil that he doesn't like acting. Guil is suggesting that Alfred could quit, which would be a "dramatic precedent." When Alfred begins to cry, he goes on, "Come, come, Alfred, this is no way to fill the theatres of Europe."
In the context of the play, it's just a figure of speech, but because this is said in a play being shown in a theater, it takes on another meaning. The audience becomes involved in the play. Guil is saying that audiences have a certain expectation of actors. They want actors to play the roles that were assigned to them and to do it well and not to make any fuss about it. As a member of the audience, you have to say, "Yeah, I'm one of the people forcing kids like Alfred to act for my entertainment, and no, I never considered whether or not they enjoy it."
There are a couple other moments where the boundaries get pushed even more. One of the most shocking is when Ros screams "Fire!" at the audience. When no one moves, he says, "Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes" (2.70). There are some tricky questions to answer here in the context of the play: how does Ros know that there are people in the audience watching him? Why does he show this knowledge now and not at other points? We're not too sure about those, but what Ros is doing is demonstrating, very un-subtly, that we – the audience – draw a sharp distinction between a play and real life. If someone in the audience screamed "Fire!" everyone would pay attention and get out of the theater as fast as they could. Yet when someone screams it in a play, it's not real. We don't have to act on it. We don't have to move.
The other instance is when Hamlet tries to spit on the audience. The stage directions read:
HAMLET comes down to footlights and regards the audience. The others watch but don't speak. HAMLET clears his throat noisily and spits into the audience. A split second later he claps his hand to his eye and wipes himself. He goes back upstage. (3.260)
We get into this a bit in Hamlet's "Character Analysis," but we'll go over it from a different angle here. One of the big themes of the play is passivity and inaction. Shortly before Hamlet spits on the audience, he overhears Ros and Guil open the letter that condemns him to death. He also hears them rationalize away delivering him to the king; he hears them betray him. As members of the audience, we sit there and think: "Man, Ros and Guil are just rotten guys. What cowards!" What we don't think is, "hey, we're sitting here passively, too." In some ways, we're even worse than Ros and Guil because we've known what was going to happen all along, and we've done nothing to stop it. Like Ros and Guil, we just let things happen. What Hamlet is basically saying is, "You also betrayed me." It's a direct indictment of the passivity of the audience.
Now, what questions might this raise in a larger context? Here are a few: What's the relationship between art and action? Can art inspire action? What are the unspoken rules that we observe when we come to a play? How can we live with ourselves when we go see so many tragedies where innocent people die and we just sit there and do nothing? Why do we do it?
These are huge questions. We're leaving them unanswered not because we're lazy (well, not completely anyway), but because these questions step too far outside the context of Stoppard's play. Stoppard's play doesn't provide answers to these questions, but it most definitely raises them and it uses meta-theater to do so.
The fact that Stoppard's play doesn't provide answers is key to our last point about meta-theater and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard is well known for writing plays that are capable of being interpreted many different ways (like almost all good art). It's hard to extract one clear message from his work. One character says one thing and another says the opposite, and the audience is left with no idea which one is the "take home point." We think this is a good thing. After all, if the message is too clear, then what you have is direct address. If you know exactly what you want to say, what's the point of writing a play? Why not just write an essay or deliver a speech?
What we're getting at here is the essence of what makes a play a play. The risk of meta-theater is that, if you're too direct, you're no longer writing a play. You're writing an essay. At other points in the module, we note how the characters almost just step out of the play and say, "Hey, we're just actors. The gig is up," but they never actually do. Why might that be?
The reason is that, as much as the play toys with convention, it still has to obey some basic rules. Perhaps the most basic contract between a playwright and his audience is that the playwright asks the audience to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the play, and the audience agrees. If Jules Roach (the man who played Guil in the first production) were to just come out and say, "Hey, my name is Jules Roach," then it would no longer be a play. It would have collapsed into direct address. This is, we think, the reason that the characters never cross that final line and admit that they're nothing but actors. As soon as they do, the play's over.