The early and middle 20th century was a period of profound darkness. The spasms of war wracked the whole of the spinning globe, washing the world in blood as violence spread like a contagion. The carnage of the Second World War shattered nations — humanity heard “Rolling Thunder” in the distance and saw an “Iron Curtain” descending. And of course, after a fateful August morning on Honshu Island, the world came to live with the omnipresent menace of Oppenheimer’s monster.
Perhaps more than most, artists are sensitive to the readings of the societal seismometer — they both channel and create the zeitgeist of their era, imbibing the spirit of the world and then throwing it back, having forged it anew in the smithy of their soul. It is not surprising then that when one views the art of the last century’s middle era, one sees pain and, above all, uncertainty and confusion.
While this temperament is present in visual arts, dance, music, poetry, literature and other areas, it is perhaps most noticeable in theatre. Starting around World War II, existentialism and absurdism began to surface in dramatic art. In France, Sartre’s “Huis Clos” explored a personalized existentialist Hell of people and Albert Camus’s “Le Malentendu” probed the depths of the absurd. The Irishman Samuel Beckett incorporated both Sartre’s existentialism and Camus’s absurdist outlook into his masterpiece “Waiting for Godot.” But in English language arts, the culmination of absurdist theatre is possibly Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” a tragicomedy first staged in 1966 in Edinburgh that is coming to the Arthur Miller stage in Ann Arbor this weekend.
“Because it’s absurdist theatre at its heart it doesn’t have the arc to it that people often expect from theatre. And the characters by the end aren’t necessarily changed by it — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never escape their fate,” said David Widmayer, the director of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of the play, in an interview with the Michigan Daily.
Widmayer started acting in eighth grade, and continued throughout high school. As a student at the University of Michigan — though not a theatre major — he joined the improv group Witt’s End in its inaugural year. Following his time at the University, Widmayer auditioned for a role in “The Tempest” at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, where he has been working ever since. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” will mark Widmayer’s directorial debut at the Civic Theatre.
“I’ve always loved it. I first saw scenes from it in high school,” Widmayer said of his decision to stage Stoppard’s work. “It’s very much about sort of discovering the play.”
The title of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is taken from a line in the final scene of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy “Hamlet,” and the action of Stoppard’s play mostly occurs on the sidelines of Shakespeare’s, with the title characters largely isolated from the events of the elder tragedy. Woven throughout the play, however, are scenes and lines from “Hamlet,” interspersed between the philosophical contemplations of the two title characters.
“[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] move inexorably from the start of the play to the end where they die, constantly sort of futilely fighting against the idea that they can’t do anything about their fate,” Widmayer said. “It shares a lot in common with ‘Waiting for Godot’ … because it’s not about the plot, it’s about what the characters are going through and their internal struggle and the way that Stoppard uses that to make us think about death or destiny or predetermination.”
Widmayer and his colleagues have approached much of the set design for the play with a minimalist, abstract perspective which lends itself to the somewhat intangible nature of the play’s setting.
“We brought in a minimal amount of set pieces,” Widmayer said. “Mostly what will occupy the thrust stage are very simple rehearsal style blocks, which can represent tables or chairs, and sort of fit the character of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being in a location of no particular character.”
The Civic Theatre’s production will also use updated costuming, eschewing traditional Shakespearean garb for 20th century fashion.
“I’ve got a really great costumer, Anni Fox, who has sort of taken us in a little bit of a modern direction,” Widmayer said. “We were originally thinking we would go with a more Elizabethan feel for it … but as she started to develop it she pitched to me a little more modern feel, with some designs inspired by current designers making fashion for runways, high fashion stuff with deconstructed suits and things like that.”
A large portion of the play features a group of tragedians — ostensibly the same who feature in Act III of “Hamlet” — and this presented an opportunity for a great deal of original music and musicians in the cast.
“We wrote all original songs for it as a group … singers would go off and look at Stoppard’s text and also the text from “Hamlet and pick out phrases that they liked for the lyrics, and the instrumentalists would work together on laying out a basic instrumental part,” Widmayer said. “Then we’d bring everyone back together and jam it out until we [had our songs] … it has sort a modern American folk music feel to it, but each song has its own character.”
Widmayer and the cast also use the music to provide commentary on the play, exploring many of the questions raised within the script.
“[Listening to the lyrics, one will] notice that they either have just heard some of the things that they’re singing or they’ll find that just afterwards the lyrics appear in the text … so the songs either seem to be echoing something that’s just happened or predicting something that’s about to happen.,” Widmayer said. “That’s a feel I really enjoy with it, because it plays up some of the metatheatrical issues that we’re dealing with in the show where there’s a lot of playing with place and playing with time and playing with the idea of ‘has all this happened before?’”
By the end of the play, concepts ranging from the differences between art and reality to the extent of an individual’s significance are explored, leaving audience members with plenty of material to ponder.
“There isn’t necessarily an answer to the questions raised by it — or at least we don’t have one answer in mind that we want them to come away with,” Widmayer said. “What we want them to come away with is having asked interesting questions, having made them think about things in a different way, particularly about what the value of knowledge is — if you had perfect knowledge about how everything was going to turn out, would that make you happier or not?”