18 February 2011

Theatrical Structure II

[I return to the description of Michael Kirby’s system of structural analysis with part two. The first part of the discussion ended with a demonstration of various types of Action Structure; we start now with Information Structure.]

The piecing together of the clues evident in the Character Action of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also a mechanism of the play as a whole. There are several of these Information Structures operating in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. (Don’t confuse Kirby’s term “informational structure,” which I used earlier and which refers to elements that affect a work’s meaning or interpretation, and “Information Structure,” the particular structural device described here. Like all the names of the devices, Information Structure will always be capitalized in this discussion.) They are, in a way, integral to the “superobjective” of the main characters since they deal with piecing together details of the situation surrounding the courtiers and why they’ve come to Elsinore at all. The smallest Information Structure is the Hamlet history—that is, the background of Shakespeare’s plot. Presuming a spectator who doesn’t already know Hamlet, all the information regarding King Hamlet’s murder, Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius, Claudius’s usurpation of the throne, and Hamlet’s return from abroad is missing. The story of the usurpation and marriage is provided in a role-play in which Guildenstern answers for Hamlet while Rosencrantz “gleans what afflicts him.” The earlier part of the story, the murder and hasty courtship, is related in the Tragedians’ dumbshow rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago, which more directly parallels the court intrigue in Stoppard than it does in Shakespeare. Even to a naïve spectator, enough of this mime is a recognizable portrayal of events already witnessed that the connection’s unshakable.

In Act Three, another piece of information is put together in a similar fashion. The audience discovers that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear “a letter from one king to another.”. Subsequently it learns that the letter’s for the King of England and that it “explains everything.” Finally, the letter’s contents are revealed. It may be considered part of this same structure that Hamlet subsequently switches letters with his sleeping companions and it’s eventually revealed that they are carrying orders for their own deaths. In this extended case, the structure isn’t determining the contents and import of the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying, but how they end up with their own death warrant, which the spectator’s learned from the dumbshow. I prefer, however, to look at the latter part as the fulfillment of an Expectancy Structure and treat the first letter separately as an Information Structure.

Both the Hamlet history and the England letter are surrounded by a larger, more pervasive Information Structure. Early in the play, the viewer learns that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “were sent for” by “a messenger.” Little by little, throughout the rest of the play, the spectator learns more about the messenger, his message, how he delivered it, and who sent him. Some of these details are unimportant to the plot, but they function as Information Structure, and the audience accumulates the data across the whole piece, reinforcing its structural unity.

Usually, Information Structure is discontinuous, with the bits of information pieced together by the spectator coming at isolated moments of the performance. In these cases, clearly the dynamic is retrospective, since the spectator thinks back to the part of the puzzle already assembled as each new piece is revealed and adds the new data to the information he’s accumulated. Occasionally, such as in a mystery story, the search for information becomes such an ongoing process that it’s continuous, working forward as the audience anticipates the discovery of each new clue. Since they don’t know what the next bit of information will be, however, the audience isn’t awaiting a specific event, unlike in a true Expectancy. Kirby made a distinction between generalized expectancy—a feeling that something unspecified’s going to happen—and Structural Expectancy which creates the anticipation that something specific will happen (even if it doesn’t).

I’ve referred to the Tragedians’ performance of The Murder of Gonzago as a Parallel Structure. With a prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this is immediately obvious, since Stoppard’s expanded the play-within-the-play by inserting much of the Hamlet background and plot. However, since I’m assuming an audience with no such familiarity, this Parallelism may not be so immediately striking. Certain elements in the mime are portrayals of things which the spectator’s already seen, or which are in front of her as the mime’s being presented. The accumulation of these bits will make a reasonably astute audience connect the events and characters of the dumbshow to the events and characters in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Among the most salient of these elements are the hasty courtship of the King’s widow by his brother/murderer and the fact that he subsequently appears as the King, which parallel the story related by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern during their role-play. An unmistakable Parallel occurs at the end of the mime, when the Spies are uncloaked, revealing that they are costumed in “coats identical to those worn by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” I believe that an audience would likely expand the Parallel in retrospect to include the whole mime, which in fact does predict the remaining plot of Stoppard’s play.

In addition to this structural Parallel, two incidents of physical Parallelism also occur. At the end of the play-within-the-play, the Spies’ bodies are lying on stage covered by their cloaks as the lights go out. When the lights come back on, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lying, also covered, in the same positions. Later, just before the end of Stoppard’s play, the Tragedians demonstrate their skill at “dying,” and each player portrays a different death (out of Shakespeare’s last scene). When the play itself is over, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have “disappeared,” the stage lights reveal “arranged in the approximate positions last held by the dead Tragedians, the tableau of court and corpses which is the last scene of Hamlet.”

The existence of these Parallels suggests another structural force at work in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern—that of various Levels. Kirby drew the analogy with a painting in which the foreground, Level A, is painted in front of the background, Level B. Everything in one Level relates to everything else in the same Level. There are, by my count, four Levels on which the characters relate to each other and the audience differently from the established style of the play. The briefest of these, occurring only in one extended scene, is the above-mentioned rehearsal/performance of The Murder of Gonzago in which the Tragedians perform as mime-actors. According to the stage directions, the style of performance within Gonzago is different from that outside it, and the Tragedians relate to one another as characters (that is, “The King,” “The Queen”) rather than as colleagues and companions. Furthermore, while they are performing they don’t relate to those outside Gonzago at all.

In a somewhat similar situation, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern role-play with one another (as a method of finding out what’s happening around them). I’ve already mentioned the occasion on which Rosencrantz questions Guildenstern, who answers for Hamlet. Later in the play, first Rosencrantz then Guildenstern play the King of England as they explore what would happen when they arrive with the letter. In all three cases, the two men deal with each other differently from their usual relationship. There’s unquestionably a different dynamic during the role-plays which sets them on a different Level.

A third Level occurs in small moments scattered throughout the performance. It’s the least substantial Level, but nonetheless distinctive when it occurs. When Rosencrantz or Guildenstern quote or paraphrase Shakespeare (outside those whole Shakespearean scenes which are a fourth Level), they display a certain self-consciousness. In some cases, the borrowings are recognizable from scenes within the play, but a number belong to Hamlet scenes Stoppard doesn’t use. Even without knowing that the words or phrases are borrowed from Shakespeare, a spectator can “hear” the quotation marks. The language doesn’t quite fit with the usual dialogue, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to know it.

The fourth Level, as I mentioned, is the easiest to recognize. These are the scenes which Stoppard’s lifted from Shakespeare and in which the characters all use Shakespeare’s dialogue. Some are quite extensive, while others are very brief. Some even have no dialogue, such as Hamlet’s “words, words, words” scene. Only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, rarely, the Tragedians cross over from Shakespeare to Stoppard—Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia never enter the Stoppard world, and Hamlet does so only briefly in the very end. Undeniably, this creates another Level in the performance since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern relate to these characters in a way different from their relationship to each other and to the Tragedians.

A by-product of the Parallelism in the Gonzago performance is a series of Expectancies set up in the spectator’s mind. If the Parallels are recognized, the viewer’s led to expect that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will accompany Hamlet to England on a boat with a letter to the English king and that this letter will order their deaths. The final scene of Gonzago, in which the Spies, dressed like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are killed, leads the audience to expect the courtiers to die. Gonzago also predicts that Hamlet will kill Polonius. All these Expectancies are fulfilled by the end of the play, though for this structure to work it’s not necessary for the specific event anticipated to happen—as long as the spectator keeps waiting for it.

Expectancy Structure is evident in a great variety of other examples, including the Tragedians’ entrances, which are always preceded by their music from off stage; Hamlet’s entrances, which are frequently preceded by Guildenstern ordering Rosencrantz to “go and see if he’s there,” followed by a conversation which always includes the phrase “What’s he doing?”; Rosencrantz’s disappearance, predicting Guildenstern’s, and the Player’s repeated statement that his play could hardly end “with practically everyone on his feet,” which suggests that Stoppard’s play will end with nearly everyone dead.

There are dozens of other examples, but one more that’s most interesting is really three nested Expectancies. It starts with Rosencrantz’s announcement that Hamlet’s met with the Tragedians and “they have already order/This night to play before him” (play expectancy established). Shortly afterwards, Claudius explains to Gertrude that he’s “closely sent for Hamlet hither,/That he . . . may here/Affront Ophelia” (Hamlet-Ophelia meeting anticipated). Hamlet’s arrival is expected when Rosencrantz announces, “He’s coming” (Hamlet arrival anticipated), whereupon Hamlet arrives (Hamlet arrival resolved), leaving the spectator to expect Ophelia and the “affrontation.” This occurs in the Hamlet, Act Three, scene one cutting (Hamlet-Ophelia meeting resolved), and the spectator now awaits the performance of the play (play performed).

The converse of Expectancy Structure, where the spectator’s attention’s continuously directed forward to a specific event in the future of the performance, is Memory Structure, where her attention’s directed back to an earlier incident in the performance. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern provides a great number of such structural connections—far too many to list here. One of the more interesting ones occurs when Rosencrantz, replying to Gertrude’s questions about their encounter with Hamlet, says Hamlet was “Niggard of question, but of our demands most free in reply.” This is an outright lie, and the spectator will remember that Rosencrantz had said earlier, just after the scene with Hamlet, “Twenty-seven questions he got out in ten minutes, and answered three.” Another interesting Memory Structure deals with a description of Hamlet’s appearance. Guildenstern describes him as “. . . appearing hatless in public—knock-kneed, droop-stockinged and sighing like a love-sick schoolboy.” Hamlet’s first appearance in the play is described by the stage directions this way: “Hamlet [enters], . . . no hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, ungartered and down-gyved to his ankles, . . . his knees knocking each other . . . and . . . he raises a sigh so piteous and profound that it does seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being.” When the Tragedians show up on the boat carrying Hamlet and his friends to England in Act Three, the Player explains that “Our play offended the King.” This will remind the spectator that the performance of Gonzago was ended by “Shouts . . . ‘The King rises!’ . . . ‘Give o’er the play!’”

Each of these mechanisms, and the many others, work to connect moments in the performance to earlier ones, reinforcing for the spectator that all the elements are interconnected. Another common connective force that binds the play together in a similar way, this time continually moving forward, is Thematic Structure, or repetitions. I identified over two dozen Thematic repetitions in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, a number of them structurally very significant. The two courtiers, for instance, are constantly playing games. They flip coins, bet that double the year of someone’s birth is even, guess which fist hides a coin, and play at “questions.” Rosencrantz’s failing memory recurs as does the reference to or discussion of death. One repeated joke is the inability of anyone, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, to tell the two courtiers apart. There’s also a blocking Theme in which several characters break the “fourth wall” by crossing front and staring out at the audience. And there’s a literary Theme in the form of rhymed nonsense couplets:

ROSENCRANTZ: Consistency is all I ask!
GUILDENSTERN: Give us this day our daily mask.

ROSENCRANTZ: Immortality is all I seek . . . .
GUILDENSTERN: Give us this day our daily week . . . .

ROSENCRANTZ: All I ask is our common due!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
GUILDENSTERN: Give us this day our daily cue.

ROSENCRANTZ: Plausibility is all I presume!
GUILDENSTERN: Call us this day our daily tune . . . .

A mechanism that’s related to Thematic Structure is Echoes—repetitions which occur only once. Again, there were a large number of these in the play; here are a few examples from the dialogue:

GUILDENSTERN: I mean you wouldn’t bet on it. I mean I would, but you wouldn’t.
PLAYER: . . . if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.

ROSENCRANTZ: We haven’t got there yet.
PLAYER: Of course, we haven’t got there yet.

ROSENCRANTZ: You made me look ridiculous.
ROSENCRANTZ: I think we can say he made us look ridiculous.

PLAYER: There’s nothing more unconvincing than an unconvincing death.
PLAYER: . . . he just wasn’t convincing.

Several Echoes are physical: After trying to get Guildenstern to guess which fist hides the coin, “Rosencrantz inadvertently shows that both are empty,” then, after the same game, “Rosencrantz inadvertently reveals that he has a coin in both fists.” While speculating about being alive in a box, Rosencrantz bangs the floor with his fists; on the boat, “Rosencrantz considers the floor: slaps it.”

There’s one extraordinary situation which echoes a Theme. When Rosencrantz asks, “We didn’t harm anyone. Did we?” Guildenstern replies, “I can’t remember”—Guildenstern has echoed Rosencrantz’s memory Theme.

The last unifying agent in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Present Reference, connects the characters on stage with their immediate surroundings by acknowledging people, objects, or actions on stage with them. With frequent greetings and introductions, characters are often referring to each other on stage; other references to the Present Moment include:

References to people:

PLAYER: An audience.

ROSENCRANTZ: Tumblers, are you?

HAMLET enters upstage . . . .
ROS and GUIL watch him.

GUILDENSTERN: Are you there?

References to the setting or props:

ROSENCRANTZ: It’s coming up through the floor.

ROSENCRANTZ: We’re on a boat.

GUILDENSTERN: . . . Tie up the letter—there—neatly—like that.

References to action:

PLAYER: Get your skirt off, Alfred.

GUILDENSTERN: . . . aren’t you going to change into your costume?

PLAYER: I beg your pardon.
GUILDENSTERN: What did he do?
PLAYER: I put my foot down.
ROSENCRANTZ: My hand was on the floor!
GUILDENSTERN: You put your hand under his foot?

GUILDENSTERN: . . . a pipe is heard.

With thirteen of fifteen structural forces operating, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is unquestionably tightly laced together. The fact that a number of the structural connections overlap or operate in tandem only strengthens the unity. Perhaps a play as logically absurd as Stoppard’s requires a stronger structure than more conventional plays. Certainly, all this added to the stylistically unified set and whatever other stylistic unity the director, designers, and actors contribute in production would make a firmly structured performance.

[If Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead can be so well described using Structural Theory, the usefulness of the system to playwrights, directors, designers, and teachers of theater and drama, not to mention other disciplines, seems clear. As a theater teacher and sometime director and dramaturg, I can affirm that Michael’s ideas have provided me with insights and solutions I’d never otherwise have found. I’m confident, too, that he’d be pleased to see his Structural Analysis more widely applied.

[I remonstrated with Michael about calling his course “Theatrical” Structure, since his theory applies equally to dance (indeed, one class assignment was to analyze a dance performance) and other performance forms such as opera, vaudeville, and, even, circus. I suggested it should be more accurately called “Performance” Structure, a more inclusive term. He insisted simply that in his use, “theater” wasn’t restricted to “drama,” but included all these other genres as well. I hope that readers will all note that anything useful revealed here can be applied, either in analysis or in creation, elsewhere than plays.]

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