Tom Stoppard, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”

1974

Later than the other drama on my list, Stoppard’s play is more distinctively postmodern in tone. Its split subject (the two minor characters from Hamlet are, like Vladimir and Estragon of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, almost like 2 halves of the same character) is a central trope of the period. The tone of Stoppard’s play is much lighter, funnier, and metafictive than Beckett’s, though. It is staged across many levels, some excerpts from the original play, some dramatic interludes by players, and some weird surrealist events on a boat, where the two characters die. The plot points become preconditions in this play, since it rewrites Shakespeare (think Jean Rhys!). Rather than a linguistic inability being the focus or end-point, as it is in Beckett, here it is the starting point, as the characters not only misunderstand each other, but even forget amongst themselves who is whom (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon). 

Harold Pinter, “The Birthday Party”

1957

Meg, married to Petey, runs a boarding house, where Stanley is the only tenant. Meg seems mentally incapacitated somehow – all her dialogue is repetitive and redundant, circling around the same blind attempt at optimism in the face of the men’s dismissal of her daily routines. We learn it is Stanley’s birthday. In honor of his past as a pianist (this is debatable), Meg has purchased him a child’s drum. Two men, McCann and Goldberg, show up to take Stanley away to Monty. It’s interesting that their names are Scottish and Jewish, and seem also to mimic American names associated with Madison Ave. advertising and Hollywood. The seaside location is a picture of a secondary, suburban, Cold War Britain. Meg decides with them to host a birthday party for Stanley, which ends as he attacks Meg and tries to rape the neighbor, Lulu. The two men interrogate Stanley until he breaks the next day, taking him away despite some weak protests from Petey. Meg comes home from the market and notices that the car is gone, but ends the play not knowing the truth about Stanley. It would be interesting to compare to Jeanne Dielman. 

John Osborne, “Look Back In Anger”

1956

Working-class Jimmy Porter lives with his wife Alison (middle-class) in a cramped flat. She confesses to friend Cliff that she’s pregnant but can’t seem to tell Jimmy. Jimmy and Cliff go out into the space of the city, but can’t gain real employment or a sense of freedom or purpose. The tensest scenes unfold in the constrained space of the flat, beginning with the fight as Alison irons and Jimmy berates her, saying he hopes she will get pregnant and lose the child. Alison’s friend, Helena Charles, comes to visit. Jimmy despises her, and as the fights escalate, Helena eventually sends for Alison’s higher-class father to come collect her. In the next Act, we see that Helena has moved in with Jimmy and is now standing at her place at the ironing board, filling the same passive role as Alison. We learn Alison has lost the baby in a cruel fulfillment of Jimmy’s wish. He leaves Helena and comes to the station to find Alison. The play ends as Jimmy and Alison play “bear and squirrel,” in a moment of truce that is nevertheless uneasy, much like the ending of A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, the play as a whole seems like a rewriting of Williams’ play in a national project of the British postwar depression, versus the regional decay of the South lingering despite the rest of the country’s success, as in the earlier American play. Some of the parallels include issues of class (the women being arrogant and of a higher social rank in both plays), pregnancy and motherhood, abuse, domestic space, alcoholism, and depression. There is even a touch of bad vaudeville to Jimmy’s performance.

Samuel Beckett, “Molloy,” “Endgame” & “Waiting for Godot”

MOLLOY, 1941/1953

Part of Beckett’s trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnameable), Molloy is split between two inner monologues, which are very similar. One is the wandering Molloy, who is living in his mother’s old room and waiting to die. He tells us he has arrived there by a long bicycle journey during which he killed a man in the woods. The second is Jacques Moran, a detective, who travels with his son Jacques to find Molloy. His son disappears and Moran returns home, where he begins using crutches (as Molloy does) and admits that “the voice told him to write the report.” The famous ending of the novel is: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining,” which is an assertion of madness, but also an meta-commentary on the capacities of fiction writing. It would be interesting to compare this to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – what the writer does and does not know, and how the reader might piece it together.

WAITING FOR GODOT, 1953

The play centers on Vladimir and Estragon, who stand waiting for a man named Godot on a road. They see Lucky (a slave “freed of expectations”) and Pozzo (whose name is a homonym for “crazy” in Italian) pass by and converse with them. If Stein foregrounds grammar in her experiments with language and repetition, Beckett works on them in speech – in the “dialogues” of his characters. Beckett’s plays engage an almost hysterical refusal of meaning and interpretation (as Estragon refuses to hear Vladimir’s dreams). A few memories persist in both plays, but the restrictive visual landscape of the sets and the flat refusal of regeneration (there are no women, or they are too old to procreate) discourage hope even as they incite the viewer to seek for ways out. It is thought to have had an especially strong influence on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, whose title characters, according to Michael Billington, “are what Vladimir and Estragon would be in Elsinore.”

ENDGAME, 1957

Similar in structure to Waiting for Godot, Endgame uses a clock, rather than a road, to encourage its viewer to seek an arc or way out that is simply unavailable to the characters. The post-atomic landscape outside the high windows of the room inhabited by Clov, a servant who cannot sit, Hamm, a man who cannot see or stand, and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, who have no legs and live in trashcans suggest a literal “leveling of the field” after modernism that would give on to the play of postmodern literature.

Arthur Miller, “Death of a Salesman”

1949

Willy Loman is an aging salesman, married to Linda. He is starting to lose his mind, talking to himself and losing control of his vehicle on trips. Biff and Happy, the couples’ two sons,  live at home with their parents. Biff, the older son, was a promising athlete, and Willy cannot let go of his obsession that the boys, especially Biff, will have success. Happy is an assistant manager who cheats his time to make extra money for the family and is always overlooked as Linda and Willy focus on Biff. Despite Biff’s efforts to tell Willy otherwise, his father resolutely tries to get Biff a job at an office so he will no longer be a farmhand. Biff fails to secure the job, but Willy refuses to even hear his son when he tells him of this failure at a restaurant that night. Willy repeatedly rails against the walls and limits of the house, as well as the smells of the surroundings. (Compare this with Look Back in Anger, whose male characters also feel “boxed into” domestic space.)

In his final confrontation with his father, Biff insists that after failing to get the job and pointlessly stealing a fountain pen, he looked at the pen in his hand and then out the window at the office and realized everything he loved was outside – the simple pleasures of food and farming – so why was he trying to be something else? “I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!” he shouts at his father. “No I’m not! I’m Willy Loman and you’re Biff Loman!” Biff shakes his head. “I just am what I am… Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something else happens?” Biff embraces Willy and tells his father he loves him, and his father picks up as he believes his son has forgiven him and will now try to go into business. Willy continues an imaginary conversation with himself as his family goes up to bed, then sneaks out and purposefully crashes his car to get the insurance money so Biff can be a businessman. Biff, however, decides to go away, while Happy will follow his father: “I’m gonna show everyone that Willy Loman did not die in vain.” Linda says, “I made the last payment on the house today… today dear! And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear. We’re free. Free.”