Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are (not quite) dead

A lifeless ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD at BYU | Utah Theatre  Bloggers

(A one-act play. With apologies to Tom Stoppard)

The curtain rises and on stage are two beds in a nursing home. Lying on the beds are two very ill middle-aged males. At the foot of the beds hang two boards with the same bold legend on each, ‘Rosencrantz – Nil by mouth, Guildenstern – Nil by mouth.’ IV drips, tubes and clear, plastic bags carrying all manner of liquids into the patients and more tubes and bags conveying other liquids and semi-solids coming out of the patients, are visible. Flashing, beeping monitors overhead keep them constant company.  It seems only a matter of time before they are carried away in body bags. However, they are able to speak, just about. For the benefit of our readers, it should be said their feebleness in speech is dramatically raised to what all theatre buffs call ‘a stage whisper.’ Loud enough for the audience to hear, and on the printed page, for us to visualize.

Rosencrantz – ‘Good morning, Guildenstern. First off, is it morning, afternoon, evening or night? They keep the curtains drawn all day and all night.’

Guildenstern – ‘I am going by my body clock. And in my present, enfeebled state, that is not ticking with Swiss precision. If push comes to shove, I’d hazard a guess and plump for late afternoon. Pre-dusk, kind of.’

Rosencrantz – ‘You are not being very helpful. At least, if they wheeled in porridge, eggs and tea, I’d know it was breakfast time and I could keep tabs from thereon. This “nil by mouth” nonsense with all the tubes and everything, along with the drawn curtains, makes a mockery of time consciousness. Why don’t they fix a clock on the wall, preferably one with a cuckoo?’

Guildenstern – ‘A cuckoo clock. Nice idea. It will hourly jolt us awake if we drop off into a near coma. Actually, we should be grateful we are conscious at all. Why are you so obsessed with the time? It’s not as if you have an appointment to keep. I mean, we are virtually strapped to these hospital beds for ever and anon. Me, I keep myself entertained, when I am not sleeping that is, watching these liquids racing up and down the tubes. Very soothing to the nerves. I have asked the duty nurse if she could see her way round to providing coloured liquids. Bit more psychedelic. Blue, red and orange sludge squelching around the tubes in tandem.’

Rosencrantz – ‘You are a weird one, Guilders. And while you’re about it, why don’t we ask the nurse to place the beeping monitors somewhere in front us, instead of behind us where we can’t see them. Not only would that be helpful in keeping tabs on our pulse, BP, oxygen levels and so on, but all those coloured flashing lights and metronomic sounds they produce, along with your multi- coloured liquids, would turn this place into a medical discotheque. Cheer us up no end. Why, even our playwright, Tom Stoppard worked it into our play, “The colours red, blue and green are real. The colour yellow is a mystical experience shared by everybody.”’

Guildenstern – ‘Good point, Ros. If they can play some bouncy, instrumental music along with all that, we may not actually be able to get up and shake a leg, but we can try and move side to side in rhythm. I’ll speak to the nurse when she’s here next with the bed pan. Music wise, what is your preference? Easy listening from the 60s like The Shadows, The Ventures or something more avant-garde like, say, Weather Report? It’s all there on Spotify, so no problem.’

Rosencrantz – ‘What on earth are you rabbiting on about? They can play our national anthem, for all I care. We can’t stand up anyway. Or even sit down come to that. To get back to the point, Guilders, did it ever strike you that we can ask the nurse what time it is? Why did we not think of something so obvious? And why no television?’

Guildenstern – ‘Your memory is shot to pieces, Ros. You did ask the nurse, last time round. And you know what she said. In fact, she didn’t say it. She actually sang it, a snatch from that old Cyndi Lauper hit Time after Time Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick and think of you / Caught up in circles confusion. Very cheerful, I don’t think. And since you ask, television is too depressing, as they have only news channels.

Rosencrantz – ‘But very appropriate. The nurses here are quite strange. They don’t give you a straight answer to any question. I once asked one of them if we will ever get out of here. Dead or alive. You know what her response was? And I am quoting verbatim. “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else. Tom Stoppard.” I could not make head nor tail of that. What did she mean “Tom Stoppard?”’

Guildenstern – ‘Come on, Ros. Surely, you can’t be that forgetful. Didn’t you pop your memory pills this morning? Stoppard is the chap who wrote both of us into this play. You said it yourself just a short while ago. We might have been two minor players for old Shakespeare, recruited to stick our knives into Hamlet, and in the process, get our own heads chopped off, but this Stoppard chap detected hidden potential in the two of us and made us the heroes of this play. London’s West End simply couldn’t get enough of us. And I am sure we conquered New York as well.’

Rosencrantz – ‘Of course, it’s all coming back. “We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!” What a line that was. The audience was rolling in the aisles. I am so glad you reminded me of who we actually are. Actors! So why am I getting so depressed. Is this a one-act play, a black comedy, or will there be an interval? I can’t wait for the curtain call, then we can get in front of the screens, bow to the audience two or three times, and saunter off to the pub for a quick one, after the thundering applause dies down.’

Guildenstern – ‘Look, let’s not get carried away. I am still not absolutely certain if at this very moment of my speaking to you, we are in Tom Stoppard’s play or if we are actually two terminally ill patients in a dank nursing home struggling to figure out what time of day or night it is with only colourful tubes and flashing monitors to keep us company. And not a cuckoo clock to be seen for miles around. And waiting for the Grim Reaper to claim us for his own. Then we will get carried away. Ha ha. As Mr. Stoppard wrote on our behalf, “We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.” Let’s just chew on this situation for a while. Perhaps it’s all a dream.’

Rosencrantz – ‘And here I was dreaming of retiring to our dressing rooms after the curtain call and sipping champagne with the rest of the cast, meaning those two nurses. The director would have been there, of course. Perhaps, even Tom Stoppard. Bouquets of red roses all over the place. Not forgetting the throng crammed outside the doors for selfies and autographs. I mean, if I am dreaming, I might as well go all the way. That line he gave one of us, I forget who, was a classic.  “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.” If you ask me, I am betting that we are just play acting. Don’t you agree Guilders? Guilders? GUILDERS!’

(There’s no sound from Guildenstern’s bed. Not even the faintest comatose breathing. Rosencrantz looks up at his friend’s monitor. Just flatlines.)

Rosencrantz – ‘Maybe that’s why they call it “theatre of the absurd.” And why call it an existential drama, when I am not even sure of our ability to exist? What was that our celebrated quarry, the Prince of Denmark said, in the deft hands of the Bard – “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” When the curtain rises, I’ll know if all this was a bad dream, will my partner Guildenstern continue to remain inert and lifeless, or will he jump out of bad and break into song, “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,” from Oklahoma. Not that he has the slightest clue if it is morning, evening or night. For now, I can do no better than to end with Stoppard’s own final line written for us, “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

(Stage lights off, curtain comes down, hall lights on)


Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. Excellent piece, Suresh!
    Brought back memories of the brilliantt Stoppard play and the Prince of Denmark! 👏👏👍


  2. Suresh –

    This is brilliant. One of your best. (What were you smoking when you wrote this piece?:-).


    Sent from my iPhone



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