In response to the bloody battles of World War I, the Theatre of the Absurd was born. Soldiers surrounded by death and destruction often found no other relief but to laugh at the absurdity of noble, but increasingly meaningless traditional rhetoric and patriotism. This laughter was a response to not only the absurdity of their situation, but also to the absurd responses of others to their situation. Out of this response grew what we know today as the Theatre of the Absurd. A classic example of a work from the Absurdist Theatre is a piece known as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In this work, John Stoppard uses allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet to help the audience understand the play.
The connection that is seen initially between “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the reliance on romantic irony. In Eliot’s poem romantic irony is expressed in the form of significant assertations and decisions that are made again and again only to be followed by an immediate collapse. Throughout Eliot’s poem decisive statements such as Prufrock’s decision “To lead you to an overwhelming question” (line 10) are followed by procrastination and thoughts that “There will be time, there will be time” (line 26). The humor in this technique is also apparent in Stoppard’s play. This is nicely demonstrated in the opening scenes of the play where Rosencrantz often gathers himself to say something, but before anything can come out, the moment has passed, and Guildenstern has moved on. Just as Prufrock is unable to do anything, Rosencrantz has only managed an unintelligible grunt. Another connection between the play and poem is an allusion to J. Alfred Prufrock through the character of Alfred in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In Stoppard’s play Alfred is the tragedian who plays a girl wearing a “frock”. Stoppard seems to be mocking the character of J. Alfred Prufrock by suggesting that he is like a girl. The use of such allusions to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” provides a colorful characterization of Alfred, as well as a comparison for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s inability to do act without guidance.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is more obviously linked to the play, Hamlet. A working knowledge of Hamlet is very helpful to understanding the background to the play, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the frequent incorporation of scenes from Hamlet. In Act I, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to deepen their awareness of Hamlet’s transformation through a question and answer process in which Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet. By having Guildenstern play the role of Hamlet in order for them to understand Hamlet’s woes, Stoppard suggests that plays can foster one’s understanding. The brilliance of Stoppard’s piece is the use of the actual tragic play, Hamlet, in place of The Murder of Gonzago . By doing this, a tragedy becomes the vehicle for a sense of tragedy in another play with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern caught in the middle without hope of escape. Hamlet is used to add yet another touch of absurdity to the play by making places where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exit from Hamlet , “entrances somewhere else…which is a kind of integrity” (28). From this, Stoppard seems to suggest that there is no end to this absurd universe and that one will be continually subjected to tragedy.
The allusions to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Hamlet provide a more in depth understanding of Stoppard’s views and interpretations of the meaning of his play. The play focuses on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s inability to act independently and the fact that it is absurd that no help ever arrives to direct them in the right direction. As an example of a play that is part of the Theatre of the Absurd, the use of these allusions facilitates the purpose of portraying the world as a place free of logic and memory where the protagonists must wait for some form of direction that will never arrive.