Friday’s Forgotten Books: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern



No, not the one you’re thinking of, much as I love my Stoppard: I mean in fact W. S. Gilbert’s play:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids, founded on an Old Danish Legend

I just started reading McCrum’s giant doorstop biography of P. G. Wodehouse, who of course adored Gilbert and at one time appeared in a production of this. I haven’t even had time to read the play in its entirety — because of said tome and of course because I am busily writing my own volumes at a furious pace. Nevertheless I had to take a peak and this passage betrays a sad event all creative folks know all too well:

Well loved and faithful wife,
Tender companion of my faltering life,
Yes, I can trust thee! Listen, then, to me:
Many years since — when but a headstrong lad —
QUEEN (Interested)
I wrote a five-act tragedy.
A play, writ by a king —
And such a King!
CLAUDIUS Finds ready market. It was read at once,
But ere ’twas read, accepted. Then the Press
Teemed with porpentous import. Elsinore
Was duly placarded by willing hands;
We know that walls have ears — I gave them tongues —
And they were eloquent with promises.
The day approached — all Denmark stood agape.
Arrangements were devised at once by which
Seats might be booked a twelvemonth in advance.
The first night came.
And did the play succeed?
In one sense, yes.
Oh, I was sure of it!
CLAUDIUS A farce was given to play the people in —
My tragedy succeeded that. That’s all!
And how long did it run?
About ten minutes.
Ere the first act had traced one-half its course
The curtain fell, never to rise again!
And did the people hiss?
No — worse than that —
They laughed. Sick with the shame that covered me,
I knelt down, palsied, in my private box,
And prayed the hearsed and catacombed dead
Might quit their vaults and claim me for their own!
QUEEN Was it, my lord, so very, very bad?
CLAUDIUS Not to deceive my trusting Queen, it was.
QUEEN And when the play failed, didst thou take no steps
To set thyself right with the world?
I did.
The acts were five — though by five acts too long,
I wrote an Act by way of epilogue —
An act by which the penalty of death
Was meted out to all who sneered at it.
The play was not good — but the punishment
Of those that laughed at it was capital.

You can read the play in its entirety online. You can also read “the old Danish legend” AKA Saxo Grammaticus’ account of Prince Amleth here. The Danish original is a very different take on the tale from Old Bill’s wavering prince, who came by way of Belleforest’s ghostly invention, but I don’t want to tell grandma how to suck eggs as it were…