It is dark -- not for night, no, but dark enough to get its point across, the sky above like an overcrowded script with the white of the paper peering through in stars. Inside the only light's the light from candleflames, scattered out across a stage; no stars to be seen, but the analogy still a comfortable one (if the future is written in the stars, then so are the stage directions).
Dress rehearsal, and the queen is protesting her undying love to her dying king, passionate action weighed down in petticoats and costume jewelry. Shyly the queen glances out at the audience, through the long, thick curls of his wig, squeaking so many journeys may the sun and moon, make us again count o'er ere love be done ...
But it's only dress rehearsal, the audience only there because there is nowhere else to put them. Rosencrantz is asleep with waiting (for something, for someone to tell him to move) and his head is propped against Guildenstern's leg, hair spilling into his lap. A sort of sweet of oblivion rests with him, in his closed lids and slightly-open mouth -- the sort of sweet oblivion he is equally capable of awake.
How Rosencrantz can sleep so easily is a mystery to Guildenstern. Most things about Rosencrantz are mysteries, to Guildenstern. And something -- about the candlelight, it must be the candlelight -- makes Guildenstern want to think about it in sonnets, but he has no fondness for iambic pentameter anymore, even if he respects the order of it.
Still ... (Here his fingers trail out, tracing the candlelit gold in Rosencrantz's brown hair, making thoughtful spirals until they straighten themselves out again. Here his hand almost touches a cheek, delicate and trembling.)
"What do you think?" A start, at an all too familiar shadow. The player, and the play -- he is talking about the play -- standing with a wide, professional smirk that glints white even in the darkness. He nods towards the stage. "Learning anything new?"
"Nothing new in it," says Guildenstern. His words are quick, but his hand is too slow, moving away awkward and self-concious (and he will never admit it). "Only the obvious: you can't act love any better than you can act death."
"On the contrary, sir," the player says, settling back against a wall. "It goes with the trade, right alongside blood and rhetoric. Why, without love, what reason would we have to die in each other's arms? Other than the aesthetics, of course."
"We don't have a reason," snaps Guildenstern. "And that's precisely your problem. It's all aesthetics, and aesthetics isn't enough, all show and circumstance, without sincerity. It isn't real , and it isn't going to fool anyone. Also, I take it, a convention of your trade?"
The player, for his part -- and players have many -- only raises his eyebrows over laughing eyes, a measured movement. "Quite the critic, aren't you? But then, I suppose an actor needs a critic every bit as much as he needs an audience. To survive, it isn't enough to be seen -- one must be judged."
"Oh, don't worry." Guildenstern's tone is nothing but dry. "In your particular line, I am sure they are often one in the same."
"I congratulate you. That sureness seems difficult to come by, at least for you." The player switches on a smile. "I myself find criticism a necessary evil, unnecessarily common. 'Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills,' et cetera."
For a split second, Guildenstern's quick wit stumbles, and falters. "Where did you hear that?"
By now, the smile imposes itself. It is almost obscene. Guildenstern is sure it's nothing but, but that has hardly stopped the player, and doesn't now. "Around. For stone, the walls of Elsinore certainly do seem paperthin. There, now --" He is gracious enough to stop, for an imaginary retort. "Eavesdropping isn't a sin, and if it is, it can't be a very original one. I think it reassuring that, in this castle, one is always certain to be watched, and a tragedian is guaranteed to find patronage ... whether or not he knows he is a tragedian."
"You would." It is all Guildenstern can do to keep his reply short. "I find it disturbing and amoral."
"You would. Ever the critic!" The player laughs generously, and as obscenely as he smiles.
Guildenstern considers ignoring him, but doesn't know what else to focus on (the grown man fallen asleep in his lap?) so he stares at the stage, and at some point he has begun talking.
"You can't act death," he says, distant, as though it weren't him but a textbook definition ... "You can't show it, because it isn't anything that can be shown, because it isn't anything at all ... it's a dark theater, an empty stage, and even that is too much to be death, even that has some hint of life in it. Love, to contrast, is ..."
"Is what? ... Sir."
"Everything," swears Guildenstern with sudden energy. "It is far too much, too many moments, too many signs and signals that don't sum up to the whole of it -- it isn't any one instant, it isn't first sight, it isn't longing sighs and rhyming couplets, it isn't swearing and swooning and trading cliches -- and if anything at all, it isn't dying. Romance is one thing, but love is quite another ... and it isn't dying, in each other's arms or anywhere else ... it's the realization, the awareness, the conception of the notion that somehow life has been made better, more worth living for having been shared. Love is in lifetimes, mark my word, and it is longer and wider than the stage -- it is already said by the unspoken, the unexpressed, the inexpressible."
"We call that subtext," is the player's smug addition. "Does your friend know?"
Guildenstern freezes, stiffens, stares straight ahead. "What are you implying?" he asks, very, slowly.
"What are you interpreting?" the player counters. "I must admit, he doesn't seem very quick ... but that may prove a benefit."
There are all sorts of edges to Guildenstern's tone now, each jostling at the other. "Not everything is as obscene as you make it to be. There are many kinds of love."
"I never said there wasn't."
"Plato once wrote --"
"I never said he didn't. I'm sure it's fascinating, but more to the point ..." The player leans in, voice heavy with insinuation ... "How is your friend ... off-stage?"
Guildenstern needs to remind himself that violence is the last refuge of the ignorant. If he cannot defend himself with words, he will not defend himself at all, but at the moment he is out of words, and feeling very ignorant. It is lucky, perhaps, when Rosencrantz stirs and stifles a yawn, opening his eyes -- it's a welcome interruption.
"S'odd. Dreamt I heard my name," he mutters, sleepily, blinking in the candlelight.
With all the flourish for a gentlemanly bow, the player turns and offers Rosencrantz a hand up, which Rosencrantz blinks bemused at but takes before Guildenstern can convince him not to. Guildenstern will soon wish he had because, in one smooth action, the player pulls Rosencrantz by his hand to his feet, drops him over an arm, and, with all the skill that comes with the trade, does nothing more or less than kiss him -- full on the mouth, and with a great deal of passion.
"Mnf," says Rosencrantz, and flails a bit.
Guildenstern knows it is violent and ignorant, but his mind and his anger are not in agreement -- the players lets Rosencrantz up and go, and it must be Guildenstern's anger that lets his hand curl up into a fist and his fist smash the player sharply across the face. He doesn't remember doing it, but it does seem like the right thing to have done -- not logic, perhaps, but exhileratingly logical -- and he cannot imagine why, when he finds himself making move to do it again, Rosencrantz makes the move to stop him, arms slipping around his friend's waist (head at his shoulder, breath at his neck, striking him voiceless, actionless, poised).
The queen stops her speech with a squeak, and all the tragedians are staring.
Slowly, appreciatively, they begin to applaud.
The world has gone mad, realizes Guildenstern, and also, how had I missed that?
Here enters Hamlet.
"Speak the speech, I pray you," he says, pulling the player aside, "as I pronounced it to you, tripplingly on the tongue ..."
When they exit, to the right (or is it stage left?) there is only silence enough for a dramatic pause.
Dress rehearsal, and the tragedians shuffle back into place. Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light! Sport and repose lock from me day and night!
Stifling a yawn, still blinking in the candlelight, Rosencrantz nestles his head against Guildenstern's shoulder. There is a pause before he realizes how much his friend is trembling.
To desperation turn my trust and hope! An anchor's cheer in prison be my scope ...!
"Is something the matter?"
"Do you have no thought at all to what just happened?"
"Well, he was a bit curt with us, wasn't he? I would've liked a 'how do you do,' at least. I suppose he must be busy."
"What? No, not that. Not him. That player. That ... kiss."
"... How many have you had in the past five minutes?"
"Well, I ... Oh. Oh, that kiss. What about it?"
"Do you have no thought at all?"
"Well, it's not as though it meant anything to me. I've forgotten it all ready ... What were we talking about?"
Guildenstern is almost, despite himself, relieved.
"Something. Nothing. Never mind."
And then a procession, the prince and the Player tumbling back out from stage right -- or is it the left? -- "Bid the players make haste." With a sliding, fluid step, Hamlet turns to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It catches them off-guard and it's obvious, as one scrambles awkwardly out of the other's arms and the two bow together, hastily.
Hamlet smirks, eyes lighting up as though the secrets behind them are just too much to hide -- and Guildenstern is tired of people smirking at him. (Almost as tired as he is of secrets.) "Will you help hasten them?" the prince asks.
What Guildenstern would like to say is, "I'd rather die," but he is in no mood to be prophetic.
"Ay, my lord," he says with Rosencrantz in a stumbling sort of unison.
Guildenstern looks over at Rosencrantz, incredulous.
Rosencrantz looks over at Guildenstern, clueless.
Hamlet isn't looking at either of them. He has just noticed someone out of sight, or, rather, off stage, and he is smiling as no melancholy dane ought. "What, ho," he cries with delight. "Horatio!"
Here enters Horatio, stopping with a small, sheepish bow. "Here, sweet lord," and he is smiling as no one ought, "at your service."
Rosencrantz waves. Nobody notices.
"Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man as ever my conversation coped withal."
"O, my dear lord --"
"Nay, do not think I flatter, for what advancement may I have for thee that no revenue hast but thy good spirits to feed and clothe thee ... ?" Coming around Horatio, the prince's fingertips tease fondly at his collar, and then take him by the shoulder. Horatio is -- is he blushing? -- "Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice, and could of men distinguish, her election hath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been as one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing ..."
The two amble off in conversation, in whatever direction is left, leaving Guildenstern and Rosencrantz and the players alone.
"Well! He was rather curt with us, too," observes Rosencrantz. "It's understandable the first time, I suppose, but it's starting to hurt, you know ... Guildenstern?" A beat. "Rosencrantz?"
It is a possible that there is a look colder, harsher, and more full of sheer loathing than the look that Guildenstern is very busily giving the player. Possible ... but not altogether probable.
The player spreads his arms, innocent -- a professional. "What's the matter?" he asks with a laugh. "It was only a pose ... an empty gesture, if you will. It isn't real, and it isn't going to fool anyone."
When Guildenstern smiles, it is terrific, beatific, wide. And as he smiles, he says, "I hope you choke."
The player reflects the smile as only an expert can. "I never choke, sir, on-stage or off. Unless it's the script, of course ..." He claps. "Places, gentlemen!"
Rehearsal is over -- the tragedians scatter, like moths -- all the candles flicker off, into a blackout.