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In 1967, Tom Stoppard wrote his famous play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead after getting the idea while watching a production of Hamlet. Four years later, Douglas Adams got the idea for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria. In 1978, he would use this idea to produce a BBC radio show, which would be published as a novel in 1979. How can these two works be compared in their use of satire and cynicism?
There are many instances of satire in Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams begins his novel by describing the sun and goes on to say, "Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea." (1) By saying this, Adams shows that he does not think much of how humans are using technology, or their intelligence because they are so amazed by something fairly simple. According to Whissen, "Adam's message . . . is that too much thinking about things like the vastness of eternity and space and time can drive one mad. But instead of worrying about it, he takes control of it." (113) By presenting actual numbers, Adams puts the earth into the universe's perspective. Though humans tend to make themselves the center of the universe, they are actually a small insignificant speck in everything. Adams goes on to explain more about the humans and their plight. "Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because . . . it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy." (1) While making a joke about humans and their general discontentedness, Adams takes a different look at the monetary system. People feel that money will make them happy, but it does not really work. Money is constantly being moved, yet that is not what is unhappy. People try to change other things to make themselves happy, but by this, Adams is suggesting that people should try to change themselves, rather than everything else.
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Ford Prefect, an alien reporter for the actual Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is the only one who knew the earth was to be demolished and went to tell his friend Arthur Dent. When Arthur did not get what he was talking about, "Ford gave up. It wasn't really worth bothering at the moment, what with the world being about to end." (24-25) So many times, humans are like this, even though the earth is not anywhere near its end. Like Ford, they feel that explaining takes too much time from their lives.
When Arthur's house is being demolished and Ford tells him that his planet is about to be demolished, Arthur exclaims, "Did I do anything wrong today . . . or has the world always been like this and I've been too wrapped up in myself to notice?" (24) This points out how people tend to be obsessed with themselves, and when they notice that something is wrong, they assume that the world is what is not normal.
Since Ford had a different perspective on how humans act, Adams used him to point out their faults. By showing an alien, Adams could point out a common fault in humans in a humorous way which was not offensive. Adams also used Ford to point out humans' illogical behavior. "One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious as in . . . Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right?" (49) The use of sarcasm to show human flaws is what makes this story successful. Adams goes on to hold up another human flaw, shown by an alien when Ford and Arthur are forced to listen to the third worst poetry in the Universe. After hearing the poem, the author tells Ford and Arthur, "Either die in the vacuum of space or . . . tell me how good you thought my poem was!" Arthur surprised Ford when he said he liked it and "turned and gaped. Here was an approach that had quite simply not occurred to him." (66) This scene shows that though people often find it easier to insult someone, or something, it can be beneficial to say something nice. It also points out that it often does not occur to people to say anything nice.
Ford tried to convince Arthur to have a positive attitude about their problems, but
Arthur rebelled by saying "You're talking about a positive mental attitude and you haven't even had your planet demolished today. I woke up this morning and thought I'd have a nice relaxed day . . . It's now just after four . . . and I'm already being thrown out of an alien spaceship six light-years from the smoking remains of the Earth!" (69) Adams shows that so many times people try to talk to other people without knowing their story, and that can cause humorous mistakes. People also tend to blow their problems out of proportion and make them bigger than they actually are. Adams also shows this when he writes about a scientist who solved a major problem which had baffled other scientists for many years. "It startled him . . . when just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize from Extreme Cleverness, he got lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn't stand was a smart-ass." (86) He showed how people cannot stand to be shown up, even though they might benefit from the new knowledge.
Satire is also apparent in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Stoppard makes a statement about how people live their lives when Rosencrantz says, "How very intriguing! I feel like a spectator - an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute." ( 41) When Rosencrantz said this, he was waiting with Guildenstern at Elsinore, trying to decide what they should do. He is referring to the main characters of Hamlet, who seem to wander in and out of their lives, but this also applies to how people live their lives. They wait for people who they think will be more interesting to come into their lives, but simply wait for it to happen. By having Rosencrantz say that when he did, Stoppard was able to point out a flaw in humans, yet he did it in a way that was humorous.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played a game of questions, with the object of answering a question with a question, and therefore not give away any facts. When King Claudius sent them to talk to Hamlet to learn what is wrong with him, they approach it like a game of questions. Afterwards, Rosencrantz complains, "Twenty-seven - three, and you think he might have had the edge?! He murdered us." (57) Guildenstern understated their loss, which people tend to do. Though they emphasize their problems, they like to de-emphasize their losses like Guildenstern, which Rosencrantz points out.
Stoppard also seems to be showing the misuse of free speech as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are talking. Rosencrantz shouts, "Fire!" causing Guildenstern to ask, "Where?" Rosencrantz simply replies by saying, "It's all right - I'm demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists." (60) In presenting this misuse of free speech in a humorous way, Stoppard shows that it happens. He also points out how people have to do something to prove that it exists, not just believe that it does. This scene also shows that he does not think much of having to prove something by experience because that can cause problems for other people.
As the Player is talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he tells stories of deaths in the theater. "I had an actor once who was condemned to hang . . . I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play . . . he just wasn't convincing!" (83) This reflects how lightly people take death today. They are exposed to so much of it in movies and on television, that the real thing is not what they expect that it will be. Also, when faced with death, people do not know how to handle it because seeing so much on television, they have become insensitive to it.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always keep up mindless banter. When they are on the boat to England, Rosencrantz remarks, "Dark, isn't it?" Guildenstern replies, "Not for night." "No, not for night," Rosencrantz returned. Then Guildenstern qualified his statement by saying, "Dark for day." To which Rosencrantz replies, "Oh yes, it's dark for day." (98-99) Like Adams, Stoppard points out people's illogical behavior using his characters. By showing the two main characters having a pointless conversation, he shows that he thinks many of the conversations that people have are not worthwhile because they spend so much time discussing trivial information or stating the obvious.
Another way that Adams and Stoppard created humor in their works was by using cynicism. Cynicism differs from satire because satire uses sarcasm to expose human folly while cynicism shows contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality.
Adams uses a lot of cynicism in his writing. The captain of the Vogon ship which demolished the earth shows Adams' cynicism when he says, "I don't know . . . apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all" (36), after the people on earth complain that they did not know about the demolition. This shows that Adams does not think it is important to have sympathy for stupidity, though many people feel that ignorance is a valid excuse. When Arthur and Ford were picked up by a passing spaceship as Earth was being demolished, Arthur became disoriented. On the ship, "Arthur prodded the mattress nervously and then sat down on it . . . in fact, he had very little to be nervous about because all mattresses grown in the swamps of Sqornshellous Zeta are very thoroughly killed and dried before being put to service. Very few have ever come to life again." (52) In writing this, Adams opposes the view that ordinary objects must be harmless. He tries to change the reader's view and not accept such things on blind faith.
One of the major causes of aggression between different cultures is caused by language barriers, or so it is assumed. "The Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." (61) People, such as Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, believe that removing language barriers would bring peace, but in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Babel fish does not do that.
Not only is Ford an alien, but he has a different view of luck from most people. When he and Arthur stowed away on a ship that passed earth before it blew up, they were not welcomed by the Vogons. Ford said, "If we're lucky it's just the Vogons come to throw us in to space." (63) By saying this, he challenged the conventional view of what luck is. In this, Adams is saying that if people could change their view of what is lucky, or good, they could be more content with their luck.
Adams shows more of his cynicism when he described the beginning of life in
the universe. "Somewhere in the deeply remote past, it seriously traumatized a small random group of atoms . . . The patterns quickly learned to copy themselves . . . and went on to cause massive trouble . . . That was how life began in the Universe." (78-79) The typical view of life is that it is one of the best things for a planet, and by being here, people have done wonderful things. Instead of saying this, Adams wrote that life is the root of all trouble in the universe and that they think too highly of their accomplishments. Instead of solving all the Universe's problems as most people want, they actually cause more.
Stoppard also used cynicism in his play to create humor. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern travel to Elsinore, they flip coins for amusement. After eighty-five coins coming down, all heads, "Rosencrantz betrays no surprise at all - he feels none . . . Guildenstern is well alive to the oddity of it. He is not worried about the money, but he is worried by the implications." (11) Most people would find it strange that they can flip coins and have them all come down the same way, yet Rosencrantz does not find anything strange. He does not expect anything normal to happen, but most people, even when they are somewhere completely different, they are surprised that is it not at all like at home. According to Weightman, "This is, of course, a miracle . . . Yet these intimations of Someone pulling strings from Beyond for an Ultimate Purpose are not backed up by any metaphysical belief." (39) People would assume something like this was a miracle, yet Rosencrantz finds nothing peculiar about it. Guildenstern, like most people, noticed this was strange and felt it has some larger purpose of a controlling force in the Universe.
People like to be optimistic, or to be around optimists, yet pessimism does not bother Guildenstern. As he's talking to Rosencrantz while at Elsinore, he says, "The only beginning is birth and the only end is death - if you can't count on that, what can you count on?" (39) People like to believe that there are other things they can count on in the world, while Guildenstern calmly states his views. Guildenstern also shows that he believes in predestination, and that people cannot do anything to change this and still have life work
out well. He says, "Each move is dictated by the previous one - that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it'll just be a shambles; at least let us hope so. Because if we happened . . . to discover . . . that our spontaneity was part of their order, we'd know that we were lost." (60) By believing in predestination, like Guildenstern, any action is not the person's own will. Any consideration of what to do becomes pointless.
People tend to be distrustful of information other people give them. They look for truth, yet they have no way of proving things are true. The Player shows a different view when he says, "Everything has to be taken on trust, trust is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honored." (66-67) Without trust, nothing is true. Even though X-Files says to trust no one, they are seeking the truth. According to Stoppard's words through the player, this is impossible because there is no truth without trust.
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on the boat, they discuss the sunrise. Rosencrantz says, "I watched it come up." Guildenstern replies, "No . . . it was light the
whole time, you see, and you opened your eyes very, very slowly." (85) This shows that people take many basic things as true, yet there is no way to know that basic assumptions are right.
Both Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead use satire and cynicism to create humor. Though the use of satire and cynicism made the book humorous, Whissen complains that "Adam's book was a tough pill to swallow, for it refused, at least on the surface, to take either itself or its readers seriously. " (113) The story was made humorous because it did not take anything seriously, which made it easier to read than other books which are more serious or come with a moral. Weightman also says something similar about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when he writes, "Perhaps the whole play is just intellectual fooling around, with occasional stabs at seriousness." (40) Both works are very light-hearted even though they deal with death and destruction.
According to Whissen, "Because The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a spoof, it does not come with all the baggage common to most cult books. Its 'hero' is not a role model, there is little . . . suffering, and the novel does not offer a value system . . other than . . . surviving with grace and humor . . . and the virtue of not taking things too seriously." (117) This describes both Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead well. Though Adams uses an alien's perspective to show human flaws and Stoppard uses two indecisive, confused men, both authors point out human flaws which make their stories humorous. They also state their opinions on trust in an amusing way, which adds to the humor. Both authors use satire and cynicism and a good plot to create an entertaining story whose point is too not take things too seriously.
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.
Adams, Douglas. "Introduction." The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide. New York: Wings Books, 1986.
Colby, Douglas. As the Curtain Rises: On Contemporary British Drama 1966-1976. England: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967.
Weightman, John. "Mini-Hamlets in Limbo." Encounter July 1967.
Whissen, Thomas Reed. Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Literature. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.