Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Even though thrillers have enjoyed continued popularity on the high school stage, Deathtrap was not originally intended for young people because it uses a homosexual affair between a husband and his student as the motive for murder. Nevertheless, it has become popular among older teenagers. The topic of homosexuality is...

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Even though thrillers have enjoyed continued popularity on the high school stage, Deathtrap was not originally intended for young people because it uses a homosexual affair between a husband and his student as the motive for murder. Nevertheless, it has become popular among older teenagers. The topic of homosexuality is no longer taboo for high school audiences. As society has become more accepting of various sexual orientations and as the incidence of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) among teenagers has increased, homosexuality has emerged as a legitimate topic in sexual education courses and teen literature. Furthermore, the sexual issues in Deathtrap are subtle. There is no physical intimacy on stage. Indeed, even though Sidney and Clifford laugh that they have attacked each other all over the house, they never so much as embrace in view of the audience.

Levin has devised one of the most clever plot constructions ever incorporated into a thriller. In this story, the fictional world of the characters becomes the real world of two playwrights discussing the fictional world of a play that is based upon their own lives. This ingenious circular construction presents a “real” murder mystery within the context of writing a “fictional” murder mystery. It provides laughter, suspense, and surprise, delivering five murders among only three characters. Levin manipulates the traditional form of the thriller, forcing the audience to question what is real. The audience is deliberately and delightfully deceived. At first, viewers believe that they are witnessing the plans for and murder of Clifford. Suddenly, Clifford is alive and murdering Sidney. The audience discovers the deception when Myra dies of a heart attack because neither the attacks on Clifford nor the one on Sidney were “real”; they were staged in order to kill Myra.

This deception continues as the characters discuss writing a play about the murder. The audience members now believe that they are watching the play that those characters will write. Sidney will not allow that play to be written, however, so the audience is again off balance. The deception is deepened when Helga ten Dorp seems to interpret her psychic vibrations incorrectly but is later revealed to have been correct in every detail. When the two writers are actually dead, viewers discover that they have been watching Helga’s play. There is sheer joy in working through the plot reversals and realizing how often one is deceived and how fun it has been because Levin maintains a sense of fair play.

Deathtrap has become popular among teachers of literature because the discussions of the two playwrights in Deathtrap constitute one of the best texts available on the classic thriller as a literary genre. The play provides a literary context for the thriller as it discusses Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street (1939), Frederick Knott’s Dial “M” for Murder (1952), Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1953), and Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (1970). The writing of thrillers is examined at length as Sidney and Clifford discuss why their constructed context for murder is dramatically sound and how they have added convincing details and provided the proper motivation for characters and justifications for alibis. Deathtrap is at once an excellent thriller and a working example of the process of writing a thriller.

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Critical Context