The Mousetrap, and Other Plays
Anyone traveling to England for a vacation usually tries to see a play or two in London. Glancing through the London Times or Evening News at the current listing of plays running in London, one finds Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which has played continuously since November, 1952, thus earning it the record for being the longest running play.
In the tradition of The Fantasticks in the United States, The Mousetrap is performed in a small theater. While theater size certainly accounts at least in part for the fact that the play has run so long in London, the basic reason is that The Mousetrap continues to attract the tourist traffic—even with the competition of more than thirty plays and musicals to choose from in London. The Mousetrap has become an English institution, along with the Tower, London Bridge, and Buckingham Palace; no trip to London would be complete without seeing it.
Most Americans are familiar with Agatha Christie as the author of carefully structured, first-rate murder mysteries. Yet most readers have not had the privilege of reading a Christie play unless they have access to a handy catalogue from one of the companies specializing in serving amateur theater groups in this country. It is interesting that only The Mousetrap and a very few other plays by Christie have appeared in print, other than in acting editions not readily available to the public. At last, in this one volume, the best of Christie has been assembled for the reader. While reading a play certainly will never take the place of actually seeing it, a production is not always available, and so this volume is a rich storehouse of the best work of a popular playwright.
Christie is an outstanding mystery writer, and her plays are even more compact and carefully written than her novels. The rigors of writing for the theater demand concise dialogue; action must be shown as well as discussed. Many writers cannot make the transition from novels to plays successfully, but Christie, with almost a score of plays, shows that she was versatile enough to work successfully in both genres.
Most anthologies tend to give readers only one or two plays really worth reading out of the half dozen or so listed in the table of contents. It would seem that the problem with this anthology would be making the selection of what to print and what to delete. Certainly Witness for the Prosecution, The Mousetrap, and Ten Little Indians should be included. The bonus comes when one realizes that each of the eight plays, some being original works and others adaptations of previous books, is well worth reading. As in her novels, one written each year, Ira Levin claims in the Introduction that Christie’s plays require of the reader a keen eye and clear mind.
A good example is The Hollow, which opened at the Fortune Theatre in London in June, 1951. The Hollow is the name of Sir Henry Angkatell’s house, located approximately eighteen miles from London. In the play, three women are in love with Doctor John Cristow. The characters are all spending a weekend at the house. When one of the women persuades John to spend the evening at her cottage, the other guests notice his indiscretion. The next morning John refuses to give up his wife and children, and he is killed by an unseen hand. Was the murderer the woman with whom he spent the night? Or was it his wife? Or maybe it was Edward, who felt all along that if John was out of the way, Henrietta, Sir Henry Angkatell’s wife, might favor him over John. Or was it the butler, seen handling a gun? The mystery is left to the audience to solve through Inspector Colquhoun and Detective Sergeant Penny. The Hollow is exciting reading, to say the least.
Some of the plays in this anthology are adapted from the author’s novels and therefore seem familiar. However, Christie has changed the endings of those works she adapted for the stage, so that, while the setting and some of the characters seem to be familiar, the plot line has changed just enough to keep the audience interested. The style is melodramatic, the plot carefully constructed, the characters interesting, and the dialogue highly readable and exciting. The blend of familiar with unfamiliar plays is effective in that one can see the consistency of Christie’s writing. Her superb use of language, which one has come to expect in her novels, is also apparent in the plays in this edition.
The British have an edge over American writers in the subgenre of the murder mystery. To be sure, Christie’s plays are light entertainment with no great message hidden deep in the internal dialogue. But they are fun reading and offer the reader the challenge of trying to determine “whodunit” before the characters do.
Booklist. LXXV, January 15, 1979, p. 790.
Library Journal. CIV, January 15, 1979, p. 206.
New York Review of Books. XXV, December 21, 1978, p. 37.