Critical Response to Christie's Play

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J. C. Trewin remarked in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime that it often astonishes critics and theatre reviewers that after so many years on the London stage The Mousetrap "can still be acted before audiences with no idea of its development or climax." Not only critics but audiences have kept the secret of the whodonit and they have done so, Trewin argued, in tribute to Christie's work. Part of the appeal is in the reliability of the puzzle. Christie fans know they can rely on a solution that is plausible and yet one that completely escapes them until the play's conclusion. The least likely suspect is too often the murderer, or is he? It is the solving of that equation that keeps audiences guessing and coming back for more. And it is that complexity and familiarity that account for the play's longevity.

Trewin maintained that characterization was less important to Christie than action, that many of her characters were stereotypes who might have as readily been identified by numbers as by name. These stock characters might have easily been “transferred as needed, from plot to plot, hall to manor, court to vicarage ... they rarely had a life of their own." Perhaps to some degree that is true. Devoted readers of Christie will recognize Mrs. Boyles, Miss Casewell, Mollie, Giles, and Major Metcalf as familiar characters. But after more than a hundred novels, short stories, and plays, that familiarity is what readers and audiences are seeking. It is the accustomed that creates comfort and why Christie's work endures. But, I would agree that it is the plot, the action, the murder, and its solution that keeps the fan returning for more. It is the pleasure derived from solving the puzzle that keeps the audience in their seats.

Christie relied on narration and plot and eschewed the technology that is identified with so many other mystery writers. The Mousetrap employs no sliding panels or hidden staircases to enliven the action. There are no devices to create illusion; there are only the words and actions of ordinary people to offer clues. If, indeed, a murderer can be defined as ordinary. The lack of gadgets to distract the audience and Christie's reliance on a world of upper class gentry are two components that account for her longevity, according to Russell Fitzgibbon. In a chapter of his The Agatha Christie Companion that examines Christie's appeal, Fitzgibbon synthesized several critical responses to Christie. In one section, he examined criticism of Ian Fleming's use of technology. Christie's supporters argue that Fleming's use of technology is so quickly outmoded that his work is easily and quickly dated, and conclude that Christie, who ignored any technology more advanced than the radio, is timeless in her appeal. But Fleming's supporters counter with the assertion that Christie's work appears dated because she relies upon an antiquated setting and life-style that no longer exists in England, and consequently, the popularity of her work will inevitably decline.

In response to both these views, Fitzgibbon asserted that Fleming's technology is mechanical and impersonal, while Christie uses "the personalities, the emotions, and the general intangibles she found in the social world she knew so well." The lengthy theatrical run and enduring popularity of The Mousetrap would seem to support Fitzgibbon's argument, The comforts of the Victorian upper class may no longer exist in England, and this is especially true in the wake of World War II, but the public's need to escape to that earlier realm is apparently even greater today than it was in the 1920s when Christie first began to re-create...

(This entire section contains 1756 words.)

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that world.

It is the characters who deceive the audience and who provide the clues that enable the fans to solve the puzzle. As Trewin noted, the characters are often stock and interchangeable; but David Grossvogal maintained in Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction that it is their very reliability, their ordinariness that attracts Christie fans. Her public "knew these people without having encountered them and they were therefore exactly suited to [our] expectations." The actual murder, stated Grossvogal, "was trivial enough'' and "antiseptic." A Christie murder lacks the corruption and messiness of a Mike Hammer or Sam Spade crime scene, but Grossvogal acknowledged that "there were always half a dozen compelling reasons to kill the victim—and as many evident suspects." This is certainly true of The Mousetrap.

Mrs. Boyle establishes at her entrance that she is going to make her stay at Monkswell notable. Her constant complaining in the face of Mollie's earnest desire to help quickly makes her a victim the audience wants to murder. Christie makes sure that everyone on stage has the appearance of a suspect; all are hiding something and everyone acts suspicious, except detective Trotter. But an aware Christie audience will expect these characters, anticipate their entrance, and concentrate on the action to provide the clues.

Much of the criticism that has focused on Agatha Christie in recent years has delved into the issue of whether Christie can be defined as a feminist or if the depiction of women characters in her work reveals that she was an anti-feminist. Marty Knepper attempted to respond to this controversy by examining the body of Christie's work in the Armchair Detective. Knepper did admit that there is sexism in some of Christie's work but asserted that "Only a writer with a healthy respect for women's abilities and a knowledge of real women could create the diversity of female characters Christie does. Her women characters display competence in many fields, are not all defined solely in relation to men, and often are direct contradictions to certain sexist 'truisms' about the female sex." Knepper continued by presenting examples from Christie's work that span several decades and character types. While acknowledging that Christie has created women who are flawed and who are even murderers, Knepper maintained that the greater majority of women are strong, intelligent, clever, successful characters. Knepper concluded that "Christie, while not an avowed feminist, let her admiration for strong women, her sympathy for victimized women, and her recognition of society's discrimination against women emerge in the novels written during the decades of the twentieth century more receptive to feminist ideas (such as the 1920s and World War II years), while Christie, always concerned with selling her novels to mass audiences, relied more on traditional (sexist) stereotypes and ideas about women in the more conservative and anti-feminist decades (such as the 1930s)." In applying Knepper's theory to The Mousetrap it becomes clear that in this play Christie's feminism is not easily defined. Mrs. Boyle is a magistrate. That she apparently was not always good at it could be argued as anti-feminist, but then, men were not always good magistrates either. But her constant complaining is a greater problem, since complaining has historically been attributed to women as a negative trait, And, since it makes her an unsympathetic character, her murder is almost welcomed by the audience. Mollie co-owns the guest house with her husband and on the surface seems a competent business woman. But she is easily led by Trotter to question her husband's honesty, becomes a near victim, and is in need of rescuing at the play's conclusion. Miss Casewell is described as mannish in appearance, and Giles even questions if she is a woman at one point. Is this a positive depiction of a single woman? It depends on the critics’ vantage point. Critics can choose to point out that Miss Casewell's appearance implies that she is strong and in command. While other critics might ask why Christie could not create a single woman who is both strong and feminine. But as M. Vipond noted of Christie's feminism in International Fiction Review, "to generalize about sexual roles is to lose that touch of reality," the depiction of "familiar patterns and types" that draws the audience to Christie's work. There is much to be said for simply enjoying the characters as they are presented than in dissecting them to reveal Christie's feminist agenda.

When a play is as successful as The Mousetrap it is perhaps inevitable that its success will spawn parodies. Marvin Carlson looked at the influence of Christie's play in an article that appeared in Modern Drama. Carlson began by noting that with the advent of newer forms of mystery, Christie's play is "taking on an increasingly anachronistic tone." He maintained that the mystery play has not lost its popularity, but rather, that the mystery play has evolved into something very different, a comic thriller. One of the first of the comic parodies of detective fiction was Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound (1968), which, Carlson maintained, used Christie's play as a model because it was both familiar and popular. Stoppard makes use of Christie's "trick" of making the detective the murderer. The public expects a certain resolution to a mystery, but in The Mousetrap, the expected is subverted when the detective, whom the audience thinks they can count on to be eliminated as a suspect, is revealed as the murderer. Stoppard parodies Christie by elaborating upon this "trick." Although Christie has disguised the murderer as a detective, she has also disguised the detective as a suspect. In the end the murder is solved by the real detective and the mystery play remains rooted in its traditional garb. But in Stoppard's play, the disguised detective is not really a detective but is another murderer disguised as a detective. The complexity and ridiculousness of it all creates the comedy for the audience. Carlson observed that Stoppard's play eventually led to other comedy thrillers such as Sleuth (1970) and Deathtrap (1978), both of which went on to be successful films. However, it is worth noting that while Carlson found The Mousetrap "anachronistic," its theatre run continues long after the comic thriller has left the stage.

Finally, the question remains why The Mousetrap has endured so long as a fixture in London's West End theatre district. Trewin attempted to answer a question for which there is no clear response, and he acknowledged that he has "no dramatic reply. People keep on going." He compares it to a sort of Stonehenge complete with legends, but Trewin also recognized that the play is a "really efficient thriller" that represents an "untouched fragment of 1952." If Trewin's premise is to be accepted, then fans of Christie have elevated The Mousetrap from an entertaining puzzle to a tourist attraction that represents a world that disappeared more than 45 years ago.

Source: Sheri Metzger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Adam, Eve, and Agatha Christie: Detective Stories As Post-Darwinian Myths of Original Sin

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The longest-running play in human history is now well into its forty-first year on the London stage. Agatha Christie's detective-thriller The Mousetrap, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its opening on November 25th last year, has now become almost a British National Monument, When I went to its opening night, to see the young Richard Attenborough playing the detective, we were still only just emerging from the shadows of World War Two. The possibility that forty years on I'd be in Australia wasn't in my mind then, but even more remote was any thought that the play could still be going near the end of the century. And I don't think the idea crossed anyone else's mind either; Agatha Christie herself, interviewed on the then-phenomenal occasion of the play's tenth anniversary, said she had expected a run of no more than three months and was greatly buoyed by the assurance of impresario Peter (now Sir Peter) Saunders that it was good for at least a year!...

The extraordinary success of The Mousetrap would imply that it contains some particularly acute, nerve-touching insight about the origin of evil in the human psyche, and I believe this to be indeed the case. For the play gives a very special twist to the "least likely suspect" theme, a twist anticipated occasionally in earlier stories (for example, in more than one by G. K. Chesterton), but never (to my knowledge) before put into drama-form, the mode which appeals most directly to the mythopoetic imagination. After all these years of exposure on the London stage, I don't think I shall be giving away any secret by mentioning what that twist is (and anyway, the characteristic of a really significant mythic theme, as I believe this to be, is that it retains its appeal even when the "plot" is common knowledge.) At the end of The Mousetrap, the detective himself, the young policeman who appears as the protector of the innocent and as the guardian of law and order, turns out to be the murderer. And here I find a clear echo of a theme expressed in different ways in many of the world's ancient stories about the Fall, but most clearly in the one which, more than any other, has exercised emotional appeal across many different cultures, the biblical story in which the Loss of Eden comes about because of a "snaky" temptation to assume a divine role of moral guardianship, "knowing good and evil."

I would translate this idea as a diagnosis that the responsibility for humanity's unnatural destructive-ness lies with the very element in the psyche that purports to aim at harmony, the moral impulse— not that it is too weak, as conventional social wisdom assumes, but that it usurps power and tries to control all other impulses by judging and repressing. It was an insight central to William Blake's attempts to uncover the true essence of Christianity in his mythic epics: "The punisher alone is the criminal of Providence." And this too is surely something we are in a better position to understand today than any earlier generation, thanks to the detailed investigations of psychologists and sociologists. There is now ample evidence that behind all really violent and destructive human behavior, whether it be the ridiculously excessive ambitions of the military conqueror or the empire-building of the capitalist, or the sadism of tyrants great or small, or the insatiable violence of the rapist, or the blind destructiveness of the hoodlum or child-batterer, there lies a screaming protest on the part of some much more limited desire that has been repressed by an overweening morality, in society, in the family, or in the individual psyche itself. And on the other, outer side of the coin, egoistic and aggressive urges become really dangerous and outrageous precisely when they are moralized and amplified by righteous indignation. The Inquisition really did think that they were saving souls, and while mere greed or ambition would never lead any sane person to .plunge the world into nuclear winter, a holy war might easily do so, on the judgment that it is better to be dead than red or, in more topical terms, better to have a nuclear holocaust than to submit to the Great Satan of American Capitalism.

"Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" were words which Milton put into the mouth of Satan himself. His poem followed much Christian tradition in linking the Biblical story of Paradise Lost with another ancient tale, giving it, in the process, a definite "whodunnit" flavor of its own, by suggesting that the serpent was just a disguise for the cosmic Mr. Big—Lucifer, the Archangel of Light, who subverts humanity in the course of trying to usurp the role of God. The moral impulse, or "conscience," could indeed be described as the angel (the messenger) of light in the human psyche, and this story unmasks its constant tendency to get above itself and rule the roost instead of simply serving life. Thus a vicious circle is created, because repression and moralization exaggerate the very impulses they claim to control, and thereby give "conscience" the excuse for attempting still more repressive measures and expressing still more moral outrage against others. This was why Blake went beyond Milton's interpretation of the story and represented Satan as having to all intents and purposes already taken over the place of God in most religions by making them agents of repressive moralizing, rather than of salvation. That, he argued, was why Jesus of Nazareth "died as a reprobate ... punished as a transgressor''—because he had seen what was going on in the world and tried to reverse the process by urging "mutual forgiveness of each vice," only to have his name and image taken over in turn in the service of repression and indignation.

The Mousetrap doesn't attempt to pursue the story into those depths: its villain simply gets killed at the end, much as in most other "whodunnits.'' But Chesterton did try to take that extra step: Father Brown never sought punishment or death for his villains, but unmasked them only as a first step in trying to redeem them. And for Blake that was the ultimate goal both in society and in the psyche itself, to "have pity on the Punisher" and restore the moral sense to its proper role as servant of life, by subordinating its judgments to forgiveness. He had the mystic vision that while no individual can hope to make more than a small impact on the destructive patterns of society by pursuing this goal, determined exposure of satanic judgementalism within the psyche will open up direct experience of eternity even in the midst of the world's still-unresolved conflicts. He identified this as "the Everlasting Gospel of Jesus"; yet he also insisted that "All Religions are One" prior to satanic perversion—and in our own day his insight, expressed in different terms, has been the core "gospel" of Krishnamurti, who stood apart from all formal religion: he urged the regular practice of "non-judgmental choiceless awareness" as the way of opening to the eternal. Maybe he wasn't a detective-story buff for nothing.

The ending of any detective-story after the unmasking of the villain is inevitably something of an anticlimax (a post-climax, perhaps?), and in my view one of Blake's most profound insights was that the unmasking of the Great Originator of Sin in human life brings something of the same feeling. Like the Wizard of Oz, pretension is the essence of Lucifer's power in the world and in the psyche: unmasked, he becomes something of a joke:

Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,/ And dost not know the Garment from the Man

Perhaps that was what Chesterton was getting at, in a different idiom, when he said that if humanity were to be suddenly struck with a sense of humor, we would find ourselves automatically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps, too, this is why the motivation of the crime in The Name of the Rose is the suppression of humor. So do join me as a detection buff, for the sheer fun of it, and go and see The Mousetrap if you're in London—it's fun even if you do know the ending.

Source: John Wren-Lewis, "Adam, Eve, and Agatha Christie: Detective Stories As Post-Darwinian Myths of Original Sin" in the Chesterton Review,Vol 19,no 2, May, 1993, pp. 197-99.

Quite a Nice Run

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Once upon a time (and a very good time it was) the Abbey's Lady Gregory said: 'We went on giving what we thought good until it became popular'. No better motto could be found for theatrical managers, but how many heed it? The motto now is to give what the manager thinks will be popular until it is generally thought good. Hence The Mousetrap. It must be good because it has run for so long.

Agatha Christie's thriller has now been on for 21 years. It has broken every conceivable theatrical record. It has made its manager's West End reputation. It has been visited by successive generations of playgoers. It has caused annual celebrations to be held. It has seen the coming and going of over 150 actors and actresses. It has become a mecca for American visitors ('Gee, look,' said one on the night I went, 'there's George from Philadelphia— well, what d'you know?').

What indeed does anybody know to explain the tenacity of this routine, country house whodunnit? The Mousetrap has been running at the cozy Ambassadors for so long that not many playgoers can remember to have seen anything else at that address; and yet not many seem to have seen it. This is the oddness, the challenge, the strangeness, the mystery of the longest running mystery in the history of the theatre. Why has nobody (so to speak) seen it? Of course you find critics here and there who saw it, even on its first night. Others recall the roughly annual changes of cast in the spirit of men recalling Hamlets and Macbeths. 'Did you ever see Dickie Attenborough?' they ask in much the manner of my elders who would tell me as a boy that if I hadn't seen Tree or Irving or Forbes-Robertson there wasn't much point in bothering with the Gielguds or Oliviers. What standards, after all, could I possess?

Well I have to admit that until the other night I had no standards at all for The Mousetrap. It was just something that had been running at one of my favorite small theatres since the Flood. I had never much liked whodunnits anyway since I could never bring myself to care who had done it; and since my memories of this theatre had always been witty— Gingold and Crisham and Kendall in revue (Sweet and Low, Lower and Lowest) or the two Hermiones in Coward's Fallen Angels— why sully them with a coach-party teaser? So I resisted it for 21 years. It did not need much effort.

No one ever asked me in all that time if I had seen it. Nor did I ask them. Somehow The Mousetrap was never a subject of dinner table conversation, at any rate not in my part of the world; and although Agatha Christie is not a name to sneeze at the play itself never struck its author either as having contained the seeds of immortality.

Whether those seeds are to be found in the text or the performance, the theatre or its position, its management or its publicity, is a question which nobody can answer for sure. We know the manager is a keen and inventive publicist. Hence those huge cakes, club ties, and other efforts to capitalize on the show's success. Mr. Peter Saunders is the first to acknowledge that he has never missed a promoter's trick in keeping The Mousetrap baited.

Then, there is the theatre itself, one of the smallest in the West End circuit. It has a good position, just off Cambridge Circus, and of course, it doesn't take much filling anyhow. And this, for some observers, is the rub—that one of the West Ends most conveniently placed small playhouses should have been commandeered for such an orthodox thriller over such a long period. The argument goes that if so many people want it, let them see it in a bigger house; thus proving the need of it.

It is an argument based on the necessity for cozy theatres (of which London has so few compared to Paris) to be kept for new plays of some artistic ambition or revivals of limited appeal. The idea is that once a play has recovered its basic costs it shall not obstruct the flow of others which cannot otherwise get a central hearing. Therefore to have kept The Mousetrap going for 21 unbroken years at one of the handful of theatres seating under 500 is considered to have been an act of managerial self-indulgence without parallel in the history of the drama. And the transfer of it in the spring to the St. Martin's signified not an attack of conscience but merely the expiry of Mr. Saunders's lease on the Ambassadors. In any case the St. Martin's happens to be next door, and though it seats 550 instead of 450 it is still one of the few small West End playhouses.

During the 21 years the new drama in Britain acquired a reputation for social, political and moral urgency which could only find expression in smaller playhouses—at least until its authors had made their names—while one of the likeliest theatres for testing such talents was given over in seeming perpetuity to a trivial, if well-turned, thriller containing not so much as a line to tickle the moral, political or social fancy of anyone over 10. Mr. Saunders is merely bored by such objections. 'Where are all these new plays?' he will ask you as he once asked me over lunch at the Ivy (just opposite the Ambassadors); and at the time, not being myself a manager, I could not point them out. He maintains that if a manager wants to put a play on (and often at the last minute they funk London) there is usually a suitable theatre.

Meanwhile The Mousetrap looks like running for ever to the advantage of everyone associated with it from Mr. Saunders to Peter Cotes who directed it in 1952 and whose fees have since exceeded £30,000 but who has not been back to see it since. The author herself has taken nothing in royalties since she made them over from the start to a nephew then aged 10. And it all began because the BBC wanted something by Agatha Christie, at Queen Mary's request, to celebrate Queen Mary's 80th birthday. So Mrs. Christie ran up a short story called Three Blind Mice which she subsequently stretched into a play. Since that title had been used for a pre-war piece, heads were scratched to find another; and finally the author's son-in-law came up with The Mousetrap (and its Shakespearean echoes from the play-within-a play in Hamlet). Today, of course, at each revival of Hamlet an extra snigger can be counted on during the play scene—as if Shakespeare had culled the idea from Mrs. Christie.

And the idea of the thriller? Tunelessly conventional. Into the lounge hall of a snowed-up paneled, home counties hotel just opened by a diffident young couple drift a careful assortment of independent types (grave, comical, foreign, peculiar, chatty, silent and so forth), one of whom is in due course bumped off. Thereafter suspicion falls, with the help of red herrings, on the survivors variously in turn; and before the final unmasking a mild degree of curiosity, even excitement, certainly tension is aroused. The suspense, if not intense, is agreeable; and the plotting is unquestionably neat.

What is questionable is the quality of the acting which struck me as not rising to the proverbial level of rep. Most reps I know of could do better but of course they are not allowed to try—any more than a film can be made—until what Mrs. Christie originally guessed might be 'quite a nice run' comes to an end. In our time? Our children's? Ever? Why in fact must the show go on? Only an Act of Parliament will ever stop it....

Source: Eric Shorter, "Quite a Nice Run" in Quarterly Theatre Review, No. 112, Spring, 1974, pp. 51-53.


Critical Overview