The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In the dark theater, before the curtain rises, the audience hears the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” This music yields to a shrill whistling of the same song as the curtain rises on a dark stage. A woman screams; other voices shout, “My God, what’s that?” Police whistles sound; then a moment of silence is followed by a radio voice announcing a murder. The stage lights now disclose the Great Hall of Monkswell Manor. Outside, snow is falling heavily. First to appear is Mollie Ralston, who has just come in from the outdoors. Her husband soon joins her, and shortly afterward five guests arrive. Four have been expected; the fifth, Mr. Paravicini, a foreigner, claims that his car overturned in a snowbank and that he has happened on the Ralston house.

Cut off as they are by the blizzard, the Ralstons nevertheless receive one more visitor in the next scene, which is set the following afternoon. Detective Sergeant Trotter claims that the person who murdered Mrs. Maureen Lyons left a notebook behind and that in it were two addresses. One was that of the victim; the other is Monkswell Manor. He has therefore skied over to protect the occupants. Trotter wonders whether anyone might know the deceased, whose real name was Stanning. More than a decade earlier, three Corrigan children—two boys and a girl—were sent to the Stannings at Longridge Farm, not far from Monkswell Manor. The foster parents abused the children, one of whom, Jimmy, died before they could be removed and the Stannings imprisoned. Mr. Stanning died in jail; Mrs. Stanning survived until someone, probably a Corrigan, killed her.

In the notebook left with the body of Mrs. Stanning, below the address of Monkswell Manor were written the words “Three Blind Mice.” The murderer also left a piece of paper with the message: “This is the First.” Trotter fears that the other intended victims are trapped in the guest house. Still, no one admits to any connection with Longridge Farm. While Trotter goes outside to investigate the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The traditional mystery relies heavily on dramatic techniques of dialogue, action, and setting; hence the success of theatrical, television, and film versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie novels. A number of Christie’s own plays began as novels: Ten Little Indians, produced in 1943, is based on Ten Little Niggers (1939; also as And Then There Were None); The Hollow, which opened in 1951, had appeared as a novel five years earlier; Towards Zero, published in 1944, became a play in 1956. Such transformations from one medium to another provide both advantages and challenges to the writer.

Special effects heighten the sense of impending disaster. The darkness, screams, shouts, and police whistles that introduce The Mousetrap put audiences on the edge of their seats. What would require dispassionate reporting in a novel becomes immediate on the stage. Similarly, the murder of Mrs. Boyle affects the spectators deeply because they actually see the disembodied hand moving toward the light switch, and they, like the victim, are then plunged into darkness. The confined world of the stage also increases tension, for whenever a character exits to the kitchen or the cellar, one wonders whether that person will ever reappear. On the page the absent are likely to be forgotten, but in the theater absence is as noticeable as presence. Though the guests occasionally speak of...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beginning with its title, which suggests a trap but puckishly allows the audience to make the wrong assumptions about the identity of the “mouse,” The Mousetrap is a typical Christie mystery, transported by the author’s peculiar genius to the theater—not an easy task for a writer of prose whodunits. Repeatedly certified by the reading public as the first lady—indeed, the first person—of prose crime fiction, Christie shows here a deftness in use of dialogue and stage directions which transfers not only a similar plot but also a similar atmosphere to the stage.

The opening, offstage sounds of alarm after the discovery of the Culver Street murder are followed immediately by a radio report of the incident, which—at Mollie’s entrance—changes to a description of the winter storm that is rapidly making local roads impassable. Giles’s entrance and the ensuing dialogue introduce Mollie, the pleasant and efficient wife, and Giles, the somewhat less efficient and complacent husband. The radio voice intrudes once again at Giles’s exit, describing the Culver Street strangler’s scarf, overcoat, and hat. As each item is mentioned, Mollie—apparently oblivious—picks up each matching item just left behind by Giles and exits. At the end of the second and concluding scene of act 1, Mrs. Boyle turns the radio on again, and the audience hears a discussant on a radio program describing the “mechanics of fear” and giving as an example a...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Monkswell Manor

Monkswell Manor. Guest house located thirty miles west of London, in Berkshire County, in which the play is set. The stage is set as one large room with tall windows. A door and two arched openings lead off to numerous other rooms, hidden spaces beneath staircases, and a basement, which was perhaps once a crypt. Snowbound, the owners and guests feel cut off from the world; even the telephone stops working. Detective Sergeant Trotter startles them when he raps on the big window. A murder was committed the previous day in Paddington, an area of London, and he says two more intended victims may be at Monkswell Manor. Soon the lights in the room go out, and one of the guests is found strangled to death.

Constant entrances and exits from the room enhance the confusion about where passages lead and what other characters are doing. “Suspect everybody” was a dictum of mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie’s contemporary, and Christie makes it credible that even husband and wife suspect each other. The representative British character types, such as the naïve young couple on their first day as guest house managers or the aging woman who demands her creature comforts, are familiar types anywhere. However, appearances deceive. Everyone is a stranger, isolated in separate pasts and self-interests. Literally located together in this communal room, the characters also inhabit, along with the audience, the realm of the imagination, where suspicions and fears know no boundaries.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mollie Ralston is an ordinarily attractive, level-headed young woman with a perfectly reasonable and achievable goal: the development of Monkswell Manor into a pleasant livelihood for herself and her husband. What makes her the heroine of this mystery is an instinct for truth which is shaken only slightly and momentarily when she discovers that Giles was in London at the time of the murder—buying, as the audience learns later, an anniversary present. Her liking for Christopher, of whom even the audience has reason to be suspicious, never falters.

Mollie is an old-fashioned, nonfeminist character who instructs the audience in the strengths that even a patriarchal society has found in its women. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, written twenty-six years before the premiere of The Mousetrap, Hercule Poirot replies to the universal denigration of “woman’s intuition” by suggesting that this apparently irrational process is in fact a typically feminine way of receiving and unconsciously processing facts and perceptions and arriving at an accurate and perfectly rational conclusion. That the “masculine mind”—as foreign to Poirot as to any intuitive female—regards this process as irrational results from an inability to understand the process.

Agatha Christie’s greatest impact on women’s literature has been as one of those women who broke the exclusive male control of detective writing. Her prodigious and unparalleled success is evidenced by the continuing reissue of her books. The phenomenon of The Mousetrap’s longevity—some seventeen years after her death—is evidence of her immense popularity and influence, which elevates her to the level of icon in a once male-dominated genre. Her emphasis here, as elsewhere, on the mind game, invades and conquers the very realm that men had always seen as exclusively their own.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap opens in theatres during a period marked by post-World War II rebuilding, a new monarchy, food...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Mousetrap is a two-act play written in the mystery genre. The play employs a remote, isolated location in which a group of...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1952: Elizabeth II succeeds her father George VI to the throne. During her reign the British Empire will decline from forty nations to...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Agatha Christie's plays and novels are often set in the English countryside and take place in an indeterminate time. This gives them a sort...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Although a number of Christie's plays and novels have been adapted for film and television and even by other playwrights, The...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound(1968) is one of several parodies of The Mousetrap. Stoppard employs many of the...

(The entire section is 287 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Further Reading
Blain, Virginia, Isobel Grundy, and Patricia Clements, editors. The Feminist Companion to Literature in...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bargainnier, Earl F. The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1980. Written by someone who clearly enjoys the mystery genre and Christie’s works, this book takes an affectionate but clear-eyed look at Christie’s faults and fortes. Especially interesting are Bargainnier’s discussions of passages that parody the detective fiction of Christie and others and of Christie’s indirect comments on the contemporary sociological situation.

Christie, Agatha. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. Charmingly written memoir in which...

(The entire section is 476 words.)