Mystery and Detective Drama Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Because mystery fiction is primarily about creating suspense and tension, there may be no better form for this genre than drama. Dramas about murder date back to the beginning of the Western theater tradition, with plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles. In the latter’s Oedipus Rex (c. 426 b.c.e.), a king is murdered, and Oedipus takes it upon himself to unravel the mystery. The body of plays that follow dealing with murder and other crimes is enormous. To understand the development of modern popular mystery and detective drama, some crime play genres must be eliminated.

The great Greek and Elizabethan tragedies belong to a category of plays that deal primarily with a universal conflict in a serious manner. The central subject in such plays is not so much who committed crimes or who will catch the culprits as much as it is about the characters involved, their motivations for behavior, their own tragic flaws, and their reactions to the consequences of their crimes and their detection. The great dramatic tragedies intend to instruct as well as entertain. For example, the lesson from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (c. 1600-1601) is that revenge is as lethal as murder, as both lead to death and destruction.

After Shakespeare’s time, two other periods of drama produced plays of a similarly didactic nature—the decades between the two twentieth century world wars and the postmodern era. Plays such as Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (pr. 1916), Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (pr. 1928), and Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (pr. 1935) treated actual crimes in a manner that challenged audiences to examine the nature of crime itself, issues of gender-based expectations, and the consequences of revenge. Because of their complex mixtures of humor and tragedy, those plays are usually regarded as tragicomedies. Likewise, many postmodern and twenty-first century plays dealing with murder deal with such critical social topics as hate crime, serial criminals, and rage violence. Examples include Edward Bond’s Saved (pr. 1965), Marsha Norman’s Getting Out (pr. 1977) and ’night, Mother (pr. 1983), and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (pr. 1984). All these plays typify the frank and confrontational nature of postmodern drama in dealing with the underlying questions about what motivates criminals and the individual consequences of their crimes.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Most plays dealing with crime are classified as melodrama, a form of dramatic literature that deals with individual conflicts in a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous manner, but that always has happy, or at least satisfying, endings. Melodrama became popular first in France in boulevard theatre, so called because of their location on the Boulevard du Temple, during the reign of Napoleon I, who placed tight restrictions on drama. The prolific French dramatist Pixerecourt (1773-1844) wrote more than 120 plays and is credited with developing the form and giving it its characteristic elements, which include virtuous heroes and heroines who are hounded by evil villains, forced to endure threats to their lives or reputations, and finally rescued for happy endings. The new genre gained fans across Europe and dominated the world of theater during the nineteenth century.

Melodrama depends upon the artificial building up of suspense by presenting all important action on stage, with little exposition, ending each act with a strong climax that leaves important questions unanswered. Early melodramas often used elaborate spectacle along with music and dancing. Plots include devices such as disguises, abductions, harrowing perils, and strict adherence to poetic justice. Villains are always punished and comic relief is usually offered by servants or friends of the main characters. In stage productions, music underscores important action to enhance the...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The earliest known play about a real murder, Murderous Michael (pr. 1578), by an unknown playwright, documented a domestic murder case that had occurred in England in 1550; it was performed for Queen Elizabeth I. The original manuscript is now lost, but another version of the play appeared in 1590, making it one of the earliest surviving examples of fact-based crime drama. Early in the seventeenth century, John Webster wrote his classic play about murder, The White Devil (pr. 1612), which dramatized actual events from nearly thirty years before. A century later, George Lillo’s The London Merchant (pr. 1731) dramatized the murder of George Barnwell, a young merchant’s apprentice who was murdered after being lured into crime by a prostitute. These early crime plays enjoyed long runs in London and have seen many revivals since. They demonstrated the popularity of crime drama, especially plays containing onstage violence, and they made possible the emergence of gothic thriller plays in the late eighteenth century that whetted the public’s voracious appetite for the macabre.

Gothic Drama

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As the Age of Enlightenment drew to an end around the turn of the nineteenth century, European artists explored a variety of ideologies and produced some of the world’s greatest literature and music. However, little memorable drama came out of that era. The Romantic movement, which began in Germany, dominated much of the eighteenth century and gave rise to a renewed interest in the medieval period. This so-called gothic revival was largely inspired by Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1765) and his play The Mysterious Mother (pr. 1768). Walpole initiated a gothic revival in literature and architecture that attempted to revive the spirit, if not the details, of gothic thought and design. Gothic fiction typically contains supernatural creatures, mysterious atmospheres, and run-down castles and old mansions with spiral staircases, grated windows, secret panels, hidden passageways, midnight bells, fluttering candles and fires, and dark, dank weather.

Gothic fiction is frequently about the disruptive return of the past into the present, and plots for gothic plays often incorporate long-lost relatives, buried family secrets, and concealed identities. The primary interest in these plays is not in defining characters or presenting the kinds of complications and reversals that playwrights generally try to create. Gothic plays seek to create mysterious horror for its own sake. In his study of gothic drama, Bertrand Evans argues that gothic plays share one primary purpose: to exploit mystery, gloom, and terror.

Gothic monsters presented a special problem for the leading actors of the early nineteenth century. They were usually the most interesting—though despicable—characters in gothic plays but typically appeared only briefly on stage. To satisfy the actors, a new type of villain had to be created, one who develops remorse for his crimes and redeems himself in the end with some grand gesture. No...

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Nineteenth Century Crime Melodrama

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The first major shift toward modern detective plays was initiated by the American pioneer of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe himself wrote only one unpublished verse play, but his influence on crime fiction, including drama, is undeniable. His preoccupation with gothic horror stories is legendary; less well known are his stories that focus on his detective, C. Auguste Dupin, whom Poe modeled on a real-life French detective and used in three seminal stories. In addition to creating the detective figure, Poe also contributed the classic narrative time structure in which mystery stories—including plays—begin after murders have been committed.

Another writer who contributed to the rise of detective fiction was the English novelist Charles Dickens, who was a fervent admirer of the London police and Scotland Yard inspectors. Dickens’s novel Bleak House (1852-1853) has a character named Inspector Bucket, whom Dickens modeled on a real London detective, Charles Field, whom he had studied and even accompanied on nightly rounds. Dickens’s writings are still widely read in the twenty-first century, and his stories continue to be frequently filmed. The musical play The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on Dickens’s unfinished novel of the same title, opened on Broadway in 1985, enjoyed 604 performances, and won many awards, including an Edgar Award for its author, Rupert Holmes. Holmes’s adaptation respects the unfinished state of Dickens’s novel by allowing audiences at each performance to vote on its ending, which is then played out by the actors. Audiences are also invited to vote on the identity of the detective and which pair of characters will become romantically involved and thereby create a...

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The Birth of the Modern Whodunit

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The turn of the twentieth century marked the appearance of the first influential play about crime and detectives: Sherlock Holmes (pr. 1899) was written by William Gillette, who also played the lead role. It is difficult to determine who was more instrumental in shaping the play’s title character—Gillette or Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Holmes in novels and short stories. Gillette’s play gave Holmes the outfit with which he became permanently associated and some of his most famous lines, such as “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette based his play on Doyle’s character, but in playing Holmes in more than thirteen hundred performances throughout the United States; throughout Europe, South Africa, and Australia; and also on film, he created a portrayal of Holmes that has become more familiar to the public than that of Doyle’s own writings.

Although other plays used crafty detectives as protagonists, Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes was the first crime play to become an international sensation, thereby shifting crime melodrama from extravagant spectacle and gothic monsters to more realistic subject matter. This new approach would become the standard for dramatic “whodunit s” in the years ahead. Detective crime thrillers became much more successful than gothic monster plays and plays inspired by sensation novels. Nevertheless, they retained some of the latter’s most chilling gothic elements, such as an old mansion as setting, dark and gloomy weather, and dark family secrets that lead to murder. The melodramatic elements of thrilling climaxes, poetic justice, and even musical underscoring carried the detective drama genre through the twentieth century on stage and were even more evident in films.

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1920’s, Agatha Christie, a writer often dubbed the “first lady of crime” and “queen of mystery,” began overshadowing other crime fiction writers. After a few stumbles in landing a publisher for her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story (1920), she embarked on a career that would dominate twentieth century mystery and detective fiction and leave a body of work few writers have come close to matching. Christie is known primarily for her mystery novels, but she also wrote poetry, short stories, and plays. Each of her two most famous detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, has a series of mystery novels that has been adapted to the screen many times. For many years, other...

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Detective Plays in the Postmodern Era

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The United States and Europe experienced convulsive political and social upheavals during the mid-twentieth century, and the tidy endings and false sense of poetic justice that characterized melodrama lost their appeal in dramatic works. Playwrights wanted to stretch their imaginations, and audiences craved the kinds of spectacles and special effects they saw in films. In the United States, mainstream commercial theater, which was centered on Broadway, turned to the developing musical comedy form for survival, and serious plays were generally relegated to Off-Broadway and experimental theaters. Plays written during the 1960’s had an altogether different tone. Playwrights wanted to show the ugly undersides of domestic life,...

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Twenty-first Century Trends

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Later murder mysteries and thrillers have suffered from the genre’s history. Plays written in the traditional thriller or mystery mode must compete with the success of their forerunners, especially Agatha Christie’s well-known works. Having exhausted nearly all possible plot twists, postmodern thrillers virtually ceased to exist in the twenty-first century. There are limits to how many plays can be built around clever killers who murder people, only to have them come back to life to exact revenge and then discover their guns have blanks because the original killers anticipated what would happen. Audiences expecting mind-boggling arrays of twists and turns become more involved in the game of the play than in the plots...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Borowitz, Albert. Blood and Ink: An International Guide to Fact-Based Crime Literature: Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002. Very good overview of the history and traditions of fact-based crime literature. Includes prefatory material by Jacques Barzun and Jonathan Goodman.

Carlson, Marvin. Deathtraps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Excellent study of the postmodern comedy thriller form with considerable background information on its antecedents. Includes an appendix with a comprehensive listing of mystery plays produced between 1863 and 1992.

Cartmell, Van H., and Bennett Cerf....

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