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.