Critical Overview

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Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth was a phenomenal success when it first appeared in the theater world. It opened in London's West End theater district and played for the next eight years. Critics in England and the United States applauded the play's plotting, surprise twists, and unrelenting suspense. British reviewers found it to be an outstanding thriller, comparing it favorably to the works of such mystery masters as Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.

Upon opening on Broadway, the play received equally rave reviews. Critics and audiences appreciated its mixture of spoof and mystery. In the New York Times, Clive Barnes dubbed it "one of the must purely entertaining plays of many a season." He lavishly praised Shaffer's writing as "delicious" and continued,"It has a ponderous frivolity to it that sparkles like golf course sunshine on early-morning corpses." Critics also commented on Shaffer's manipulation of the detective genre."Although it provides all the suspense and melodramatic devices of a thriller," pointed out Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review, "it is new in that it simultaneously spoofs the preposterousness of the form itself." Shaffer won a Tony Award for the play in 1971.

A few years after Sleuth first appeared, Jules Glenn analyzed it in regard to twinship. In an article in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, he wrote about Milo and Andrew's engagement in "an intense ambivalent relationship: extreme hate and profound affection" and suggested that their relationship hinted at a homosexual attraction. Glenn also pointed out the numerous references to halves and doubles in the play.

Ironically, the play was turned down by one British producer who, according to Shaffer, loved it but didn't think a large audience would come to see it. "Once the trick is known, no one will go, so you've rather shot yourself in the foot'' Rival producer Michael White did not share this opinion. Since its first production in 1970, Sleuth has reappeared on the stage in Britain, the United States, and other countries around the world countless times. Two years after it first was produced on stage, it also was made into an acclaimed film.

As proof of its enormous success, Sleuth has inspired dozens of imitations, such as Ira Levin's Deathtrap and Richard Harris's The Business of Murder. Gerald M. Berkowitz wrote m Contemporary Dramatists that"It is not often that a writer has the opportunity to create a literary fashion and even a new genre, but theatrical thrillers and mysteries can legitimately be divided into pie-Sleuth and post-Sleuth, indicating more than their date of composition." As Berkowitz points out, Shaffer created the "whodunwhat," a mystery in which "not only the identity of the criminal but the nature of the crime-indeed, the reality and reliability of everything we've seen with our own eyes—is part of the mystery."

Berkowitz also acknowledged that Sleuth owes some debt to earlier plays and films, notably Gaslight and Suspicion, in which it is unclear whether a man is trying to murder his wife, and the French film Diabolique, which presents three main characters who may be the murderers or the victims. However, Berkowitz wrote, "Shaffer concentrates and multiplies the questions and red herrings, and dresses them in an entertaining mix of psychology ... social comment .. in-jokes ... and black humor. And everything moves so quickly and effortlessly that there is added delight in the author's skill and audacity in so repeatedly confusing us." Such success has its downside. As Shaffer told Matt Wolf of Variety in 1997, "It's a blessing and a curse.... It's a blessing perfectly obviously because it has given you a name and a reputation; but it is somewhat of a curse because it condemns you to one genre."

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism