Begins a Record-Breaking Run Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a well-constructed, well-publicized, and well-managed whodunit, made theater history with its more than five-decade run.

Summary of Event

Agatha Christie’s career as a writer of mystery stories and thrillers began modestly with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story in 1920. By the late 1930’s, she was recognized as the preeminent writer in the genre. By 1980, it was estimated that 400 million copies of her books had been sold worldwide. Similarly, although she experienced only modest success with her first play, Black Coffee (1930), much greater success followed with her adaptations of her own novels for the stage. These productions included Ten Little Niggers Ten Little Indians (Christie) (pr. 1943; pb. in U.S. and better known as Ten Little Indians 1943, pr. 1944), Appointment with Death (pr., pb. 1945), Murder on the Nile (pr., pb. 1946), and The Hollow (pr. 1951). Christie attained the height of her success as a dramatist during the 1953-1954 theater season, when three of her plays ran concurrently in London’s West End: Witness for the Prosecution Witness for the Prosecution (Christie) (pr. 1953) ran for 468 performances, Spider’s Web Spider’s Web (Christie)[Spiders Web (Christie)] (pr. 1954) ran for 774 performances, and The Mousetrap (pr. 1952) continued its astonishing run. Mousetrap, The (Christie) Theater;drama [kw]Mousetrap Begins a Record-Breaking Run, The (Nov. 25, 1952) [kw]Record-Breaking Run, The Mousetrap Begins a (Nov. 25, 1952)[Record Breaking Run, The Mousetrap Begins a] Mousetrap, The (Christie) Theater;drama [g]Europe;Nov. 25, 1952: The Mousetrap Begins a Record-Breaking Run[03940] [g]United Kingdom;Nov. 25, 1952: The Mousetrap Begins a Record-Breaking Run[03940] [c]Theater;Nov. 25, 1952: The Mousetrap Begins a Record-Breaking Run[03940] Christie, Agatha Saunders, Peter Attenborough, Richard Cotes, Peter

Whodunits had been popular in the English theater since their introduction in the nineteenth century. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Edgar Wallace’s thrillers, which depended as heavily on melodrama as had their predecessors, were among the most popular. Early adaptations of Christie’s work by other authors were similarly melodramatic. Dissatisfied with such dramatic versions of her works as Alibi (pr. 1928), Love from a Stranger (pr. 1936), and Peril at End House (pr. 1940), Christie decided to adapt her work for the theater herself, improving it by simplifying sets, using smaller casts of characters, and eliminating the extremes of melodrama. She retained detective-story conventions and formulas while ingeniously and continuously varying them.

The Mousetrap opened its “tryout run” at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham on October 6, 1952. The play was not particularly well-recieved. Christie decided that it contained too much comedy for an audience expecting a suspense thriller and she quickly modified it. The rewritten play opened in London at the Ambassadors’ Theatre on November 25. On March 25, 1974, the production—which had continued uninterrupted since its opening—moved to St. Martin’s Theatre without breaking its run.

When the play opened, Hubert Gregg, an actor and director, described it as “a jolly good little whodunit, no more, no less.” Peter Saunders, the presenter, predicted a successful run of fourteen months, and Agatha Christie more modestly predicted an eight-month run. Noting its longevity thirteen years later, she wrote, “No doubt about it, miracles happen.”

The Mousetrap’s great success ultimately remains an enigma. Ten Little Indians is recognized as Christie’s technically most complex play, while Witness for the Prosecution is generally considered her best. Like many of her other plays, The Mousetrap is based on an earlier work, Three Blind Mice, Three Blind Mice (Christie) Radio;drama a radio play that she wrote in 1947 at the request of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to celebrate Queen Mary’s eightieth birthday. Unlike adaptations of her novels, which required simplification, adaptation of the radio play required expansion—“extra characters, a fuller background and plot, and a slow working up to the climax”—to fulfill the requirements of a two-act stage play. Christie noted that the proportions of Three Blind Mice made for “good construction” in The Mousetrap.

The Mousetrap exemplifies the qualities that made Christie’s other plays successful. The setting, typically, isolates the characters. Giles and Mollie Ralston’s very first guests arrive at Monkswell Manor Guesthouse during a snowstorm that cuts them off from the rest of the world. Like many of Christie’s characters, they are stereotypes, easily identifiable through speech patterns, mannerisms, and appearances.

The outline of the plot is simple. In act 1, scene 1, the guests arrive. In act 1, scene 2, which takes place on the following afternoon, Sergeant Trotter skis to the guesthouse to warn the inhabitants that a homicidal maniac intends to kill one or possibly two of them. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Boyle, a guest, is murdered. At the beginning of act 2, Sergeant Trotter interrogates the Ralstons and their guests and tells them that one of them is a murderer and will strike again. Suspense builds as characters become enmeshed in fear, mutual suspicion, and accusations. Then Sergeant Trotter gathers everyone together to reenact the murder. The play reaches a climax when a second murder is averted and the murderer is revealed to be the one person that seemed beyond suspicion. The denouement follows at a rapid pace, providing answers to unanswered questions and turning the play world from tragedy to comedy.

Because of its phenomenal run, The Mousetrap has become a monument in theater history. After seeing its twenty-fifth anniversary performance, critic Eric Shorter wrote: “Whether those seeds [of immortality] are to be found in the text, in the performance, the theatre or its position, its management or its publicity, is a question which nobody can answer for sure.” Agatha Christie’s plays have long pleased their audiences with conventions and formulas to which they add twists and surprises.

Peter Saunders, who has been described as a “super-ingenious barker,” carefully managed and publicized the play from its beginning. The Mousetrap opened with an excellent cast, including Richard Attenborough in the part of Sergeant Trotter; however, the most famous name associated with the production, that of Agatha Christie, occupied the largest space on the theater marquee. On the play’s fifth anniversary, Saunders held a party that was televised after the performance at the Ambassadors’ Theatre. The press was also invited to the spectacular seventh anniversary party, held at the Savoy Hotel, to which Saunders invited a thousand guests.

Beginning with the production’s eighth year, Saunders changed the cast and had the production restaged by a new director annually, on the anniversary of its opening. Christie, who ordinarily eschewed publicity, participated in promoting the play. She attended parties, had her picture taken with new casts, and donated the “Mousetrap Cup” as a prize for horse racing. In 1965, Saunders formed the Mousetrap Club for people who have been connected with the play in any way. Since the late 1950’s, The Mousetrap has become a tourist attraction and a piece of nostalgia. People return to it to commemorate various anniversaries. The long run itself has generated interest in the play, which in turn has extended the length of its run.

In her autobiography, Christie wrote that “people are always asking me to what I attribute the success of The Mousetrap,” and noted that her answer was “90 percent luck, at least.” She was probably too modest; in addition to luck, the play’s success stems from its author’s uncanny ability to please audiences.

Significance

The Mousetrap is not an innovative work; rather, it is the epitome of the mystery play. Such plays typically feature well-constructed plots, stereotypical characters, and formulaic motifs such as isolated country houses, hidden identities, conflicting testimonies about the past, shots in the dark, blackouts, and reenactments of the crime that lead to the detection of the murderer. The central feature of a successful mystery is to make the revelation of the murderer’s identity a genuine surprise to the audience, and yet for it to make utter sense, thereby combining satisfaction with shock. Few plays accomplish this goal as well as The Mousetrap.

Because of Christie’s expert handling of these elements and the play’s outstanding success, The Mousetrap exerted an important influence on late twentieth century drama in both simple and complex ways. Popular playwrights such as Anthony Shaffer Shaffer, Anthony and Ira Levin borrowed Christie’s construction and motifs to create successful mystery plays, while more learned and experimental dramatists such as Peter Shaffer, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard used her work as a springboard for the creation of more formally sophisticated or metaphysical mysteries.

Anthony Shaffer was thoroughly versed in mystery conventions, having collaborated on two detective novels with his twin brother Peter and having written the screenplay for the 1978 film version of Christie’s Death on the Nile (novel 1937). He is best known for his first play, Sleuth Sleuth (Shaffer) (pr. 1970), which broke box-office records at the St. Martin’s Theatre—the theater where The Mousetrap has played since 1974. Shaffer also wrote the screenplay for the 1973 film version of Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.

In 1979, the American author Ira Levin Levin, Ira , who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Boys from Brazil (1976), published his play Deathtrap, Deathtrap (Levin) which was filmed in 1982 in a production starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve and directed by Sidney Lumet. Peter Shaffer Shaffer, Peter utilized Christie’s mystery-plot techniques in his collaborations with his brother, but he employed them in a more ambitious and complex manner in Equus (1974) and Amadeus (1979).

The most enigmatic of the complex school of Christie’s heirs are Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold and Tom Stoppard Stoppard, Tom . In the 1950’s, Pinter was an actor who played in Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage (pr. 1959), Ten Little Indians, Spider’s Web, Love from a Stranger (pr. 1936), Witness for the Prosecution, and Peril at End House (pr. 1940). When he turned to writing, Pinter borrowed many of her stock techniques to create his own works. Menaced, isolated characters are used in Pinter’s The Caretaker (pr., pb. 1960), No Man’s Land (pr., pb. 1975), and The Birthday Party (pr. 1958, pb. 1959); conflicting testimonies about the past and about characters’ identities appear in Old Times (pr., pb. 1971); and melodramatic action at the closing of the curtain takes place in The Dumb Waiter (pr., pb. 1960 in English; pr. 1959 in German) and The Room (pr. 1957, pb. 1960). The difference between Pinter and Christie is that Pinter does not resolve the mysteries; menace and enigma remain.

A similar situation prevails in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound Real Inspector Hound, The (Stoppard) (1968), which is a parodic revision of The Mousetrap. Stoppard satirizes the convention of the detective as crime solver by making him a murderer also. Major Mangus, like Major Metcalf in The Mousetrap, is the real detective, Inspector Hound, but he is also the murderer Puckeridge, a third-rate journalist, who is also Albert Muldoon, the long-missing owner of Muldoon Mansion. Through the proliferation of identities, Stoppard satirizes how dramatists fashion their characters after hackneyed ones like those in The Mousetrap.

Although Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is not innovative, it does represent the epitome of the conventional mystery play, which by its recognizable and popular formulas influenced later dramatists in both simple and complex manners. In both their emulation and their parodying of her techniques, these writers pay tribute to Christie’s achievement. Mousetrap, The (Christie) Theater;drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. Christie engagingly creates a sense of her lifestyle and values. She describes her interest in games and puzzles, love of literature and the theater, and her lifelong pleasure with the world of her imagination. Her decision to omit information about her traumatic disappearance in December, 1926, might disappoint some readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregg, Hubert. Agatha Christie and All That Mousetrap. London: William Kimber, 1980. A director of some of Christie’s most successful plays, Gregg discusses his experience in working with her and with Peter Saunders. Although slight, this highly personal account, which is often irreverent, offers a unique perspective on Christie’s plays. Gregg’s book includes excerpts of play reviews and general comments about the London theater during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Morgan’s book, the authorized biography, is a detailed study packed with names and dates, often useful in placing and filling out events that Christie wrote about in her more casual autobiography. Morgan’s book includes good portraits of Colonel Archibald Christie, Agatha’s first husband, and Sir Max Mallowan, her second husband.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osborne, Charles. The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie. London: William Collins Sons, 1982. Osborne provides detailed summaries of Christie’s novels, plays, nonfiction, poetry, and films. He relates her work to events in her life, provides information about the production of plays, comments on actors’ performances, and provides contemporary reviews. His book, which is dense with facts, names, and dates, is written in a lucid and flowing style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riley, Dick, and Pam McAllister, eds. The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. A compendium of useful information, this book includes biographical and literary material as well as an outstanding bibliography. Essays of both serious and satiric nature provide statistics about The Mousetrap and Christie’s overall popularity and give glimpses of her actual and fictional worlds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagstaff, Vanessa, and Stephen Poole. Agatha Christie: A Reader’s Companion. London: Aurum, 2004. A critical guide to Christie’s works, analyzing their form and structure, as well as their meaning. Bibliographic references and index.

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