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Command Performance

Command Performance

By Christine Frezza

By 1947, Agatha Christie was a much-published writer of mysteries and an occasional playwright, with two productions to her credit. Ira Levin, in his introduction to The Mousetrap and Other Plays, said that Christie felt other playwrights who adapted her novels made the mistake of “following the books too closely” (Agatha Christie, 1978, p. viii). She felt that “a detective story is particularly unlike a play. . . . It has such an intricate plot, and usually so many characters and false clues, that the thing is bound to be confusing. . . . What was wanted was simplification” (viii). Feeling she understood the genre, when the BBC called her with the request that she write a brief radio drama, she readily accepted, especially after learning that the request originated with the Dowager Queen Mary.

Christie quickly produced “a little radio sketch” called Three Blind Mice which was so well received that requests came in for her to turn it into a short story. However, pleased with her previous forays into playwriting, she thought of turning it into a stage play instead, and expanded it from the twenty-minute sketch into a full three acts. “It wanted a couple of extra characters, a fuller background and plot, and a slow working up to the climax” (Agatha Christie, An Autobiography,1977, p. 498). Christie gives credit for the title to her son-in-law; the change was made because another play called Three Blind Mice already existed.

On November 25, 1952, The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassador Theatre, starring Richard Attenborough and his wife, Sheila Sim. At this point, one usually writes, “The production closed on . . .” but this time the date must be left blank, as The Mousetrap is still running more than fifty-four years later.

Statistics abound about the show, including: three entries in the Guinness Book of World Records; longest-running theatrical show in the world; complete cast, set, curtains, and theatre change—the only piece remaining from the original is a clock on the mantelpiece (An Autobiography, 498).

More interesting than the numbers is its truly universal appeal, having been presented in forty-one countries, and translated into twenty-one languages, the play speaks to some qualities we all possess.

Christie herself modestly attributed its success to luck and “there is a bit of something in it for almost everybody. . . . Young people enjoy it, elderly people enjoy it” (An Autobiography, 499). She then repeats her initial belief that having a skeleton of the radio sketch to work with, means the play is well constructed. “The thing unfolds so that you want to know what happens next, and you can’t quite see where the next few minutes will lead you” (Dick Riley, and Pam McAllister, eds., The New Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie, 2nd ed., 1986, p. 203).

Much of the charm of the piece comes from Christie’s skill at developing character. Everyone in The Mousetrap has a secret, some of which are innocent, but Christie gives us the possibility of each person being the villain, without ever caricaturing any of them. The recognizable types: the “masculine” woman, the disapproving elder lady, the “suspicious” foreigner, are all present but all made human through their brief displays of weaknesses or good humor.

Credit must also be given to the setting, a country house which has been turned into a genteel hotel. This type of British detective story is known as a “cozy” to avid mystery readers; its comfortable and familiar furnishings, its sense of being shielded from the hustle and bustle of urban life, help the reader (in this case the viewer) focus more easily on plot developments. In the case of The Mousetrap, urban life is completely shut off: the hotel is cut off from all outside interference by a snowstorm which conveniently also downs the phone, but not the power lines. Although our minds tell us we should pay attention to the radio announcement of a local murder, it is much more tempting to sink back in one of the comfortable armchairs without which no country house is complete, and contemplate our fellow travelers, even as more and more of them are revealed as possible murderers.

Christie makes the audience part of the world of the play by revealing nothing to them before the characters learn it. Every clue and every red herring are given equal time, as the final revelation is prepared. To reveal the conclusion of the play would be to ruin it for everyone; indeed, at each London performance, the audience is requested to keep the ending secret so as not to spoil the pleasure of those (surely by now!) very few who don’t know “who done it.”

One such was of royal blood. On November 26, 2002, Queen Elizabeth II, granddaughter of Queen Mary, attended another “command performance,” the fiftieth anniversary of the show, and its 20,807th performance. Both had been running for fifty years, since this was also the monarch’s Golden Jubilee year, and according to CNN, the Queen was a first-time viewer: “ ‘She doesn’t know whodunit,’ a spokeswoman said. ‘So, yes, she’s looking forward to seeing it’” ( Presumably Her Majesty has kept the secret of the ending to herself.