Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has been running continuously in London since the year 50 BC, or so it seems. This is the murder mystery against which all other sterotypically British murder mysteries are judged (and from which most have copied, borrowed or stolen). All the elements are here: the random assortment of suspicious weekend guests, the remote country house, the washed out bridge, the cut telephone lines, the Scotland Yard inspector. All that’s missing is the butler, and I’m convinced he’s absent only because in a play this archtypal, there’s no way the butler couldn’t have done it, had he existed in the script.
So, what do you get for the price of your ticket to London’s oldest show? Well, at the weekday matinee I attended, you got an audience of about a dozen old-age pensioners (that’s British for “senior citizens”) and me. Still, even with a mostly empty, mostly hard-of-hearing audience, the actors gave it their all, emotng through the type of British accents you only hear in Agatha Christie plays these days.
One thing that struk me was how the social dynamics of the play have changed over the years. One of the first characters we’re introduced to is a somewhat spastic gay-acting (they never state explicity in the play, but you get the idea) young man named (amusingly enough) Christopher Wren. In 1952, when the play debuted, you can bet that this character immediately came under suspicion from a sizable chunk of the audience, long before a murder was even committed. This was a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, and an illegal one at that.
If I might pause here for a little background and perspective… Also in 1952, Alan Turing was arrested and prosecuted for homosexuality. He was forced to choose between going to jail, and a probation with hormonal treatments (injections of estrogen, working off the junk-science theory that homosexuality was caused by an excess of testoterone) which caused side-effects including growing breasts. Humiliated and degraded beyond all belief, he took his own life two years later. If the name Alan Turing is unknown to you, it shouldn’t be. This man (along with Charles Babbage) is the father of modern computing. His early computers and methods were used to break German codes including the Enigma code in World War II. It has been said by many historians that without the work of Alan Turing, World War II would have been lost.
Flash forward to today. How many military translators has the United States fired (not only fired, but sometimes dishonorably discharged, meaning after years of service to the country, often in the most dangerous front-line units, they don’t get any veterans’ benefits) because they were gay? (The answer, by the way, is 58 and counting.) Last year alone, 742 service members were discharged for being gay. In 2001, the number was 1,273. In the past 10 years since the American “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect, well over 11,000 gay men and women have been discharged. At least we’re no longer using hormone “therepies” worthy of Josef Mengele. So, as George W. Bush is so fond of saying about Iraq, we’re making progress.
Back to the play… So, “Christopher Wren” is mincing aroung the stage. The actor portraying him is doing a dead-on perfect impersonation of the late actor Kenneth Williams, who found an outlet for his personal struggle with sexuality by playing flamboyant sterotypical gay men on stage and in film. I’m taking it that the “Kenneth Williams-type” is merely British shorthand for “gay” on stage. It’s a character everyone in the audience is old enough to remember from the Carry On films. And, unlike Agatha Christie’s original intentions in including this caracter, it’s a character most people remember fondly as a campy clown. As I noted, we’re making progress.
The rest of the play is “bog-standard“, as the British would say. Shots are fired in the dark, bodies are discovered, everyone has a motive, and the ending… well, I’m not supposed to tell you the ending, though it’s easy to figure out. I guess that’s another thing that’s changed since 1952. Just as we’re no longer quick to label the gay man a homocidal maniac, we’re also quick to suspect the “least suspected”. It’s become a cliche, of course, and mystery authors have had to circle around the problem so many times that now it’s something of a surprise to discover that the butler is the murderer after all (though obviously not in this play).
Seeing The Mousetrap in London’s West End is one of those things you have to do once in your lifetime, if only just to check it off the list. The play is fun, the cast (which obviously has rotated a bit in the past 50 years) keeps the material fresh, and the famous admonition from the stage to keep the ending a secret is one of those collective experiences that makes you feel like you’ve just been inducted into an exclusive private club. In short, go see it.
More info: The Mousetrap