It’s a mystery far greater than the one it enacts: the continued life of Agatha Christie’s creaky whodunit, The Mousetrap. Not only has this play been running in London since 1952 — making it, apparently, the longest-running play in the world — it is regularly performed in middle schools and high schools, on the amateur circuit, and, occasionally, on professional stages outside the West End. It’s the board game Clue, given life-size dimension and English accents: Six characters and a detective, trapped in a snowstorm at a cozy English guesthouse, each with motive for a recent murder. Whodunit?
The Mousetrap has cropped up at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater in all its musty regalia. This version is one of 60 licensed performances happening around the world to celebrate the play’s 60th anniversary. I recently went to a weekday matinee and brought along a Chinese visitor who, I thought, might appreciate this bit of Western cultural detritus. It turns out she was more interested in the audience than in the play — all those older white people wearing nice sweaters. You don’t find the elderly en masse in China, since they are generally living with their children and unlikely to do things on their own. And you don’t find so many comfortable-but-not-wealthy-looking people anywhere in China, because the country has yet to develop a healthy middle class.
The audience for The Mousetrap at the Walnut Street Theater speaks volumes about the play’s status as bourgeois theater. It is the sort of play one imagines a play ought to be if one has seen very few. It lends itself to an elaborate if conventional set design: dark wood, chintz chairs, a large bay window, a staircase, and multiple doors allowing for the entrance and egress of the various suspects from kitchen, cellar, parlor, and upstairs bedrooms. Each of the characters is a drawing room-mystery convention: the newly married owners of the guest house, both hiding something; the excitable young man; the secretive young woman; the sinister foreigner; the sour dowager; the stalwart ex-military officer; and the irate detective. One is likely to guess whodunit rather early if one knows Agatha Christie’s modus operandi (i.e., the least likely person), but that is hardly the point. Although the play has a built-in plea to audiences not to divulge the perpetrator, The Mousetrap is more about red herrings and plummy British accents than about plot. And as bourgeois theater, it is less about shock than about comfort. It delivers what one expects.
In this, it can be grouped with an assortment of other plays that behave in a similar fashion. I am thinking of such works as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, John Van Druten’s I Remember Mama, Mary Chase’s Harvey — and, if you want more recent examples, most anything by Neil Simon. I would throw in the modern American musical here as well. Starting with Oklahoma! in 1943, music in musicals became integrated into the narrative rather than set apart, helping the medicine of plot go down more easily and making the theatrical aspect of the work both more natural and more emphatic.
All of these examples, though different in genre and quality, can be categorized as bourgeois comfort theater. They deliver a degree of wit and sentiment (and in the case of musicals, toe-tapping melodies) but do not require the audience to deal with complexity or emotional strain. They do not breach sexual or social norms in any significant way. This accounts for their being performed so often in middle and high schools.
It is worth asking whether such plays are good or bad for serious theater. I have heard people sneer at these shows for pandering to audiences, for making them feel complacent and superior, and for closing them off from more challenging work and reinforcing existing prejudices. But much in the way my Chinese friend found the bourgeois nature of the matinee audience a source of admiration, so too can one find these plays admirable. An actress friend of mine is one of their most vigorous defenders. She loves hard plays, but she also loves easy ones like The Mousetrap, which teach the suspension of disbelief and involve the basic premise of all theater: They involve real people deploying energy and skill in pretending to be other people. Even the simplest plays, she argues, exercise the imagination and open our minds and hearts to something beyond ourselves.
It may seem like a stretch to go from The Mousetrap to that masterpiece of 20th-century theater, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but when you think about it, the distance between them is not really so great, formally speaking (and it is worth noting that they were originally produced within three years of each other). Death of a Salesman is a simple play involving simple language and characters. Its greatness lies in the way it crosses over from comfort theater to something more profound and disquieting. It does this by using the genre to interrogate itself. It is bourgeois theater critiquing the bourgeois lifestyle. This is why, when it first debuted, the audience was presumably too stunned to react when the curtain came down, and Miller thought he had a flop on his hands. All those middle-class people in nice sweaters were looking at themselves from a new angle and, for a moment, were moved beyond the ability to respond. Then, they burst into applause.
The Mousetrap exists at the other end of the spectrum. It has no pretensions and no self-consciousness, beyond whatever campy self-consciousness a director might impose. My own liking of The Mousetrap, I confess, has to do with having spent a good part of junior high school reading Agatha Christie novels. The recent revelations that Christie had fascist leanings (admirers call this Burkean conservatism), and my sense, even at 14, that she was not kindly disposed to ethnic and religious minorities, somehow never dampened my affection. When I’m with Christie, I’m in a world where people dress for dinner, English is spoken well, and Britannia rules the waves (it had ceased to do so when she wrote, of course, but, in proper British fashion, she blithely pretended that it still did). The reason this appeals to me is probably because it corresponds to the comforting coordinates of my childhood life: While I was reading those Agatha Christie novels, my mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner, my sister was coloring in front of the TV, and my father was expected home by 6 p.m. When I see The Mousetrap, the feeling of that childhood life is given flesh, quite literally — and I am, in a bourgeois, comfortable sort of way, moved.
Christie herself was not sanguine about the prospects of The Mousetrap when it first opened; she predicted a run of eight months. A year later, in 1953, she wrote a better play, Witness for the Prosecution, whose luster was enhanced by the 1957 film adaptation, directed by Billie Wilder. That movie starred Tyrone Power in what I take to be the best performance of his career (a bad actor always does best when he has to play a good actor — the reason Kim Novak excelled in Vertigo), and Marlene Dietrich, who rendered her distinctive persona in quotation marks (which is to say, put quotation marks around quotation marks). The Mousetrap has not been turned into a movie because Christie made a provision that it not be until at least six months after the end of its London run. Given that the play has achieved iconic status on the West End stage, a film version may never happen.
And yet, for all that The Mousetrap is a quintessential bourgeois comfort play, I was struck, upon recent viewing, by a disturbing current beneath its predictable surface. Witness for the Prosecution titillates by highlighting the seamy sexuality of its protagonists. The Mousetrap contains a hint of sexual deviance insofar as the motive for the murder under investigation is child abuse. This is alluded to only in the most general terms and never rises above a MacGuffin. But a radical rewrite could expand on the hint, help the title make sense, and give the play some true resonance.
No such thing, however, is likely to happen. Christie left the rights to The Mousetrap to her grandson, who jealously guards against tampering. Besides, there’s little incentive for a better Mousetrap, given that it has been running in London for 60 years and that tickets for the current Philadelphia revival are selling briskly. Still, it’s an interesting notion that with a little tweaking, the play could conceivably rise above bourgeois comfort theater and rattle our cages. • 24 February 2012