THE CLAPTRAP, I MEAN THE MOUSETRAP: IS THIS THE ULTIMATE POST-MODERN JOKE?

Last evening I saw ‘La ratonera’ at Teatre Apolo, here in Barcelona, the Spanish translation of Agatha Christie’s very famous The Mousetrap. I am really mystified that this absolutely mediocre play, to call it something polite, is still on 62 years after its opening night. That is the real mystery and not what the plot narrates…

The Mousetrap, presented as a “comedy-thriller,” was judged a “middling” play in which “coincidence is stretched unreasonably” when it first opened at the Ambassadors’ Theatre (I’m reading the original Guardian review of November 1952). In 1974 it transferred to St Martin’s Theatre, where it remains –a tourist trap, as denounced by the 11 brave souls who dare say so on TripAdvisor (of a total 321 opinions: 142 excellent, 117 very good…). The author herself, Wikipedia claims, declared in her autobiography that she only expected the play to last for eight months at the most. Christie, by the way, presented her grandson Matthew Prichard with the rights to the play for his 9th birthday. He must be quite rich by now as the play reached its 25,000 performance in 2012, the longest uninterrupted run of any play anywhere in history.

Wikipedia informs that the play, originally a short radio play, was inspired by the real-life case of poor Dennis O’Neill, an orphan who died while fostered by a couple of farmers. Technically, The Mousetrap is a revenge play as the murders hinge on the efforts of the murderer to make those responsible for a child’s death pay for their cruelty and sadism. This is, from my contemporary perspective, possibly the only plot point worth commenting on (there is also a gay man, much laughed at, and a lesbian, less laughed at). However, not much is made of the sad issue of child abuse –for the simple reason that everything is as shallow as it can be.

I’ve never been a fan of Mrs. Christie, whom I find to be a clever but fairly mechanical writer. Here her plotting is not just mechanical but truly amateurish. Forget about the improbable coincidences, the glaring gaps and the utter failure to explain what the characters are doing in the small rural hotel where events take place. Let’s just say that someone who could and should have prevented a crime does nothing to stop the murderer, and that someone who should have declared their identity at once to the said murderer (and thus prevent not one but two crimes) remains silent. Appalling, really. (All plot details available from the published edition of the play… or Wikipedia, I wonder why they ask audiences to keep the murderer’s identity secret).

My admired Tom Stoppard wrote in 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, a parody of The Mousetrap. I read it long ago and have forgotten the details but I recall that the action progresses as two critics discuss the events onstage and are themselves trapped into the plot. It might not be the first case of the spoof being much better that the spoofed but I do wonder how come The Mousetrap has ever reached the status it has. John Thaxter has called it “a beautifully preserved example of a country house murder mystery, a throwback to theatregoing in the thirties (minus the matinee tea-trays)” (2004, https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/2406/the-mousetrap). In the usually very witty blog A West End Whinger, we are told that criticising is like “going to Madame Tussauds and being surprised to find that it’s crap.” (https://westendwhingers.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/review-the-mousetrap-st-martins-theatre/). Fair enough, it’s the same category of trash. Crap. Whatever. The odd thing is how abundant the positive criticism is and scant the negative voices.

Three years ago I saw an excellent Spanish production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with Josep Maria Pou in the title role. I wrote on it here, comparing it to Shaw’s Pygmalion, odd as this may sound. As I endured Christie’s trash yesterday I could not help thinking (very fondly) of Priestley’s 1946 masterpiece, wondering why it hadn’t been so lucky. In the end, as I said as the beginning, the real mystery is the very endurance of the play. A jealous Noël Coward congratulated Christie on her success but I wonder what Samuel Beckett and company thought all along (Waiting for Godot was first seen in France in 1953, in England in 1954).

There’s a joke I’m missing here, but it’s so ultra post-modern we might need Derrida to decode it… None seems interested, though.

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2 thoughts on “THE CLAPTRAP, I MEAN THE MOUSETRAP: IS THIS THE ULTIMATE POST-MODERN JOKE?

  1. I think your bewilderment is much more interesting when read after the magic wand magical experience (e.g. “if you go down that road, the world is a dreary place”). But then, does it matter that Christie’s play is bad or that your wand is made of plastic? Don’t Christie fans have an equal right to “recall the happy time” too?

    🙂

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