The Mousetrap is celebrating the 62nd year of a record breaking run. It is quite simply a great piece of theatrical history because of what it is, a whodunit, written by the greatest crime writer of all time, Agatha Christie (above), writes PETER GRACE
When Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, opened at the Ambassadors Theatre on November 25th, 1952, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, Eisenhower was President of the United States, de Valera was Taoiseach and Marciano was heavyweight champion of the world.
She had originally written it as a radio play to mark the 80th birthday of Queen Mary, consort of King George V.
Its title then was ‘The Three Blind Mice’ but, when the stage version appeared, the name had to be changed because a play of the same title had already been staged in London.
The play had its first night at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, and the fact that she broke her wrist on the previous day seemed to foretell disaster. The disaster never came, and that first night was a great success.
The play then had a few performances in Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham before starting its long and continuous run in London. When it opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, there were 453 people in attendance. The Mousetrap is set in a remote country house that is cut off by snow. Tension steeply rises when those present suddenly have to face up to the fact that there is a murderer in their midst.
Those present then become an assortment of suspects. At the end of the play, when the killer has been unmasked, the audience is asked not to reveal what happened in the final scene. It ran for 21 years at the Ambassadors Theatre and then, without missing a performance, it moved to St. Michael’s Theatre next door.
Between the two theatres, it has run for over sixty years, and on November 18th, 2012, it had its 25,000th performance. It is by far the longest initial run of any play in history. Agatha Christie certainly did not expect a very long run. It was suggested to her after that opening night in the West End that it would run for fourteen months, she replied, “It won’t run that long. Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months.” Why has The Mousetrap lasted so long? The main reason is Agatha Christie herself.
She is the best-selling novelist of all time. Her appeal applies to every race, colour and class. About 4 billion copies of her novels have been sold, and her books have been translated into over 100 languages. Sales to foreign countries have been considerably helped by the fact that her novels are useful in the teaching of the English language. Many of her books and stories were filmed. Some of these movies, such as And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express, were very popular.
This shy and retiring lady killed off dozens of characters more cunningly and more bafflingly than any other crime writer anywhere. This is why she is still the greatest of all crime writers. It has been claimed by many that characterisation in her novels is rudimentary and that the writing is dull. She herself seemed to agree.
“If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark or Graham Greene, I would jump to high heavens with delight, but I know I can’t.” She became immensely popular because in her novels no holds are barred. Clues and red herrings are tossed out thick and fast, and the ingenuity is magnificent. It is extraordinary to accept that, in her own words, she dreamed up many of her plots while she chewed apples in her bath. In 1926 she shot to real fame when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd appeared. The book was written with splendid simplicity, and yet practically no one guessed who committed the murder. Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie was born into a fairly prosperous family in 1890 and was educated at home by governesses. In 1914, she married Colonel Christie. When he went off to serve in WW1, she served as a nurse in a hospital where the patients were mostly wounded soldiers. It was during that time that she learned so much about poisons. Indeed, the victim in her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (published in 1920) was poisoned.
After the war, Colonel Christie returned home, but after some years the marriage ran into problems. After divorce from Christie, she married Sir Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of note. She then settled down to a lifetime of writing. In all, she wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, together with 6 romances (under the name Mary Westmacott).
She died in 1976. Incidentally, Agatha Christie never earned a penny in royalties from the play. She had given them as a present to her grandson Matthew Prichard on the occasion of his eighth birthday.