One Blind Mouse
Back in 1966, when I was but a kidling, I went on a family trip to Europe, and when we were in London, I went with my older brother to see Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap. (Our folks went to a different play.) I was very excited about going, since I liked Agatha Christie mysteries and had heard so much about this monumentally long-running play. So long-running that it was a phenomenon. I'd read the short story (though a long one, almost a novella) beforehand, so I knew whodunnit -- but at intermission I asked my brother who he thought the killer was. (Don't worry, I won't give it away.) He kept changing his guess -- "no, wait, I think it's..." -- and I just politely sat there smiling at him. (Fun fact: He didn't guess it.)
Two years later, on another family trip, I got a poster for the show. I later had it framed, and it sits on my wall --
For the record, I saw the play in its 14th year.
What I love about the poster is how it trumpets, "THE LONGEST RUNNING PLAY OF ANY KIND IN THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH THEATRE." That was in 1968. Its 16th year.
Today, the production celebrates its 70th!
The play opened on November 25, 1952. And yes, it's still running. After 21 years, it moved next door to the St. Martin's Theatre, and it's changed casts (often) -- over 400 actors and actresses have performed in it -- but those are pretty much the only differences.
(Though it's changed casts often -- in fact, now, they change casts every year, generally in November -- some actors stuck with the show for a long time. In the poster above, you'll notice at the bottom of the cast list one of the actors I saw, David Raven. He stayed in the show for 11 years! Not a bad daily job for a stage actor...)
The show has currently run for over 28,000 performances over those 70 years. To put this in perspective, the longest running show in the of history New York theater is the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, which ran for 42 years and 17,162 performances. And eventually closed. (On Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera is still going with a remarkably long-running 34-year production, however its producers recently announced that they would be closing the show in five months, in April.) Meanwhile, Ol' Man Mousetrap, it just keeps rolling along.
Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography that her agent thought the play would run for an impressive 14 months, but she totally disagreed. "It won't run that long," she said. "Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months." Even that would have been a great run for a play. Today, it's a joke.
My favorite story about The Mousetrap is that before it opened, Agatha Christie signed a movie contract, though with one proviso: no movie could be made until the play finally closed for six months. And that was 70 years ago, with no closing notice in sight. (The show's website says that it is taking ticket orders through November, 2023 -- a year from now.) That's why you haven't seen a movie of The Mousetrap.
(By the way, the movie producer in question was John Woolf, who happily went on the have an notable career despite this, most memorably winning an Oscar for Best Picture with Oliver! His other movies included Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and Room at the Top, among many others.)
Also fun is that when the play opened, Agatha Christie gave the rights to the play to her grandson Mathew Pritchard as a gift for his ninth birthday. (This article here is an interview with him about the birthday gift.) With the returns, he later set up the Colwinston Trust, which among its many donations to the arts has supported some of the most famous venues in Wales, including the Wales Millennium Centre, The Welsh National Opera, and Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre.
Noteworthy, too, is that in the opening night cast, a young actor Richard Attenborough played the investigator, 'Detective Sergeant Trotter'. His wife Sheila Sim was also in the cast as 'Mollie Ralston,' one of the owners of the snowbound Monkswell Manor where the play takes place. They each received a 10% profit-participation in the show, which was deducted from their combined weekly salaries. ("It proved to be the wisest business decision I've ever made," Attenborough later said, not shockingly, though added, "but foolishly I sold some of my share to open a short-lived Mayfair restaurant called 'The Little Elephant' and later still, disposed of the remainder in order to keep Gandhi afloat." However, considering that Gandhi won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Attenborough won for Best Director, it does seem like money very well-spent, and got its own financial -- and professional -- return.)
There are a few things I didn't know about The Mousetrap until very recently. Starting with that it did not begin life as a short story. Rather it was originally written as a 1945 radio play for the BBC, in honor of the birthday of Queen Mary. (It was presented under the name Three Blind Mice.) Agatha Christie adapted the radio play as a short story, which she then adapted for the stage. The title had to be changed, though, because there had been another play with the same name, done before World War II.
(The new title was suggested by Christie's son-in-law Anthony Hicks. Of all things, it comes from Hamlet. And in a nice bit of appropriate whimsy, from the famous "The play's the thing" scene when he is giving advice to the actors. Asked the name of the play, he jokingly refers to it as "The Mousetrap.")
What I also didn't know about The Mousetrap until just a few weeks ago is that the background for the reason of the murder was loosely inspired by a true life story.
In another odd twist, somewhat similar to that of the movie rights, Christie requested that the short story not be published in the United Kingdom as long as the play was running in London's West End. When I read about that, I couldn't figure out how I was able to have read it. But it turns out that the story was allowed to be published in the United States and appeared in the collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories.
I've still kept my copy all these years. A whopping 45-cents. And the original title is duly noted on the cover.
By the way, if you haven't seen last year's movie See How They Run with Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody, it's a fun, comic-murder mystery that's centered around a murder that occurs backstage during the early days of The Mousetrap. The story is totally fictional, but real details are mixed in -- including Richard Attenborough being a character, as is John Woolf, it taking place at the Ambassador Theatre and a few other matters, as well as Agatha Christie taking part, as well.
Also, on more of a personal note, when I returned to London in that aforementioned 1968 family trip, I went to see a wonderful one-act play by Tom Stoppard called The Real Inspector Hound. It was a deeply-clever satire of theater, critics, drawing-room murder mysteries and, in particular, The Mousetrap. And such a total joy that even as a kid I could appreciate it (especially having seen The Mousetrap two years earlier). My poster of it sits on the wall next to the one of The Mousetrap.
And let's just add another twist to the story. Because this is Agatha Christie and The Mousetrap, after all --
Though The Mousetrap has been running for 70 years in London's West End, it has oddly never played on Broadway. Until...now! Producers in London and New York just announced today that The Mousetrap will finally play on Broadway some time in 2023.
That’s a pretty good, pre-Broadway tryout.
(I still don’t know why it took this long. Nor do articles I've read about this Broadway opening. Though a large Broadway house might not be the best idea for this intimate show, at the moment its schedule for a limited engagement, so it seems like that could be the right choice. Of course, there's always the possibility of it being extended -- although for 70 years might be a bit of a stretch...)
Producers say that the Broadway run's set design will include an authentic touch -- the only piece of the original set that still survives— the mantelpiece clock — will be loaned from the London production. Also, the backstage wind machine (which was described as "unique") that has the original producer’s name imprinted on it and still used today, will also be loaned.
Anyway, to find out more about the original London production, you can check out the official website for The Mousetrap here.
And here's their current trailer.
11/26/2022 09:22:37 am
The Real Inspector Hound -- in my view the best play Stoppard has written.
11/26/2022 08:17:30 pm
Ed, I haven't seen enough Stoppard to comment on that, but I'm thrilled to find the first person I've ever met who also has seen "The Real Inspector Hound"!!! Huzzah! And all the nicer that it's you. Yes, it's absolutely wonderful and lunatically funny. Among the many things I love about it are not just that it's such a well-written play, but that it uses theater SO well and is SO incredibly clever in its staging and structure.
11/27/2022 12:14:32 pm
I did not see The Mousetrap quite as far back as you, but close. Thanks for spelling out that long long history. Probably inspired by that same news story I just finished revisiting See How They Run just yesterday. Perhaps one reason I have such deep affection for the whole enterprise (with its multiple performance and publishing stipulations) is that, for once, an author called all the shots! And to this day, if I'm talking with anyone about it, I always check whether they've seen it. Otherwise, no spoilers. The cast asked for our discretion at the end of the performance and I still feel honor-bound to respect that!
11/28/2022 04:37:46 pm
Wally, thanks for the note. And yes, I haven't given away the spoiler either all these years. Starting with my brother guessing at intermission. It's pretty remarkable for so many people to *generally* keep the secret for 70 years. (I'm sure plenty of people have given it away, but not most.)
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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