Things That Make You Go Hmmm... The Mousetrap

Grant Williams |

October 6, 1952 saw the debut of a new play at the Theatre Royal Nottingham in England that was based upon a short radio play titled Three Blind Mice. The playwright, Agatha Christie, asked that the short story upon which the original radio play was based not be published in the United Kingdom for as long as her stage play ran because it contained a twist in the ending that she desperately wanted to protect.

The play would tour Britain, being staged in Oxford, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle before it reached the West End of London where it was to take up residence at the New Ambassador's Theatre on November 25, 1952.

The author was forced to rename the play at the insistence of Emile Littler, who had produced a play in the West End with the same title prior to WWII, and, when casting around for a suitable title, Christie sought the counsel of her son-in-law, Anthony Hicks, who suggested a tip of the hat to a famous scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet—specifically Act III, Scene 2:

Hamlet. Madam, how like you this play?

Queen. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Hamlet. O! but she'll keep her word.

King. Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in 't?

Hamlet. No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence i' the world.

King. What do you call the play?

Hamlet. The Mouse-trap. Marry, how? Tropically. This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna: Gonzago is the duke's name; his wife, Baptista. You shall see anon; 'tis a knavish piece of work: but what of that? your majesty and we that have free souls, it touches us not: let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung.

And so it was that Christie's play about a murder came to be titled The Mousetrap.

For his contribution to the play, Hicks received the author's profound thanks, but Lady Luck would smile far more profoundly on Christie's young grandson, Matthew Prichard, whose 9th birthday coincided with Christie's writing of the play. By way of a gift to the young boy, Christie bequeathed him the rights to a play which she expected to have a reasonably successful run (though not as successful as others predicted):

(Wikipedia): Christie herself did not expect The Mousetrap to run for such a long time. In her autobiography, she reports a conversation that she had with Peter Saunders: "Fourteen months I am going to give it", says Saunders. To which Christie replies, "It won't run that long. Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months."

Now, eight months was—is—a respectable time for a play to run, but both Saunders and Christie were a little off with their predictions concerning the longevity of The Mousetrap.

In April of 1955, the play celebrated its 1,000th performance. In September 1957, The Mousetrap broke the record for the longest-running play in the West End—an event marked by a telegram to Christie from a rather begrudging Noel Coward, who wrote:

"Much as it pains me, I really must congratulate you...."

By December 1964, it had racked up 5,000 performances, by 1976, 10,000, by December 2000, 20,000, and on 25 November 2002, it celebrated a remarkable 50-year continuous run with a gala performance in front of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

Last Sunday, November 18th, 2012, a cast of theatrical celebrities staged the 25,000th performance of a play that keeps on going year after year.

Amazingly, a film version of The Mousetrap has never been made because Christie stipulated, when the play opened in 1952, that no such project could be undertaken until the West End production had been closed for at least six months. How little she knew.

The thing that sets Christie's play apart is the big twist in the tale that has been delighting and surprising audiences for years. So integral to the audience's enjoyment of the play is the dramatic shift, that Christie worried that, should the killer's identity be leaked by those who had seen the play, its impact would be ruined.

After much deliberation, she and her director, Peter Saunders, came up with a simple yet ingenious plan by which to keep the identity of the killer a secret—they would simply ask the audience, at the end of each performance, not to tell anybody who it was that did away with Mrs. Boyle (a character described as "A critical older woman who is pleased by nothing she observes") at the end of Act I, Scene 2.

Somewhat amazingly, this worked beautifully.

Audiences, imbued with a sense of involvement in a great secret, gave the play glowing reviews to their friends and relatives but stopped short of revealing whodunnit—encouraging people to instead go and find out for themselves. And go they did. In their droves.

Since its opening night, an estimated 10 million theatregoers have seen The Mousetrap in London alone. Throw in those who have watched any of the 60 productions that have been licensed in places such as China, Russia, the US, South Africa, and Canada, and the number increases significantly.

And yet...

The identity of the killer remained a closely guarded secret for over 50 years. So much so that, when, in August 2010, Wikipedia opted to reveal the identity online, it caused uproar:

(UK Daily Mail): For 58 years, the identity of the killer in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has been one of theatreland's most closely guarded secrets.

At the end of each performance of the world-famous countryhouse whodunit, the audience is asked not to reveal the name of the killer when they leave.

It was supposed to prevent the ending of the world's longest-running play from being spoilt for those who hadn't yet seen it.

Until now, it appeared to have worked.

But the identity of the killer has been published online by Wikipedia, despite protests from the author's family and petitions from fans to remove the spoiler.

Wikipedia tells readers the famous play is "known for its twist ending, which at the end of every performance, the audience is asked not to reveal."

But anyone who keeps reading will be told who the murderer is—without any warning.

Matthew Prichard, Christie's grandson, described the online encyclopedia's decision as "unfortunate".

So, after 58 years and with well over 10 million people in on the "conspiracy," the secret of the identity of Christie's most famous killer was revealed to a wide audience. Still, if you can keep 10 million people quiet for over 50 years, I'd say you were doing pretty well.

One would have to hazard a guess that there are substantially less than 10 million people who know the truth behind both the amount of gold bullion held by Western central banks as well as the degree to which prices are manipulated in order to maintain price stability—but, as conspiracies go, this one is right up there with the killing of JFK (certainly in financial circles)….

This is an outtake from Things That Make You Go Hmmm, a free weekly newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore. Each week Grant draws on his 26 years of financial experience in the Asian, Australian, European and US markets to bring readers his analysis of economic and world affairs. Register today and get Grant's insights – ranging from eye-opening to mind-boggling – delivered free each week to your inbox. mauldineconomics.com/subscribe

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