This blog contains two main stories – what The Mousetrap did to Hamlet and how Superman distorted an Edwardian hero. For me, anyway.
For some weeks now I’ve been engaged in editing a book that I have re-visited over several years. It has made me think about references which may shift with time.
Something that seemed set in stone in 2008 may have become seriously misleading in 2021. Even downright counter-productive. As, I hope, my two stories will show.
I love Shakespeare. I saw my first Hamlet when I was fourteen and I have seen it countless times since. There’s usually something new to discover and always special moments of power that stop me dead in my tracks. These depend on the production, of course. But generally one of them is the play within a play in Act 3 Scene 2.
Hamlet is obsessing about his mother’s remarriage. His father, the King, died only four months ago and Hamlet suspects his uncle of murdering him. Not only has the Queen married him, Uncle is now King. Hamlet started with a vague suspicion, but then he encounters his father’s ghost walking the battlements. He confirms it.
(Some productions make this a delusion.) But the ghost could be a devilish apparition, thinks Hamlet. (Cue learned treatise in the theatre programme about Protestant, Catholic and maybe even Witchcraft attitudes to ghosts.)
The Play’s the Thing
Then along comes a troupe of strolling players and Hamlet has a great wheeze. He will write a play setting out the crime and see how Uncle reacts to it.
Act 3 Scene 2 starts with him haranguing the players on how to say their lines and warning them against over-acting. That often gets a laugh from the cognoscenti. Probably it always did.
But here’s the rub. (OK, I’m quoting from later in the play. Don’t hold it against me.) The King and Queen settle down to watch the play but Hamlet can’t keep quiet. He keeps up a commentary, digging for a reaction. By now his Uncle may be getting uneasy. (How much depends on the production again). Uncle asks what the play is called. And Hamlet has his answer ready.
Gets a belly laugh every time.
This was not always so.
Agatha Christie’s murder mystery was originally a radio play (May 1947) which morphed into a short story (published in the USA in 1950 but never so far in the UK). The play premiered in Nottingham in October 1952, in a standard out of town run, before opening in London at The Ambassadors Theatre on 25th November 1952.
It moved to a bigger theatre, St Martin’s, in 1974 and stayed there until COVID 19 restrictions closed it in March 2020. It reopened on 17 May 2021.
To be fair to Christie, she called the radio play and story Three Blind Mice, which has context within the story. But Emile Littler, a rival producer, had had a play called that running in the West End before the war, so he demanded a change of title. The Mousetrap was apparently the suggestion of Christie’s son-in-law.
Neither Saunders nor Christie foresaw the play’s success. Saunders gave it fourteen months; Christie eight. But by September 1957 it had already broken the record for the longest run in the West End. It is now heading for its 70th birthday and has the longest recorded run of any play in history.
It’s a classic murder mystery, loosely based on a real life event, with an Inspector in charge of the investigation and twist ending. Perhaps it is that combination of tradition plus surprise ending that had made it a favourite with tourists and other visitors to London.
The audience have always been asked NOT to reveal the ending and certainly many took that seriously.
I remember hearing my mother discuss the play with her friend Marjorie, who had seen it the week before and clearly felt she had signed the Official Secrets Act. Or maybe it was like being admitted to an exclusive Club. Once you were in on the secret, you jolly well weren’t going to share it with anyone who hadn’t paid their dues.
The Christie Effect
When I saw my first Hamlet, I suspect that, while The Mousetrap was a theatrical phenomenon, it had not yet achieved its present iconic status. Certainly, as a fourteen-year-old, I did not detect any indrawn breath or suppressed giggle when Hamlet announced the title of his play.
What I did pick up was Hamlet, two scenes later, thrusting his sword into an eavesdropper through a wall hanging in his mother’s bedroom, crying, “A rat. Dead for a ducat!” I had absolutely no doubt that Hamlet thought the intruder was Rat, King Claudius, partner of the Mouse, Queen Gertrude, at whom the play had been aimed.
Hamlet’s wrong, by the way. The eavesdropper, while certainly dead, is not the King but Polonius, counsellor to King Claudius and father to Hamlet’s former girlfriend.
But the laughter has grown in spontaneity and volume over the years. And not just in Hamlet but also in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which quotes freely from Shakespeare. In fact the last time I saw RGD, with Simon Russell Beale as one of the plotters and Alan Howard as the Player King, at the National Theatre, the laughter stopped the play for a minute or two.
Poor Stoppard. Poor old Shakespeare. The line isn’t going to be chilling an audience again for a while yet. Maybe next century.
PG Wodehouse Romantic Novelist
I have blogged before about PGW’s lamentable first attempt at a romantic novel, The Prince and Betty. By December 1914, however, he was writing another primarily romantic novel, Something Fresh. His biographer, Robert McCrum, says it transformed his career.
It certainly flowed out of him. By January he was reporting to a friend that he had written “very nearly forty thousand words” in two weeks and had only got about another 10,000 to go.
He has an assured grasp of his tone this time – comic, through and through, with the country house party as the main place of the action. And for the first time it is Blandings Castle. Lord Emsworth, Freddie Threepwood and butler Beach make their first appearance. They will become more engaging in time but already they inhabit a sort of gentle Edwardiana that is effectively timeless.
Wafted through the sun-lit streets in his taxi-cab, the Earl of Emsworth smiled benevolently upon London’s teeming millions. Other people worried about all sorts of things — strikes, wars, suffragettes, diminishing birth-rates, the growing materialism of the age, and a score of similar subjects. Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth century’s speciality. Lord Emsworth never worried.
PGW Romantic Novelist
This nostalgic harmony is perfect for the sort of comedy which can accommodate romantic love. At least, it can as long as love is expressed in terms within the bounds of reason.
PGW has two sets of lovers, whose fates are intertwined. And – oh joy! – he has centred the obstacles to their union squarely in their respective characters, not in stupid misunderstandings that a straightforward conversation would have sorted out.
The principals – Ashe Marson (thrillers) and Joan Valentine (earls and dukes) – are both writers, both on their own, both hard up. And the plot makes them rivals in an enterprise.
Plus there are intrinsic issues too. Joan has been earning her own living for some years and sees independence as the only possible route to security. Ashe, without realising it, threatens that. Romantic? Tick.
Excellent, says my inner editor. Thoroughly believable. One can empathise with both of them. Also plenty of room for conflict, plus a good prospect of a genuinely happy union once the issue over which they are in competition is resolved.
PGW’s Alpha Man
But it is the other couple, or rather the second hero, George Emerson, with whom PGW has been, like Shakespeare and Stoppard, a victim of Time. George is a confident, not to say overbearing, young man, currently on leave from his position as a policeman in Hong Kong. He is determined to marry Aline Peters, a gentle character, daughter of a dyspeptic millionaire. She has just got engaged to Freddie Threepwood, a fact which George is treating as an aberration which it is his duty to correct. She tells him they are not suited. She thinks he is too “super-manly”.
One feels she is probably right. And even the all-tolerant Augustan narrator has his doubts.
The trouble with these Supermen is that they lack reticence. They do not know how to omit. They expand their chests and whoop. And a girl, even the mildest and sweetest of girls, cannot help resenting that note of triumph.
Even when George is affectionate, he plonks his size nines right in it.
“Very well, little girl,” said George softly, “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.”
The fact that it never even occurred to George Emerson that he was being offensively patronising shows the stern stuff of which these Supermen are made.
Now, I fell over these references to Supermen. It bewildered me. I just couldn’t connect PGW’s civilised country house milieu with the hero of DC Comics. So I checked.
And I was right. DC’s Superman arrived in April 1938 and was the best selling super hero until 1980. So well after 1915, when Something Fresh was published. Who then were these Supermen of whom both Aline and her narrator speak?
Ir is, of course, the übermensch – the “Superman” described by Friedrich Nietzsche in Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85). This superior being is an original thinker, strong minded and independent, who builds his own value system, ignoring “herd morality” and putting his principles into action.
Bernard Shaw took a pop at blowing up the idea in Man And Superman (1903), at least in theory. In my view, PGW’s George is much closer to the self-directed Man of Action than any of GBS’s male characters.
But here’s another oddity. I’m surely not the first person to notice that George Emerson is also the name of the love interest in E M Forster’s A Room With a View. Forster’s George has certainly been taught by his free-thinking father to ignore the shibboleths of society. And he puts those principles in action when he kisses Lucy Honeychurch among the violets.
George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.
But, unlike PGW’s George, he is almost silent. It is his father who explains George to anyone who will listen. And Lucy won’t. In Chapter 14, the Author feels impelled to intercede.
It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, “She loves young Emerson.” A reader in Lucy’s place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome “nerves” or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous.
Just as PGW’s George did Aline. Only Aline engages and argues and, eventually, gets him to stop throwing his weight about before they run away together. Which, I think, makes PGW the more believable romantic novelist of the two.
And George is definitely not Superman, either in his Clark Kent glasses or the full flash blue jumpsuit. And I am going to work really hard to get that association out of my mind.