Common to many absurdist works, the characters in The Real Inspector Houndstruggle to convey their thoughts and ideas to one another. The play features a series of dialogue between Moon and Birdboot, as they watch the parlor mystery unfold from the critics’ seats in the audience. Yet these conversations aren't so much dialogues as they are alternating soliloquies. Each critic vocalizes their personal grievances, fears, jealousies, and passions without listening to the other. They get so wrapped up in their own thoughts that each critic forgets the other is even there. Occasionally, the soliloquies appear to sync up, as if they are truly conversing. But in fact they rarely talk to one another.
In the play-within-a-play, the miscommunication is of another sort, and it highlights Stoppard’s fascination with wordplay. Often a phrase or piece of dialogue is loaded with double or triple meaning. Magnus, for example, says he will “oil my gun,” which is slang for using the bathroom but could be taken literally in the context of a murder mystery. During their game of bridge, the game’s parlance also seems to apply to their side conversation about Simon’s affairs and the identity of the madman. It is often unclear what is truly being said as a result.
The purpose of these miscommunications is two-fold. First, it produces a comedic effect. We laugh as the characters mistake casual parlance for admissions of guilt, and vice versa. Stoppard’s clever way with language gives the dialogue a quality of almost active entertainment.
But Stoppard's dialogue also targets a philosophical idea. Even among well-educated, well-spoken individuals (theater critics, the wealthy characters at Muldoon Manor), it is nearly impossible to convey one’s own thoughts and feelings to another in a way that feels precise. Words are too flimsy, too interpretable, to express oneself without some change in meaning. As a result, there is a sense that, to at least some extent, we are all confined to ourselves, doomed to a sort of loneliness that stems from the difficulty of communicating with others.
The Real Inspector Hound belongs to the Theater of the Absurd. Works in this genre tend to express a belief in the meaninglessness of human existence in a comical way. Logical construction gives way to irrationality. Characteristics of these plays include: “broad comedy, [...] mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism and the concept of the “well-made play.” (Wikipedia)
Stoppard’s play encompasses most of these characteristics. It is a comedy about a series of grotesque murders that take place both onstage and offstage. Scenes repeat, and the critics — who were able to predict the series of crimes from their seats in the audience — find themselves caught off guard when they are actually participating in the play itself. The dialogue is full of wordplay that leads to miscommunication. And finally, the play is a parody of the most famous parlor mystery of the time, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.
Perhaps the element of the play that most belongs to the theater of the absurd is the notion that order is never restored to the universe. Sure, in the play-within-a-play, the madman is caught and the chaos resolves. But in the theater scene of London, the world inhabited by Moon and Birdboot, chaos abounds. By the end of the play the real murderer is on the loose and no detective is on the scene to solve it.
One function of this disorderly universe is to mirror the way the world really works. There is no doubt that one of the main appeals of traditional parlor mysteries is that everything becomes neat and tidy at the end. These stories are a reprieve from a world where murders go unsolved and life itself remains a mystery. Stoppard’s play forces the audience to face reality: life is messy and the universe is chaotic. Happy endings are a farce.
As a murder mystery, The Real Inspector Hound plays with the identity of its characters. In the play-within-a-play, each resident of Muldoon Manor suspects another of masquerading as a scared civilian to hide the truth that he/she is a madman and murderer. The title itself suggests that Inspector Hound is not the man he claims to be.
Stoppard’s play involves some questions of identity that are irresolvable. When Moon and Birdboot get mixed up in the play onstage, they engage with the fictive characters as themselves. That is, even though Birdboot stands in for Simon, he responds as Birdboot. The conflation of fiction and reality make it nearly impossible to determine who is who at what time. Take, for instance, the part of the play when Birdboot/Simon converse with Felicity. Felicity addresses Birdboot/Simon as ‘Simon,’ but Birdboot responds as the London theater critic. He tells Felicity that he was mistaken in seeing her the evening prior. Is he addressing Felicity or the actress that plays Felicity? Does the actress playing Felicity intend to load her words with double meaning, so that they apply not just to her fictive relationship with Simon but also to her real-life affair with Birdboot? The play never makes this clear.
The critics, too, have identity crises. Moon fears that his whole existence hinges on the absence of the first-string critic, Higgs. This fear is so severe that he fantasizes about Higgs’ death. He tries to reassure himself that he is in fact his own person, that no one else could replace the tiny space he takes up in the world. But he remains insecure throughout the play. Birdboot, meanwhile, vocalizes a different sort of identity crisis. He has earned a reputation for philandering, which he is trying to bring under control in order to reaffirm his professional respectability. But his identity is out of his control, as the rumors spread like wildfire.
The confusion of identities in the play serves a few important thematic functions. First, it reveals the way that identity is shaped by external forces, often out of one's control. Moon’s identity is shaped by Higgs, Birdboot’s by those spreading rumors about him. Second, it brings into question the very notion of a singular identity. Are identities concrete or are they fluid, ephemeral, and unreliable? This plays supports the latter. Magnus, for example, has a different identity depending on who is asked. To Cynthia, he is her long-lost husband Albert. To the other residents, he is the hero who brought justice to the madman. To Moon and Birdboot, he is the vengeful third-string critic. His identity is not one thing, but many.
Reality vs. Illusion
By the end of the play, reality and fiction conflate and entangle. Moon and Birdboot are literally caught up in the parlor mystery that they are supposed to be reviewing, standing-in for the characters Simon Gascoyne and Inspector Hound. Meanwhile, the original Simon and Hound sit in the critics' seats. Are we to understand that the actors playing Simon and Hound are sitting in the critics' seats, or are we supposed to believe that the fictive characters Simon and Hound are actually in those seats? Moreover, when Moon and Birdboot respond to lines of the play as themselves, are the other actors aware that fiction and reality are conflating? Are they, too, referring to their lives offstage? Part of the play’s ingenuity is to never resolve these troubling questions.
In some sense, the play’s conflation of reality and fiction closes a traditional gap between reader (or audience) and work. Typically, a reader’s role is to empathize with the characters, to try to feel what they feel. Here, however, the characters literally enter the fictive world that they are watching. They interact with the characters as their real selves.
What is the real difference between being on stage and offstage? Stoppard’s play suggests that the differences aren’t all that great. In some sense, we are all playing a character when we interact with other people in our daily lives. We question our identities and try to make sense of the narrative arc of our lives. The stage is just a mirror of the audience.
Several scenes of the parlor mystery are repeated exactly as they were originally, with the sole exception that Birdboot and Moon stand in for Simon and Hound. Repetition is a common element of absurdist theater. Re-watching these scenes, we feel as if we are making no progress towards a resolution to the murder mystery. The lines repeat, and the lighting is the same. Birdboot/Simon even suffers the same fate as before — he is shot. What’s notable is that Birdboot and Moon participate, and their own personal narratives match up with the narratives of the fictive characters they play. That is, Birdboot and Moon respond to the play’s lines as themselves, but what they say fits right in. Is this merely coincidence? More likely, it is a statement about the way in which all of our own personal narratives conform to standard narrative arcs that involve common feelings of jealousy, fear, and passion, among others.
In the parlor mystery, the characters want to bring justice to the madman on the loose. After all, he murdered at least one, if not two or three, men. By the end, we learn that the real Inspector Hound disguised himself as Magnus in order to trap the madman, who himself was masquerading as Inspector Hound. Yet, at another level of reality, Magnus is played by Puckeridge, who uses the parlor mystery to kill Higgs, Moon, and Birdboot so that he can become the first-string critic in the London theater scene. In other words, bringing forth justice in the parlor mystery (killing the fake Inspector Hound, played by Moon) is dispensed at the cost of creating an injustice outside of the parlor mystery (killing Moon, the second-string critic). We never reach an equilibrium in which all of the good guys prevail over all of the bad guys. There is a trade off of justice, and by the end, Puckeridge is still on the loose.
Phoniness vs. Authenticity
The Real Inspector Hound satirizes theater critics. Even though Moon and Birdboot are supposed to be watching and reviewing the play, they end up soliloquizing about their own grievances, even as the parlor mystery runs. It seems they are hardly paying attention to the play. But then, in between acts, they offer verbose and bombastic analyses about what they are watching. While doing so, they put on a ‘public voice.’ Stoppard seems to be satirizing the artificiality of theater reviews, bringing into question what value they add to the art scene. They seem to be concerned mostly with status rather than providing a thoughtful critique of the play. And of course, Birdboot leverages his ability to catapult female actresses into the spotlight in order to get sexual favors.
The Real Inspector Hound Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Real Inspector Hound is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Hound appears in the middle of the play to investigate an alleged phone call. His character takes its inspiration from Hound of the Baskervilles, the third of four crime novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and published in 1902. In that novel, the...