The Real Inspector Hound is a parody of Christie Agatha’s The Mousetrap. Why do you think Stoppard chose to frame his work around another famous play?
Many absurdist authors like to play with old literary frameworks in order to push the boundaries of a genre and explore new philosophical ideas. When Stoppard wrote The Real Inspector Hound, parlor mysteries were popular and commonplace, and for the most part, they followed the same rules and structures, turning the genre into a generic form. Christie’s play was thought to push the boundaries of the genre by making the detective - the traditional adversary of the murderer - the real murderer. But Stoppard’s play, by parodying its ‘twist’ and adding layer upon layer of extra complexity, suggests that even Christie’s narrative conformed to the basic structures of the genre. The play challenges readers and playwrights to be inventive in their art.
The ‘real’ and ‘fictive’ worlds become entangled by the end of the play. Birdboot and Moon are lured onstage, and the murder plot of the play-within-a-play turns out to involve Puckeridge, the third-string critic behind Moon and Higgs. What do you think Stoppard is trying to portray by merging the two?
By literally pulling members of the audience (Moon and Birdboot) onto the stage, Stoppard closes the gap between the real and the imaginary. In doing so, he may suggest that the line we typically draw between the two is but a mere social construct. Even in our real lives, we may hide our true identities, pretend to be someone else, and try to empathize with others. These are exactly the things that happen in a theater. Moreover, the entangling of fiction and reality make it impossible to conceive of a tidy ending for the play — if the play is a mirror of our reality, then it suggests that the universe is disorderly and that it cannot be otherwise.
What is Moon upset about throughout the play and why?
Moon experiences an identity crisis. He fears that his whole existence hinges on the absence of the first-string critic, Higgs. Higgs’ presence confirms his absence, and vice versa. He wants to secure an identity that he constitutes all on his own, but finds it nearly impossible to do so. Through Moon, Stoppard suggests that all of our identities are shaped by others, and thus, in part, out of our control.
Compare and contrast Moon and Birdboot, the two critics featured in the play.
As Stoppard himself said, Moon is someone that things happen to, while Birdboot is more aggressive in nature. Moon fears that his existence hinges on the first-string critic Higgs, but he does not take any particular action to change the circumstance; he simply vents. He fantasizes about Higgs’ death, but he has no intention of actually orchestrating it. Birdboot, on the other hand, goes after what he wants. When he finds a woman attractive, he arranges a rendezvous. When he is accused of philandering, he tries to put an end to it.
The Real Inspector Hound belongs to the Theater of the Absurd. Why?
Works in this genre tend to express a belief in the meaninglessness of human existence. 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 off. Scenes repeat, and the critics — who were able to predict the series of crimes from the audience — find themselves caught off guard when they end up 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.
There are many parallels between the real world inhabited by Moon and Birdboot and the fictive world at Muldoon Manor. By the end, however, the two worlds converge in a significant way. What is that way and what does it reveal?
In the fictive world of Muldoon Manor, the culprit is found and the world is restored to order. The detective — the real Inspector Hound disguised as Magnus — brings the fake Inspector Hound to justice by shooting him. Yet in the real world, Magnus is actually Puckeridge, the third-string critic scheming to become the first-string critic. In this level of reality, the murderer (Puckeridge playing Magnus) survives, and the other critics are all shot to death by him. The big breakthrough for the genre is that — on this level of reality — there is no detective at all. Puckeridge the murderer wins the day.
What role does comedy play in The Real Inspector Hound?
Comedy is one way in which authors try to expose the absurdity of the world in which we live. The bombastic analyses of the play delivered by the two critics are hysterical, and though they exaggerate the true nature of drama critics, they help underscore some of the tendencies in theater analysis that tend to go over the top. The comedic wordplay throughout Stoppard’s play also highlights the difficulties of communication and adds a playful yet existential tone.
In what ways does the play address notions of fate and free will?
From the critics seat, Birdboot easily predicts that Simon will be the next victim of the madman. He knows this because he has seen thousands of plays in the detective genre, and the structure is always the same. And yet, when he himself stands in for Simon on stage, he fails to see that he too will be shot to death. Despite the knowledge he had, he seems to have been fated for death. His death was inevitable, bringing into question whether or not we have free will.
What role does a detective play in traditional detective fiction? Is that role fulfilled in The Real Inspector Hound?
Traditionally, the detective brings the disordered world into moral and intellectual equilibrium. He solves the murder and brings the culprit to justice. This role is only half fulfilled in The Real Inspector Hound. In the play-within-a-play, at Muldoon Manor, the detective (the real Inspector Hound disguised as Magnus) brings the culprit (the fake Inspector Hound) to justice by shooting him. But on another level of reality, Magnus is actually Puckeridge, the third-string critic scheming to become first-string by murdering the other critics. At that level of reality, there is no detective at all. And so, the universe is never restored to its moral and intellectual equilibrium.
Are drama critics in The Real Inspector Hound painted in a positive or negative light? Why?
A good essay would give a more complex answer than ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ On the one hand, the play parodies drama critics. The analyses given by Moon and Birdboot are over the top and often ridiculous. Plus, it is continually implied that Birdboot uses his position as an authority to enter into dalliances with actresses with the implicit promise of elevating their careers. But though their critiques are too bombastic to apply to a simple parlour mystery, Birdboot and Moon's readings can be interpreted as "meta" commentary on The Real Inspector Hound. We learn from Moon that the play is not really about ‘whodunit’ but the nature of identity and the existence of God. Thus, Stoppard communicates both the necessary role of criticism on a text while highlighting the fallibility of the critic that can sometimes complicate a reading. Note that Stoppard was once a critic himself and thus drew on personal experience to write this play.