Noted English playwright Tom Stoppard has derived the framework or inspiration for most of his plays from specific literary genres or from the works of such writers as William Shakespeare (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, first performed in 1966) or Oscar Wilde (Travesties, 1974.) Stoppard uses these existing frameworks to present his own absurd satirical viewpoint. However, these frameworks also allow Stoppard, often through his protagonists, to comment on the ways in which we approach literature and the theatre, and their conventions. One of the best examples of this is the hilarious yet somewhat perplexing <I>The Real Inspector Hound</I> (1968), which uses the country house thriller, particularly Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, as its framework. The interjections and later involvement of a pair of pretentious yet self-absorbed theatre critics serve to raise questions about approaches to literature and theatre.
Satire and social commentary are used in most of Stoppard's plays, and in The Real Inspector Hound, the principal targets are the mystery genre, dramatic critics, and to some extent, the theatrical nature of theatre, and by extension, life. <P><I>The Real Inspector Hound</I> is presented as a play within a play, a favorite theme of Stoppard's, used also in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and, in a different manner, in Travesties. The major shift occurs when the play and its observers collide, and the absurdities and conventions of both are amplified (Brassell, 95-98.)
The play happens to be, as critic Birdboot puts it, "a sort of a thriller," a "whodunnit." The plot of this mystery play centers around a small group trapped by adverse weather conditions in a typical English country house, Muldoon Manor. This group includes such stock figures as Major Magnus, the invalid relative; Mrs. Drudge, the simpleminded charwoman; the charming Lady Cynthia Mulddon; Felicity, her jealous old friend; and Simon Gascoyne, the stereotypical cad, as well as a stranger with a murky past. All of these characters are stock figures in mystery fiction, and there are references to mystery works or authors. Moon makes a passing reference to Dorothy L. Sayers (alongside the likes of Dante, Samuel Beckett, and Jean-Paul Sartre, amongst others. Allusions to The Hound of the Baskervilles, first indicated by the title, are highlighted in the following exchange:<P>Felicity: It sounds like the cry of a gigantic hound.<P>Birdboot: Rings a bell.<P> More importantly, The Real Inspector Hound's structure is built around the mystery play, which is also the object of the satire (Gabbard, 61.) Though many of the characters and cliched actions can be found in most English mystery novels or plays from that period, the most specific target is the type perpetuated by Agatha Christie. The clear target was probably Christie's long-running play The Mousetrap and also contains similarities to another Christie stage play, The Unexpected Guest, as the solutions to both turn on a sudden change in identity. During his own stint as a second-string critic, Stoppard acerbically commented on thrillers in general and The Mousetrap in particular through a 1963 article entitled "Who Killed Peter Saunders," which was presented as a playlet and may indeed be considered to be the seed of The Real Inspector Hound. In that article, Stoppard, through another fictional critic called Slum, refers to The Mousetrap (1952) as existing in a sort of perpetual motion, relying on cardboard characters and cliches (shortly thereafter, the critic finds himself interrogated by literally cardboard policemen.) (Sammels, 24-25.) The Real Inspector Hound borrows the isolated setting, the idea of revenge for past wrongs in one's youth, and the unmasking of characters from The Mousetrap. However, perhaps the most inconsequential and yet the sharpest stab at the play may be Inspector Hound's arrival in swamp boots and carrying a foghorn, parodying Sergeant Trottter's arrival on skis in Christie's play. Unlike Christie or most mystery novelists, however, Stoppard avoids a pat ending, and the denouement serves to open up new questions, and may still leave the audience uncertain as to who was the real Inspector Hound.<P>In response to this stagy thriller, the pompous critics Moon and Birdboot refer to it in a way which could just as effectively be applied to Stoppard's play:
Moon: Derivative of course.
Birdboot: But quite sound (Stoppard, 16). <P>The way in which these critics perceive this play and deliver such pithy pronouncements forms the basis for the next level of satire. Stoppard himself asserts that originally the play was not meant to be about critics. He merely wanted to show two members of the audience becoming swept up in the action, and critics happened to be distinct, recognizable types (Londre, 118). Intentional or not, much of the effectiveness of The Real Inspector Hound derives from the presence of the critics. The pair's discourses on their personal lives and the way in which their eventual involvement in the play overlaps or parallels their own lives provide the impetus for moving the plots of both the play and the play within the play forward. However, their public pronouncements of opinion on the play are of equal interest, as they provide insight into the field of literary criticism, and the differences of perception. <P>Birdboot approaches the play in a straightforward manner, noticing the superficial details and elements. Having noticed the body on stage, Birdboot naturally assumes they are watching a thriller. He approaches the play as such, and when not distracted by the physical charms of the female leads, keeps an eye on various suspects and musing over possible motives, without so much as considering a serious subtext. This approach contrasts sharply with the attempts of the brooding Moon to dig deeper into the work, but ultimately, Birdboot proves to be correct. <P>The insightful, introverted Moon is reluctant to judge the play by what appears to be present on the outside. He insists on seeing what is "underneath," to know "where the play is going." He attempts to interpret the play on a metaphorical level. He makes various lofty pronouncements during the course of the play, making grand assumptions as to the play's purpose and significance. This attitude is highlighted by the following critical pronouncement, delivered shortly after Simon's introduction, which also serves to contrast Moon's approach to that of Birdboot:<P>Moon: Already in the opening stages we note the classic impact of the catalystic figure - the outsider - plunging through to the center of an ordered world and setting up the disruptions - the shock waves - which unless I am much mistaken, will strip these comfortable people - these crustaceans in the rock pool of society - strip them of their shells and leave them exposed as the trembling raw meat which, at heart, is all of us. But there is more to it than that --<P>Birdboot: I agree -- keep your eye on Magnus (Stoppard, 21). <P>While Moon searches for potential meaning, Birdboot continues to watch the potential suspects. At one point, Moon decides that the play is concerned with "the nature of indentity," and further concludes that the central question which the critic is "entitled to ask" in regard to the play is "Where is God?" The more literal minded Birdboot responds by dubiously looking for God's name in his program (Stoppard, 32). Moon's earnestness seems laughable in the face of the subject matter. This attitude also suggests that one can often try too hard to "get at" the inner meaning in literature. While applied specifically to a play, the approaches of both critics cast a skeptical light on criticism and literary study. While those engaged in literary study seek to find the purpose and significance of a text, and to determine the author's intentions, one must also approach a text according to its own merits. A thriller with cliched situations, stock figures, and overly stagy dialogue hardly merits such minute analysis, and any attempts to extract spiritual significance from such a work are ultimately meaningless and distracting. <P>However, the blunt approach, examining only the external elements of a work, can be equally misleading. While this approach is usually ideal for certain genres, such as detective stories or thrillers, if Birdboot were to apply it to the works of Charles Dickens or James Joyce in such a way, or most of the Romantic poets, this approach would also serve to distract rather than enlighten. The ideal critical approach, then, depends to a significant extent on the nature and merits of the work itself. <P>The pair's personal musings also reflect their differing critical approaches. The earthy Birdboot becomes infatuated in turn with both of the lead actresses in the play, and constructs elaborate romantic fantasies, beyond the safety of his "homely wife," Myrtle. When Birdboot finds himself caught up within the play, after answering a phone call from the suspicious Myrtle, he lives out his own fantasies, while at the same point playing the role of the philandering Simon Gascoyne. The characters within the play essentially repeat the same dialogue in response to Birdboot as they used with Simon. Also like Simon, Birdboot meets a tragic end, the result of his own follies and his eagerness to accept the apparent fulfillment of his own fantasies.<P>The more introspective and somewhat neurotic Moon's musings follow a different path. Moon keenly resents his position as a second-string critic, and feels that Higgs, the first-string critic, is standing in his limelight. He muses on the relationship of himself to Higgs, and how each seems to define the others. Slowly these musings become darker as Moon imagines Higgs' death, and at one point even seems to contemplate murdering his successor. The third-string critic, Puckeridge, also figures into Moon's musings at times. These musings seem to delve into, as Moon says in regard to the play, "the question of identity." This question again arises when Moon too is swept up into the play. Birdboot is shot shortly after discovering that the corpse on stage is actually Higgs, the first-string critic, thus fulfilling Moon's dreams. Moon finds himself playing the cliched Inspector Hound; however, to further complicate matters, it appears that Moon's role is not that of the real Inspector. In rapid succession, the crippled Magnus is revealed to be first the real Hound, then the third-string critic Puckeridge, and finally and most fantastically, the long lost Lord Albert Muldoon. With such rapid unmaskings, Moon appears to have been astute in suggesting that the play deals with the question of identity, a question which in many ways remains unresolved at the play's end. <P>It is significant to point out Tom Stoppard's own experience and opinions with critics and criticism. From 1962 through 1963, Stoppard was employed as a critic by the London magazine Scene. Tom Stoppard refers to the work of critics as "a sort of second-rate journalism that presents the journalist more than the subject" (Sammels, 16). This view is clearly presented in The Real Inspector Hound. The musings of Birdboot and Moon, even when focused on the play, reveal more about the pair's lives, thoughts, fears, and dreams than about the play. This opinion of the profession may have led to Birdboot's jocular greeting: "Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar and decided it's first-class family entertainment but if it goes on beyond half-past ten it's self-indulgent - pass it on