Tuesday, December 27, 2011


An Incomplete History of Crime as Entertainment

It’s no secret that human beings have always watched deaths for entertainment. The Romans built arenas to maximize public seating for their executions, while the Spanish Inquisition staged elaborate baroque rituals including the symbolic deaths of heretics (who were quietly killed for real afterward). Hangings used to be public events and the French Revolution was noted for turning the village square red from be-headings.

Death also featured in oral fiction and eventually in staged public performances. Possibly the oldest surviving murder mystery play is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. First performed in Athens around 429 BCE, it followed Oedipus as he sought the murderer of his predecessor, King Laius.

Athenian plays influenced the Romans and everyone who came after. If there were public entertainments during the so-called Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, their records have been lost. ‘Mystery plays’ in the early second millennium AD concerned religious mystery, not crime. During the Italian Renaissance, plays gradually became secular. The first non-religious plays were largely improvisational and humourous – Comedia Del Arte – involving not deaths but lesser crimes such as thieving servants or scheming, often inept conmen.

Carlo Goldoni and Niccolo Machiavelli (he of political-treatise fame) were among the Italian playwrights who fleshed out these lesser-crimes tropes into full length plays. French theatre followed their lead, with one of Moliere’s most famous characters, the sanctimonious Tartuffe, being exposed as a blackmailer and lecher.

The British, then as now, loved their dark family dramas. The Duchess of Malfi though set in Italy, was written by John Webster, an Englishman, for English audiences. [[[Spoiler Alert: the Duchess’s brothers schemed to kill her, both to grab her wealth and to restore the family’s so-called honour after her secret marriage. Honour killing – sadly topical in Canada today.]]] Shakespeare’s Hamlet was another family drama leading to murder. English theatre did have its lighter crimes. Ben Jonson’s conmen in The Alchemist (1610) or his conniving heirs in Volpone (1606) would have been at home on an Italian stage.

Otherwise, opera was the preferred stage venue of Death in the 17th and 18th centuries. Name an opera in which nobody dies at dagger-point…. Anyone?

Again on lesser crimes, Charles Dickens’ farce, Mr. Nightingale’s Diary (1851) has a conman as a central character. Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895) featured blackmail and political corruption.

Mystery hit the footlights in earnest with Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat on Broadway in 1920, the same year the first Hercule Poirot novel was published. Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers opened on stage in 1936. If you think paranormal mystery is a new twist on the genre, you’ve never seen Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit (1941).

Busman’s Honeymoon went cinematic in 1940, Blithe Spirit in 1945, starting a nigh-fatal trend away from live theatrical mystery. Crime script writers increasingly aimed for movies and then television. John Buchan’s wildly popular novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was made into numerous films in the decades following its publication in 1915 but not until the year 2000 was it staged live.

Yet live theatre is an intimate, communal experience that is simply not found on film.

If I could have one year-end wish, it would be to see modern Canadian mystery novels adapted for stage.
Anybody got titles to suggest?

Jayne Barnard is a Calgary mystery writer with a lifelong interest in live theatre and the scars to prove it. Her short mystery story, Each Canadian Son, won the 2011 Bony Pete, and her unpublished novel, When the Bow Breaks, was short-listed for the Unhanged Arthur. Her dream is to write and produce a full-length modern mystery for the stage. http://laceymccrae.blogspot.com/p/about-author.html


  1. What an excellent blog! It's hard to come up with original topics and this was a great read. Thanks.....D.J. McIntosh

  2. Ooh, Linda! You found a poster for 'The Duchess of Malfi'. Awesome! Thanks for that, and for the lovely masks.

  3. Wonderful blog, Jayne.
    I wonder if L.R. Wright's The Suspect could be adapted for the stage. Now you've got me thinking. . .

  4. Such a fun post, Jayne!
    I'd love to see Vicki Delany's Molly and Winters BC series adapted for TV. And - of course - filmed out there in the gorgeous mountains (my BC roots are showing).

  5. Sue and I are of the same mind. The Suspect is a brilliant little piece of art. So compact. So subtle.


  6. Fascinating, Jayne! When I think of the intensity and intimacy of live theatre, I think compact story with limited characters and settings, so a short story might be good. Of course my brain is blank!

  7. Oh, Jayne, a girl after my own heart. I have an idea for a play but I've never written one. I wonder if those programs you buy really help you turn a outline into a play.

  8. Sadly, Phyl, I haven't found any program that will do the writing for me. I use Celtx for scripts, though, as I find the character note cards etc useful tools.

    I think theatrical plays and mystery novels have a lot of structural overlap. Some famous playwright once said that a play is the best two hours out of a hundred hours of conversations amongst a small group of people. As traditional mystery writers, we try to create only those scenes that best exemplify our characters and move our plot forward.

    The real challenge is narrowing down the wider range of settings in a novel into a stageable whole. I could write a whole post on that (and might, some day).

  9. Great post, Jayne, though I'd take issue with The Bat being the first ... didn't William Gilbert do some Sherlock Holmes on stage before that?

  10. What great insight into the history of mystery. No wonder it's still so popular today. I would have a difficult time choosing a Canadian novel to turn into a play. I can think of lots and lots for TV and movies, but the theatre is so different!

  11. I think just about any of the cozies would work well. Great idea!