Born in the Bronx in 1929 and educated in English and Philosophy at New York University, Ira Levin is one of the most successful and popular American writers of the twentieth century. See more about him here.
Deathtrap takes place in the study of Sidney Bruhl’s house in Westport, Connecticut, a wealthy suburb of New York. Bruhl is a famous playwright, an author of thrillers, best known for his wildly successful hit, The Murder Game.
Most notable in the room’s décor are the many antique weapons and instruments of bondage that festoon the walls: “guns, handcuffs, maces, broadswords, and battle-axes.” Many of these items are mementos from Bruhl’s plays—stage props used to create the theatrical illusion of murder and mayhem. But many are real weapons, old but every bit as deadly now as they were in the past.
These implements of cruelty and death lend the room an air of the macabre, thus foreshadowing the gruesome events of the plot. The room’s menace stands out in particularly sharp contrast to the otherwise conventional aura of security and civility that we associate with a renovated Colonial house in a rich New England suburb. They create an ominous shadow in an otherwise sunny landscape.
As the curtain rises Sidney Bruhl, “an impressive and well-tended man” of fifty, is telling his wife, Myra, a “slim and self-effacing” woman in her forties –with a very bad heart—about a play he says he has just read. “Deathtrap . . . A thriller in two acts. One set, five characters. . . . Highly commercial.” Unfortunately, explains Bruhl, the play was written not by him, but by one of the students from his seminar on playwriting, a young man named Clifford Anderson. In fact, Bruhl himself hasn’t had a decent idea in months, or a successful play in years. Eighteen years, to be precise—the length of time that has elapsed since his smash hit, The Murder Game. Since that triumph, he has produced a string of four flops and has taken to living on his wife’s money. He is now desperate for another success.
So desperate that he begins to talk—half-seriously, it seems—about luring young Clifford to the house, killing him, and claiming authorship of Deathtrap himself. His envy of Clifford’s achievement, and his lust to restore his own reputation come across so strongly that Myra begins to fear that he will actually carry out this ghoulish plan. Jokingly she warns him that not only would such a murder leave blood on the carpet, but, “the next day Helga ten Dorp would be picking up the psychic vibrations.” Helga, it turns out, is a Dutch psychic well-known in Holland for solving murders, and temporarily resident in a neighboring house.
Eventually, over his wife’s protests, Sidney phones Clifford, offering to help him polish his manuscript. During their conversation, he discovers that the young author is perfect victim-material: he is unmarried and living alone; he has shown the play to no one else; and he has only one other copy of the script. As the first scene ends, Sidney, having arranged for Clifford’s visit, sits thoughtfully holding the young man’s manuscript, while an uneasy Myra looks on.
At the opening of scene two we meet Clifford, “in his mid-twenties . . . an attractive young man in jeans, boots, and a heavy sweater.” Sidney is showing him around his study, while Clifford, a fan of the older man’s work since age twelve, expresses his awe at being in the master’s workshop. As Myra hovers nervously, Sidney elicits more and more tidbits of information confirming that he could indeed dispose of Clifford and appropriate his play without anyone being the wiser. Eventually, in a frantic attempt to short-cut Sidney’s apparently growing determination to commit murder, Myra proposes that the two authors collaborate on a revised version of Deathwatch, sharing creative credit and profits. The younger man will have provided the basic idea for the plot, while the older man will contribute the savoir-faire and polish that will make the script a foolproof dramatic success.
Unfortunately for Myra’s hopeful vision, Clifford demurs, declaring that he feels no need to go shares with a partner since his script is already in excellent shape. Sidney apparently accepts this decision with equanimity and changes to subject to his own works-in-progress, including a play he says he is planning on Houdini, the early 20th-century American escape artist. In fact, among the weapons and manacles hanging on his wall, he says, is a pair of trick handcuffs that once belonged to Houdini. He persuades Clifford to try them on, at which point the young playwright becomes Sidney’s prisoner. After reassuring his anxious captive that he has no designs on his life, Sidney whips a garrotte off the wall, wraps it around Clifford’s neck, and strangles him.
Despite her shock and horror, Myra agrees to help her husband carry the body out to the vegetable garden where Sidney intends to bury it. As they struggle out the door with their burden, the scene comes to a close.
As the third scene begins Myra and Sidney are recovering from the ordeal: she from shock; he from grave-digging. She announces that her husband of eleven years has suddenly become alien to her and therefore they must separate. As they are arguing about this decision, the doorbell rings, proclaiming the arrival of their psychic neighbor, Helga ten Dorp. She enters “in the throes of considerable distress” to inform Sidney and Myra that their house is saturated with the threat of pain and death—that it is, in fact, a “deathtrap.” She has visions of impending violence, specifically of a “Man . . . in boots . . . Young man . . . . Here in this room—he attacks you.” She utters several other predictions, each supported by an uncannily accurate vision of details we have already witnessed, and leaves, urging her neighbors—in a comic anti-climax—to watch her in a few days when she makes a TV appearance on the Merv Griffin show. (Griffin was a real-life talk-show host in the 70’s. Appearing earlier in the day than Johnny Carson, Griffin was distinctly blander than his late-night rival.)
Myra is shaken by Helga’s apparent knowledge of what has just happened, but Sidney refuses to take her seriously as a threat. Instead he begins to sweet-talk his wife into accepting the killing, asking seductively whether it is “possible that murder is an aphrodisiac.” Just as he raises that interesting question, a hand reaches out from behind the drapes and seizes him. It is Clifford, muddy and bloodied, apparently back from the dead and bent on revenge. He beats Sidney savagely with a stick of firewood then begins advancing on Myra. Convulsed by shock and fear, she staggers across the room, and after a few steps collapses to the floor.
Clifford stands over her, “wary, uncertain. . . . [H]e checks her . . . body, holding her wrist . . . touching her throat. . . looks down at her for a moment.” Then he speaks:
CLIFFORD. She’s dead. I’m positive. (SIDNEY bestirs himself and gets up. . . . [H]e comes and stands by CLIFFORD; they look down at MYRA.) It worked.
And the audience suddenly realizes that virtually everything Sidney and Clifford have done and said up to this point has been a deception. There was no brilliant play called Deathtrap, and no young playwright was murdered and buried in the garden. Instead Sidney has plotted with his gay lover to stage a scene so horrific that it would cause his wife to die of a heart attack. The author of thrillers has committed murder by theatrics. With this stunning revelation and reversal, act one comes to an end.
Act two begins with Sidney and Clifford—now installed as the older man’s “secretary”—sitting across from each other at an antique “partners’ desk” in the same weapon-adorned study. Clifford is typing away at a furious clip, ostensibly at work on a play based on his experiences in a welfare office, while Sidney, still stuck for ideas, sits enviously watching. Soon Porter Milgrim, Sidney’s lawyer, arrives to clear up some details concerning Myra’s estate. Clifford excuses himself to go grocery shopping, locking his manuscript in his desk drawer before leaving.
As Porter and Sidney finish up their discussion—which reveals that the playwright will be enjoying a very substantial inheritance—the lawyer draws his client’s attention to the fact that Clifford has locked up his script. Why would he do that? Is the young man stealing the older man’s ideas? Is he afraid of having his ideas stolen? With this question, Porter departs, leaving Sidney wondering about the manuscript, and determined to break into the drawer and read it before Clifford gets back from grocery shopping.
The old desk being surprisingly sturdy, Sidney fails. So he sets up a ruse that enables him, upon Clifford’s return, to slip the manuscript into his own folder. As Clifford resumes his energetic typing, Sidney reads the already completed pages, and as he does so we can see that he is appalled by what he finds. It turns out that Clifford is making a play—called Deathtrap—out of the events we have just seen in the first act: a play about a once-successful playwright who claims to have received a brilliant manuscript called Deathtrap from a student, but who is in reality merely staging a hoax that will kill his weak-hearted wife. The characters are, in essence, Sidney, Myra, and Clifford, thinly disguised under invented names.
Sidney explodes in anger, and berates Clifford for “writing a play that’ll send us both to prison.” “I want to live out my years as ‘author of The Murder Game,’ not ‘fag who knocked off his wife,’” he shouts.
Clifford retorts that nothing in a play can legally be used as proof about the real circumstances of Myra’s death. And besides, even if gossip does arise because of the play, he and Sidney can simply brazen it out. After all, he reasons, “everybody’s opening up about everything these days, aren’t they? In print, on TV; why not on stage, as long as it can’t be proved?” In fact, Clifford wants Sidney to collaborate with him on the writing of Deathtrap. He makes the same argument for working together that Myra made in Act One: Clifford will supply the basic idea, while Sidney will provide the technical skill and polish that will create a brilliant final product.
As Clifford talks, Sidney seems to relent, finally agreeing to the proposal. As the two shake hands, Clifford acknowledges that he is stuck for a second act for Deathtrap. Sidney’s response is more than a little ambiguous:
Let me do a little thinking about Act Two . . . (CLIFFORD smiles at him. . . . SIDNEY looks sorrowfully at him for a moment . . . leans back in his chair, and thinks, thinks, thinks as the lights fade to darkness.)
We see the results of that triple-barreled thinking process in the next scene. As the lights return, the pile of manuscript pages has thickened considerably, indicating the passage of a significant stretch of time. We hear wind and rain, omens of an approaching storm. And we see Helga ten Dorp’s flashlight through the window as she arrives, again bringing dire warnings of danger and pain. When Clifford goes off to look for the candles she has come to borrow, the psychic warns Sidney that the young man will attack him, and urges the famous playwright to get rid of this menacing assistant. Sidney promises to dismiss Clifford, in part because of her visions—but also because of his own research into the young man’s shady past.
Clifford returns with the candles, Helga departs, and the two men are left alone together to work on the second act of Deathtrap. Sidney declares that he has the action plotted out in his head, but he needs to try out two “bits of business”—physical confrontations between the character resembling him, called “Julian,” and an invented police inspector named “Hubbard.” As Sidney explains it, Julian,
shoots the inspector in the left arm, but there’s only one bullet in the gun, so now he’s trying to get to the upstage wall in order to grab a weapon and finish the job. Question number one is, can a one-armed inspector in otherwise good condition stop a two-armed middle-aged playwright from going where he wants. The answer had better be no. Let’s try it. Me Julian, you Hubbard.
They play out the scene a number of times until the floor is strewn with weapons and both are quite bruised, bloodied, and tattered. At this point, in the midst of this scene of apparent mayhem, Sidney announces that, “Deathtrap is over. We’re now into theater verite.” Whereupon he aims a real pistol at Clifford and declares his intention of killing his lover. “I really don’t want that play to be written,” he explains:
Even though nothing can be proved too much will be talked about, and I’m a little too old and, yes, uptight, to join the Washington secretaries, and the ex-lovers of ex-presidents and the happy hookers, and the happily hooked, in the National Bad Taste Exposition. And I honestly can’t think of any other way to make sure you won’t set me up in a centrally located booth.
Thus, with his fake rehearsal he has created a situation in which it will look as if he has killed Clifford in self defense. The groundwork for this scene has been carefully laid. Sidney has asked his lawyer to investigate Clifford—an inquiry which has turned up some nasty information about the young man’s past brushes with the law. Sidney has informed the lawyer that he intends to dismiss Clifford, a move that might well provoke a violent response. And as a bonus, Helga will inform the police that she had clear visions of a young man in boots—Clifford—attacking Sidney in his study.
And so, with the thunder and lightning crashing outside, Sidney pulls the trigger—only to discover that the gun is loaded with blanks. Clifford has anticipated this turn of events, has replaced the real bullets with dummies, and has prepared a fully-loaded pistol for himself, which he now takes from the wall and aims at Sidney.
Just as in the first act, the tables are turned, creating what Aristotle called “peripeteia,” or in plain English, a “reversal”—a pair of terms Clifford mockingly cites as Sidney stands dumbfounded by this turn of events. Clifford orders Sidney to handcuff himself to his chair, and explains how he anticipated Sidney’s attempted ruse, and how he will now complete the play on his own, incorporating the scene they have just played into the final version: “The whole thing we just did; it’ll play like a dream and I never would have thought of it! I’m really in your debt.”
He heads upstairs to collect his things, at which point Sidney jiggles the handcuffs—the real trick Houdini manacles—and frees himself. He runs to the wall of weapons, grabs a crossbow, and as Clifford stands at the top of the staircase, shoots an arrow into his chest. Clifford falls down the stairs, apparently dead once again. Sidney proceeds to arrange the room to reproduce his original scenario of attempted murder, struggle, and a killing in self-defense. He telephones the police to report the grisly events: “I just killed my secretary. He was coming at me with an ax. That’s right. And wait till you hear this part. You’re going to think I’m drunk but I’m stone-cold sober. I shot him with a medieval cross-bow.”
But as he continues his fantastic story, a hand reaches out from the dark and clutches his throat. Once again Clifford has returned from seeming death to enact his revenge—but this time it’s for real. The young man has pulled the arrow from the cross-bow out of his chest, and now he stabs Sidney with it repeatedly until both the young man and the famous playwright fall dead of their wounds.
A third and final scene concludes the action. Helga and Porter, Sidney’s lawyer, stand in the playwright’s study digesting the astonishing turn of events. Helga, in a trance, explains to the astonished attorney the various feints, ruses, and betrayals Sidney and Clifford have played on them and each other. As they talk, it strikes both simultaneously that the story would make a successful play. In her excitement at the prospect, Helga asserts her right to half the future profits on the basis of her visionary insight into the facts of the case. Indignant, Porter objects, saying that he will be the one to do the actual writing. As they quarrel, Helga threatens to expose to the world her psychic discovery of Porter’s secret life as a dirty old man who uses the telephone as his instrument of sordid pleasure: “You speak through handkerchief, in high voice. Say dirty words to all your friends. . . . For shame. . .” Enraged, Porter advances on her “menacingly.” Helga grabs one of Sidney’s knives—they very one she said earlier would be used in a murder—and brandishes it at the lawyer. As the curtain falls, they are circling the desk, she threatening Porter with the knife, while he reviles her with a string of obscenities, two potential killers stalking each other over the authorship of a play.
We’ve been here before.
Our understanding of characters in drama and fiction is generally based on our perceptions of what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Thus, Ira Levin leads us in the first act of Deathtrap to believe that Sidney Bruhl is defined by his hunger for a new hit play and his willingness to go as far as murdering Clifford to get what he wants. Sidney, in other words, seems to be obsessed by an overpowering desire for self-esteem and professional success. The fact that, as his wife reminds him, this success and self-esteem will really be due to the work of another man seemingly bothers him not at all. He will risk anything for a hit, and let considerations of morality or decency be damned.
Then we discover that this attitude is all an act. In fact, what Sidney really wants is to get rid of his wife, to inherit her considerable wealth, and to take up an unobstructed relationship with his gay lover. What doesn’t change is his attraction to murder—pretended or real—as a means of getting what he wants.
So as the second act begins, we think we have Sidney in view: he is a character so driven by love—or at least sexual desire—for Clifford that he is willing to kill his wife to have his man. He must also want money almost as badly as he wants sex. The professional resurrection he professed to long for at the beginning of the play seems to have receded as a motivating force. He is still searching for a blockbuster idea, and still frustrated at not finding one, but he is far from committing murder to get his hands on a hit play.
But just as we think we have pinned down this character, he changes again, a third (and last) version of Sidney appearing when he discovers that Clifford has been dramatizing Myra’s murder. What emerges at this moment is a man not envious, or lustful, or avaricious, but rather someone terrified by the threat of humiliation and punishment. Now come his most authentically passionate moments in the play, denunciations of Clifford for putting them in jeopardy of discovery and imprisonment. For example, when Clifford questions his reservations about writing the play, Sidney responds, “I’m standing here terrified, petrified, horrified, stupefied, crapping my pants—and he calls that ‘having reservations.’”
Similarly, his most deeply-felt sentiments are those repudiating the culture of shamelessness and scandal which he is “too old and, yes, uptight, to join.” He does not want his secrets revealed, does not want to be known as “the fag who knocked off his wife.” Perhaps the most telling detail about this side of Sidney comes from Clifford, who realizes the older man would never consent to self-exposure because he, “uses three kinds of deodorant and four kinds of mouthwash; not for him the whiff of scandal.”
This, then, is the final version of Sidney: he is a man concerned for his reputation—even, in a perverse way, for his honor. But since he is a liar and a murderer, the only way to preserve his good name is by eliminating the one person who knows the truth about him. So, although the motive has changed again, the means remains the same: Sidney Bruhl keeps coming back to murder. The playwright himself is the deathtrap.
Sidney, then, is a killer—but a killer with a terrific sense of humor. This seems appropriate for a man who wants to keep his real nature concealed, for it is often the purpose of a joke or a witty turn of phrase to provide the speaker with a verbal wall to hide behind, or an instrument to deflect the conversation away from unwelcome subjects. For example, Sidney makes a private joke—just between him and the audience—when his lawyer, Porter, notes that Clifford is a “Pleasant young fellow . . . Good-looking too.” To which Sidney replies, “Yes . . . Do you think he’s gay?” By this time we in the audience know the answer to that question and we laugh at Sidney’s cheeky disingenuousness. But there is a very good reason for asking it: Sidney is forestalling any suspicions Porter may have about his relationship with Clifford, and thus protecting himself from exposure—all while playing a clever joke.
Indeed, it is mostly Sidney’s endless jokes that make Deathtrap a comedy-thriller—though, of course, Helga’s fractured English and psychic oddities add to the fun. But the combination of murder and mirth—of a smiling detachment from the realities of pain and death—are what make Sidney, in the end, such a chilling, and even pathological figure.
Clifford Anderson presents fewer contrasting faces to the world than Sidney. Our first impression is of a mannerly, good-looking young man who is star-struck by the famous, older playwright, and eagerly intent on making a name for himself with a successful thriller of his own. Murder doesn’t seem to be on his agenda. Then, with a scene change, he morphs into a crazed revenant, fully complicit in Myra’s death.
What accounts for the apparent transformation? Like Sidney, he seems to be cheerfully, though not so jocularly, amoral—a smiling villain who gives no outward sign of his inner darkness.
But two-faced is as deceptive as he gets. Although there was a murderer lurking behind the façade of the aspiring playwright of the first scene, the façade was real enough. He actually was a member of Sidney’s drama seminar, so he is genuinely interested in writing murder mysteries. Which means he probably does regard Sidney as a kind of hero, and really would be delighted to collaborate with him on a thriller. And the amorality that makes him a murderer also allows him to shrug off the gossip and scandal that would probably follow such a play’s successful production.
In a sense, Clifford is actually the character that Sidney is pretending to be at the beginning of the play: an author so desperate for success that he will do anything to achieve it. The major difference is that he has no reputation to protect, and so he can afford to be more reckless. He is also younger, more fully shaped by the media-bred culture of scandal as entertainment, shamelessness as career enhancer. Sidney loathes this world; Clifford is prepared to dive into it, like a seal chasing fish.
Perfectly-paired amoralists, true soul-mates, Sidney and Clifford consummate their relationship by killing each other.
Myra Bruhl has given her defective heart to a homosexual husband who is planning to murder her. She is, thus, a study in confusion and vulnerability.
She married Sidney eleven years earlier, just as his reputation was declining and his string of flops was beginning to lengthen. So having stuck with him through more than a decade on the wane, and having become his primary financial support, she is clearly attracted to something other than the man’s success or money.
But what is his appeal? Given Sidney’s erotic inclinations, it is unlikely to be sexual. Given his amorality, it is equally unlikely to be spiritual. There is his often charming sense of humor, but would that compensate for his other shortcomings?
We may get a clue to Sidney’s appeal in Myra’s last full speech before she dies of cardiac arrest: “Part of me—was hoping you would do it. (Nods.) At the same time that I was terrified you would, part of me was hoping. I saw the money too. And your name . . .”
She’s talking here about the (supposed) murder of Clifford, but in a way she might be summing up the emotions that animate her entire marriage. As a woman with a very weak heart, she leads a life that is necessarily constricted, fenced around by physical, dietary, and emotional prohibitions. But as the wife of a famous playwright, she has vicarious access to a far more exciting world. Producing a play on Broadway is often a matter of virtual life and death: the play lives or dies according to the judgment of critics and the vigor of the box office. “We killed ‘em,” is one traditional way of describing a successful performance. Even a flop offers the excitement of anticipation before it opens, and when it fails people will say it “died” on stage.
So she has been through murder of a kind several times with Sidney—metaphorical murder, to be sure, but the experience has been far more exciting than anything on the insipid menu of a semi-invalid.
Despite her physical weakness, however, she does find the strength to express ethical objections to criminal behavior—the only major character to do so. While Sidney and Clifford reason and act with cold expediency, she urges moral restraint, intervening to propose collaboration between the two playwrights rather than murder and theft. And when the evil deed is apparently done, she chastises Sidney for his callousness: “I’ve tried to understand how you could do it, bearing in mind your disappointments and your—embarrassment in our financial situation—but I can’t. And how will you be able to feel like a winner when we’ll both know it’s his play?”
She thus exhibits the fundamental requirement of moral behavior: empathy. She tries to put herself in Sidney’s shoes, factors in his vulnerabilities and failings, and still comes short of justification for murder. And later on when she acknowledges that “part of me” consented to the crime, her honesty is appealing. To admit temptation is no more than to admit being human, while being tempted is itself no sin.
Yet, despite her moral superiority to Sidney and the consequent sympathy we feel toward her, her death fails to dampen the mood of mordant jocularity that characterizes the play as a whole. In fact immediately following her murder, Sidney delivers a laugh line. Referring to the fake log with which Clifford seemingly beats him he says, “I’ve got news for you: styrofoam hurts.” And the audience obligingly cackles. Why doesn’t Myra’s extinction carry more weight, cast some shadows of seriousness over the action?
Possibly because, for all her moral virtues, she seems fundamentally insubstantial. Characters are what they do, and with her weak heart and total dependence of Sidney, she lacks the force or volition to do much of anything. And so her disappearance halfway through the play—unlike, say, the similarly early snuffing-out of Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s Psycho—doesn’t delete from the plot a major agent of action, doesn’t snuff out someone whose intentions capture our interest and our sympathy while driving the action forward.
Helga ten Dorp amuses us because her character combines the uncanny powers of psychic divination with the everyday frailties of a dotty old lady. She can see and feel the impending horrors that fill Sidney’s study, but she flops on the Merv Griffin show. She senses that Clifford talks about his Smith Corona typewriter, but the information is garbled on the psychic grapevine and comes out as “two . . . people . . . Smith—and Colonna. No, one person. Small. Black. . . . Is in play a black man, Smith Colonna?”
This synthesis of infallibility and eccentricity makes this small role into a satisfyingly complicated character.
Porter Milgrim, like Helga, is a hybrid. This time the blend is New England decorum and obscene vice. By day an upright lawyer with a name that should be carved on Plymouth Rock, by night he makes dirty phone calls in a fake voice to his friends. In a sense, then, Porter is a miniature version of Sidney: he conceals shameful conduct behind a mask of respectability. And in the end, when Helga threatens to reveal his secret, Porter, like Sidney under similar circumstances, flies into a murderous rage.
In 1871 the poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote to a friend, “Je est un autre.”—“I is another.”
What looks like a mistake in grammar actually expresses one of the fundamental assumptions of the modern sensibility: the face “I” present to the world, my public identity, my social self, is not really me. It is some other being fabricated for the sake of appearance, a mask, a disguise. Another “me”—as Freud would insist—lies buried somewhere beneath the surface and really runs the show.
Surely we have all experienced this sense of performing a role at various times in our social lives. The sociologist Erving Goffman has made a career of exploring this phenomenon, notably in his well-known study, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Teachers, salesmen, medical professionals all must perform for their clients. In private life, performances are expected from parents and children or husbands and wives. There are scripts for people attending a wake; for friends meeting for drinks and dinner; for a night of bowling, or a trip to the ballpark. There is no avoiding pretence. It is, in many ways, the very essence of social existence. But it is often at odds with our deeper instincts or impulses.
In many ways Deathtrap is a prolonged demonstration of Rimbaud’s (and Goffman’s) insights. Except for a few minutes at the end of the first act and the beginning and end of the second, the major character, Sidney Bruhl, is engaged in an elaborate performance. The identity he presents to his wife, his lawyer, and his lover is a fake, something other than his real self.
Much of Clifford’s life on stage is similarly pure make-believe. He pretends to be visiting Sidney to work on his non-existent new play, Deathtrap; he pretends to be murdered; he pretends to beat Sidney with a log; and he pretends to be clueless about Sidney’s plans to murder him in Act Two.
Then there is Porter Milgrim who, as we have seen, plays the social role of sober professional when in truth he is a filthy-talking crank-caller.
Even Myra has moments where her “I” and “me” fail to match up, notably when her social self screams in protest at the seeming murder of Clifford, while her inner killer pants with delight.
And what about Helga? Surely anyone who appears on the Merv Griffin show can’t possibly claim that I is not another.
If the presentation of identity as a mask, of social behavior as deceptive performance, is a hallmark theme of modernism, so too is the play’s disturbing habit of turning in on itself. Deathtrap is the snake swallowing its own tail; it is a play about writing a play called Deathtrap. Both the framing play and the play within that frame are about the same things: a famous author plagued by a string of flops pretends to receive a brilliant manuscript, and plots the fake murder of its author as an elaborate means of actually murdering his weak-hearted wife. We are watching a play about writing a play exactly resembling the play we are watching.
This is called reflexiveness, or self-referentiality, or, in the case of drama, meta-theater—artistic navel-gazing—and it turns up frequently in modern works. Pirandello’s famous Six Characters in Search of an Author, for example, is a play about putting on a play. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane—recently voted the best American film of all time—is a biography of Charles Foster Kane in which a reporter tries to write a biography of Charles Foster Kane. We see similar elements of self-conscious artifice—art looking in the mirror, revealing and exploring its own artificiality—in fiction by Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Philip Roth. We also saw it last season at the Public Theatre in James Nolan’s Moonshine.
What is the point of all this mirror-gazing? In the realistic tradition, art attempts to represent what are presumed to be the solid contours of the real world. Populating that world, the realists believe, are clearly-delineated individuals with fixed identities, knowable selves. But to the modern anti-realist sensibility “reality” is itself a question-mark, a mere performance, while the self, as Rimbaud declares, is “another,” a mask.
As Shakespeare said, metaphorically, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” To the modern mind, however, this is no longer a metaphor. All the world is, in fact, a stage, and everyone we meet there is playing a role. How does one represent such a world in the theater? How do you stage life when life is already a stage? What do you see when you hold the mirror up to nature? As Deathtrap shows us, the reflection you capture is the image of a play being hatched within a play.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. What effect do the weapons hanging on Sidney’s walls have on the audience?
2. Why don’t Sidney and Myra have any children?
3. Why is Myra attracted to Sidney?
4. How would the play be different if it had been written last year rather than 25 years ago? What effect would computer technology have on the plot?
5. Is Helga correct when she predicts that the dagger from The Murder Game will be used by a woman to kill someone because of a play?
6. What do you think Clifford has done to get in trouble with the law?
7. If Clifford is correct in believing that Sidney’s elaborate plot to murder his wife would make such a sure-fire success as a play, why didn’t Sidney simply write a play in the first place and skip the murder?
8. Do you think Sidney is really in love with Clifford? Vice-versa? Why? Why not?
9. What is the meaning of the word “deathtrap?” How does it relate to the action of the play?
10. Can you think of other plays or films that are about playwriting or film-making? Or that feature a play-within-a-play, or a film-within-a-film?