Sunday 9 September 2018

Deathtrap by Ira Levin

I've previously posted about the superb novels of Ira Levin. Now it's time to start looking at his equally memorable writing for the stage.

His 1979 play Deathtrap was a huge smash hit. It is the longest running thriller in Broadway's history; indeed it remains the fifth longest-running (non-musical) play on Broadway.

As part of my one-man Ira Levin revival I got hold of a copy of the published version of Deathtrap and set about reading it with great pleasure. 

I thought I'd seen a stage production of this play, in Croydon some years ago. But the story seemed so fresh to me that I've begun to doubt that...

Maybe I'd just become aware of the general contours of the plot of Deathtrap, through a kind of cultural osmosis. It's a very famous play.

That plot concerns a successful playwright, Sidney Bruhl, who specialises in fashioning murderous thrillers. He's down on his luck though, to the extent that he's teaching the craft of writing to aspiring amateurs (we've all been there). 

So when one of his students sends him a new stage thriller which promises to be a monumental success, Sidney begins to wonder if instead of mentoring this new talent, he can kill him and steal his play...

The play in question is called Deathtrap, and like Levin's play itself, it features one set and five actors...

This sort of meta thing could be very tedious, but in Ira Levin's hands it's positively exhilarating. Over the course of two acts, each consisting of three scenes (just like the play within the play) Deathtrap proceeds to thrill, shock and astonish, its narrative twisting like a serpent.

The concept of a play worth killing over is at the heart of Deathtrap and Levin keeps wringing ingenious changes and variations on it. In the way that this McGuffin becomes both irresistible and almost automatically lethal, Deathtrap recalls The Pardoner's Tale by Chaucer.

It's a wonderful entertainment with a touch of the supernatural (as befits a work by the man who wrote Rosemary's Baby) and it is also hilariously funny.

No wonder it was such a magnificent success. I'd urge you to read a copy of the play, watch a revival of it, or perhaps see the movie version directed by Sidney Lumet. I say 'perhaps' because I have yet to watch it myself. That will be another post...

(Image credits: The book cover is from ABE. The Harlequin poster is from CTX Live Theatre. The Salisbury Playhouse poster is from Peter Viney's blog. The Palm Canyon poster is from Patch. The clever all typography poster is from London Theatre Direct.)

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