Sunday, 22 September 2019

A Place Called Hope: the real life background to The Mousetrap

When I read Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap recently, the most striking aspect for me was the horrific episode of cruelty to children which was at the heart of the plot. 

This is the tightly coiled spring that powers this classic drama about murder and revenge.

So I was riveted by a BBC Radio documentary about the true crime case which inspired Agatha Christie to write her play.

It is such an important element in The Mousetrap — and such an unforgettable tragedy — that I thought I'd write about it briefly here. 

(Don't worry, this won't involve giving away any spoilers about the play itself.)

It's a story of two Welsh brothers, Terry and Dennis O'Neill. They were 9 and 12 years old in 1944 when they were taken out of a loving but terribly impoverished family and put into the care of the authorities, supposedly for their own good.

The boys were rehoused with an English farmer and his wife in a place called Hope. The name was horribly at odds with the fate of the O'Neill brothers, who were ruthlessly starved and beaten.

Just to give some idea of the historical context... You may have heard the expression "rule of thumb."  Well this originated in the ruling that you could beat your child — or your wife — with a stick.

Just so long as it was no thicker than your thumb.

At the farm in Hope, Dennis O'Neill was beaten hundreds of times a night with a (thinner than your thumb) stick.

Finally, one dreadful night in January 1945, the farmer went too far and, in a fit of rage, killed the boy.

The incident was so ghastly that it drove the war off the front pages of the newspapers and led to profound and much needed reforms of the way children are treated in social care, and resulted in the Children Act of 1948.

The case also made an indelible impression on Agatha Christie. The terrible winter when the killing took place is immortalised in her play, along with a variation on the cruel situation itself.

The radio documentary I mentioned above is centred on Terry, the surviving brother. He had never seen The Mousetrap, so the interviewer takes him to London and buys him a ticket.

When asked afterward about his reaction to the play, he says "I thought it was fantastic." 

And when asked if he ever had a desire for revenge, like the one that drives this drama, he says no.

"It would put me in the same category as the person that's got these evil intents."

Hear hear.

(Image credits: 64th Year is from a Ticketmaster Blog which has some nice facts about the show. The seven figures in windows are from Walnut Street Theatre. The mice on the keys of the piano are from Maryville University. The guy in the trench coat is from the Experience Theatre Project. The blue poster of the house in snow is from Pinterest. Diamon anniversary is from Quay Tickets. The red poster with the mousehole and cheese is from Western Carolina University. The shadow on the floor poster — which is rather reminiscent of vintage Denis McLoughlin — is from Stage Coach Players.)

No comments:

Post a Comment