The Real Inspector Hound

Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ronan Marra

At the Signal Ensemble Theater, Chicago

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Sept. 5, 2010

In The Real Inspector Hound, playwright Tom Stoppard lampoons theatre criticism, especially its pomposity and verbal pageantry. He also takes a whack at social hierarchy, turns a light on the contamination of objectivity by personal bias, and raises questions about cynicism. But these, as it turns out, are only a means to an end -- not the end itself. Stoppard's actual target is formalism, or the comfortable conventionality that handicaps literature and the theatre, and, by logical extension, any endeavor that depends on human creativity, be it in the arts, sciences, humanities, or technology. In the case of this play, our author is making his point by jabbing at what he recognized back in 1962 as the old irrelevant formulas that had calcified crime fiction into the styles of Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, and their innumerable epigones. But Stoppard doesn't stop there.

Hound is metafictional, a farcical play-within-a-play that parodies parlor mysteries; in fact, the title alludes directly to the surprise ending of Christie's The Mousetrap. The play begins as two theatre critics, Moon and Birdboot, watch and prattle on about the banal murder mystery unfolding on stage before them (and before us). Moon is a second-string critic who is reviewing the play only because senior critic Higgs is absent, a man of whom Moon is so jealous that he wishes him dead. Birdboot, by contrast, is a married critic whose practice is to write glittering reviews about young actresses to win their sexual favors; currently, he's carrying on with the actress who portrays Felicity in the play we're watching.

During this time, there's a dead body upstage that no one has yet noticed. As the story unfolds, Moon and Birdboot compare observations and sometimes wander off into soliloquies about their respective concerns (Moon's jealousy and Birdboot's lust). The play moves forward mocking its own genre while our two critics, unknowingly, mock their own profession. Eventually, however, the pedestrianism of this formulaic mystery starts to melt in a distortion reminiscent of a Surrealism slogan from the 1960s, "L'imagination prend le pouvoir!" ("Imagination takes power!").

Absurdism now displaces realism. During a break in the action, with no one else on stage, Birdboot takes a call on the stage telephone, which has been ringing incessantly. At the other end of the line is his wife. Suddenly, Felicity appears and Birdboot becomes enmeshed in an embarrassing replay of an earlier scene in which she confronted Simon, her former lover, young and dapper, whose personage Birdboot now assumes. The dead body has been discovered by now, and just as Birdboot announces that he's solved the mystery and is about to identify the murderer, someone shoots him and he falls dead. A horrified Moon rushes out to the body of his slain colleague and inadvertently into the role of Inspector Hound, who already appeared in a previous scene. But, as we soon learn, the real Hound is actually the wheelchair-bound Magnus, who has three other aliases: Cynthia's brother-in-law, her missing husband Albert, and third-string theatre critic Puckeridge, who's jealous of Moon -- and who then shoots him dead.

Signal Ensemble's production is enjoyable. The characterizations I saw were stereotypical almost to the point of becoming self-parodies. Perhaps the funniest portrayal was that of Mrs. Drudge by Mary O'Dowd, whose voice was strikingly similar to that of Angela Lansbury. In this production, there was no more-effective purveyor of the ridiculously excessive exposition typical of generic murder mysteries in the tradition of Christie and Doyle.

In the role of Moon, Philip Winston was impressive. He articulated his flourishes smoothly and cleanly, with an intonation that matched the kaleidoscopic magniloquence that Stoppard gave to Moon. In Winston's hands, there was never a doubt about Moon's bitterness over being subordinate to Higgs, or, interestingly enough, about the streak of decency that ran through him. Jon Steinhagen gave us a pompous rascal whose judgment is stuck in adolescence, a thorough coxcomb in the style of Clifton Webb or John Gielgud. Stepping on stage into their alternate realities, Winston's Moon showed more of an existentialist jolt than did Steinhagen's Birdboot.

Unfortunately for the audience, most of the actors didn't temper their bluster with British reserve. Therefore, the show had only one energy level, high, which was desensitizing and a bit tiring. Even so, the show was uneven in that there were a few sluggish moments that retarded it to a crawl. Some of these felt intentional, as though inviting us to collect our thoughts, whereas others seemed accidental and, therefore, awkward.

Stoppard demarcates the outer play from the inner play but then merges them. In doing so, he must be telling us something about the nature of role-playing. Stoppard complicates the Shakespearean model of a play-within-a-play by thrusting the two critics, who would otherwise have provided a second frame of reference for us, directly into the inner play. In Hamlet, Claudius asks the boy prince for the name of the play the court is watching, which to us, of course, is the inner play "The Murder of Gonzago" (III.1). Hamlet replies with a metaphor, "The Mousetrap", because of his intention to "catch the conscience of the king" by holding up a mirror to the king's own actions. This is interesting for the triangle it creates putting Shakespeare, Christie, and Stoppard at the apices. In Hound, our critics engage in role-playing by living out their fantasies through the inner play -- until they die, that is. Birdboot becomes the handsome Simon, no longer the sneaky, philandering husband whose frumpy wife waits for him at home. And Moon enjoys his new stature as the senior critic whom others admire, no longer the stand-in who can prove his worth only when Higgs is absent.

Objectivity is a delicate thing. As both Birdboot and Moon show us, a competing concern can easily poison a man's judgment, and the resulting bias can deal a death blow to the integrity of any creative or analytical enterprise, theatre criticism included. But what's curious about this observation is its obviousness. It certainly doesn't surprise a sophisticated theatre audience accustomed to reading reviews by jaded or cynical critics. What isn't obvious, however, is that the bias of Birdboot and Moon is only the bait. Hidden within the inner play, behind the mockery and the humor, is consequential bias, pernicious and present in nearly every conclusion drawn -- or leapt to -- by some character on stage. It's the kind of bias that changes the direction of a life. And by blurring the line between the outer and inner plays, Stoppard not only makes our two critics aware of their own foolishness, which in and of itself should get our attention, but he also raises the stakes of making an error.

In this play, it's hard to know whether Stoppard is (a) denouncing social hierarchy by advocating violent revolution by third-stringers, (b) encouraging the exploitation of social hierarchy for personal gain through Machiavellian tactics coupled with strategic liquidations, or (c) acknowledging disgrace, real or perceived, to be a force that motivates people to malignant self-aggrandizement. Nevertheless, the fact that the third-string Puckeridge arrogates the position of lead critic by killing both the first-string Higgs and second-string Moon, all the while being referred to as a "madman", hardly argues for the middle possibility. And the fact that Moon confesses early on his wish that Higgs would die, then gets his wish, and then dies ironically at the hands of another with the same wish about Moon, coupled with the fact that Birdboot also gets his wish and then dies, all make me wonder whether Stoppard's overarching message is a simple moral that I first encountered in childhood in the story of King Midas and then again in high school in "The Monkey's Paw": be careful about what you wish for.