English playwright Tom Stoppard, his plays performed more than the plays of any other dramatist of his generation – and Stoppard’s still writing – is a fascinating guy. He was a newspaperman and a drama critic before he sat down to write his first play in 1960.

I became aware of him when I saw a production of his play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, messengers who are murdered off stage.

Stoppard makes them the lead characters in his play. They are waiting for someone in the royal court to give them their assignment. Characters from “Hamlet” move in and out of the scenes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mystified by it all because they haven’t yet been told why they are here. There’s great comedy between the two characters, in their lines and their stage business . . . and that’s what I liked.

If you didn’t see the play or the movie, and Stoppard’s name isn’t familiar to you, perhaps you saw the 1998 film, “Shakespeare in Love”. It won seven Academy awards, including an Oscar for best original screen play. Stoppard was the co-writer.

Imagine my pleasure when I learned that Beloit College – just a little south of where I live – was presenting Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound.”

I didn’t know the stage play, but I knew that if Stoppard wrote it, it was going to be both clever and good.

Oh, was it ever.

Stoppard wrote the play in 1968, two years after “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”. And he uses the same device – two characters who don’t know exactly what’s going on.

The lights go up on an empty stage, empty except for some furniture and a body face down behind a fainting couch.

Nothing happens for the first thirty seconds, then a light comes up on an aisle in the theater . . . and a man in a suit enters and works his way down to a front row seat. He sits down, flips through his program, looks to the wings for someone to come in and the play to start.

A minute later, a man in a sport jacket enters from the aisle and makes his way down to the front row where he sits next to the first man. He, too, flips through the pages of his program and looks to the wings for someone to enter and the play to start.

The two know each other. They are theater critics here to review the show. The first – Moon – is a substitute for Higgs, his paper’s first-string critic. He really wishes that Puckeridge, his paper’s third-string critic, had been called in to review the play. But Moon tells Birdfoot – the second man and a critic for another paper – that Puckeridge is probably drunk again.

Much conversation ensues between the two about the actors, several of whom they know, and the play and what this new play, “The Real Inspector Hound”, might be about. Their observations and speculations range from the absurd to the silly.

Finally, in great frustration, Moon explains the play to Birdfoot in the most direct way possible: “It’s a who done it, man!”

It takes place in Muldoon Manor, isolated in the desolate marshes of England. The road to the manor is cut off. There’s fog. A storm. The sea is crashing against the cliffs. A lunatic is on the loose from the insane asylum. All the cliches from the 1930s British mysteries.

The thesis of the play is Lord Albert Muldoon has disappeared mysteriously. And, yes, there is a body on the stage, but nobody notices the body until much later, when Inspector Hound steps on it – Hound at the house in response to a call about an escaped lunatic seen in the area.

When Hound realizes he has stepped on a body, he announces to everyone on stage, “I’ll call the police.”

Says one of the characters, “But you are the police.”

To which Hound answers, “Thank God I’m here because the line’s been cut.”

The characters divide up to search the house and grounds for whomever may have killed the stranger on the floor.

The character Simon remains behind. When he checks the body for a pulse, he appears to recognize the man. But before he can say anything, someone shoots Simon.

A long pause. Then the telephone on the stage rings . . . and rings and rings some more. Birdfoot, aggravated, goes up and answers it. It’s his wife calling. When he hangs up, the play starts over and Birdfoot becomes trapped in it, reading in the role of Simon.

He, too, is shot.

Moon, horrified by the murder of his colleague, rushes up on stage to investigate. He takes on the role of Inspector Hound.

Major Magnus Muldoon, the missing Lord Albert’s half-brother, accuses Moon of being the madman because Moon isn’t the inspector. Moon tries to run and Magnus shoots him.

Magnus pulls off his disguise and reveals himself as the real Inspector Hound. He then takes off a second disguise and announced that he is not Hound, but the missing Lord Albert.

But Moon – dying – recognizes the actor as Puckeridge, his newspaper’s third-string critic.

Magnus/Hound/Lord Albert admits it, saying he’s waited 10 years for the opportunity to get rid of Higgs – the first dead body on the floor – and Moon so that he can be the newspaper’s first-string critic.

Convoluted?

Well, so is Agatha’s Christie’s “The Mousetrap” which Stoppard parodies in this play.

Theater of the absurd, farce, parody, satire . . . it’s all here in “The Real Inspector Hound”.

A great evening of theater.

Tomorrow: “Cliffhanger”, the play

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Comment by I. J. Parker on November 25, 2010 at 5:17am
Can't comment on INSPECTOR HOUND, but I saw THE MOUSETRAP in London and was horribly bored.

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