Sleuth was described by Shaffer as 'the main event' and it's without doubt the thing that he's most famous for. It's also the most requested play of his which is still being performed by amateur and professional companies around the world today.
Sleuth premiered at Brighton Theatre Royal on 12th January 1970 and then went on to Oxford, Leeds and Eastbourne before opening at St Martin’s Theatre, London on 12th February 1970. It then transferred to The Garrick Theatre on 6th March 1973 due to a prank Shaffer played which involved scrawling a quote by Agatha Christie on an advertising board and leaving it outside the theatre showing her play The Mousetrap! Sleuth was directed by Clifford Williams and ran for eight years in the UK.
ANDREW WYKE…….…….…Anthony Quayle
With the huge success in the West End it was inevitable that Sleuth would go on to Broadway. It first opened at The National Theatre, Washington and then moved to the Music Box Theatre on Broadway on 12th November 1970 where it played to sell out audiences until 13th October 1973.
ANDREW WYKE…….…….…Anthony Quayle
Shaffer told Mel Gussow of The New York Times in November 1970: "The Christie mysteries project an image of England that died 30 years ago, a heavily class structured society, one so snobbish the butler never did it. He wasn’t a gent. The murdered, murderee, and the detective were all gents – or ladies." He goes on to explain: "The mystery needed a new coat of paint. You can tell any story you want with a mystery device, even an idea that’s complicated and difficult.”
Theatre critic Clive Barnes wrote in 13th November 1970 edition of The New York Times: "As clever as a wagonload of monkeys solving the crossword puzzle of The Times of London and as intricate as the Hampton Court maze. It is good, neat, clean and bloody fun and I most cordially recommend it." He also gave it another favourable review two years later when Paul Rogers had replaced Anthony Quayle. Other reviews were just as quick to praise. “Sleuth is one of the best melodramas I have ever seen. Maybe it is the best” wrote John Chapman in the New York Daily News. “Wickedly entertaining” was Walter Kerr's feelings in The Sunday New York Times.
Shaffer's play was not only one of the best stage thrillers of all time being performed in the West End and on Broadway, it was also earning him recognition in higher places. The New York Times wrote on 29th March 1971: "The Antoinette Perry Awards, better known as “Tony’s” were held at The Palace Theatre, New York on 28th March 1971. Hostesses were Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury. Sleuth won Best Play."
The New York Times reported on 5th April 1973 that Sleuth had hit 1,000 performances the night before at it's Broadway home the Music Box Theatre. The play was still going strong in the UK too and was drawing capacity audiences.
Speaking to his long time friend Stephen Sondheim in an interview arranged by The New York Times in 1996, Shaffer said: "I believe there will always be an audience for the mystery play. There is a phrase of the British writer Arthur Machen that I remember from a long time ago. He said that man is so made that all his true delight arises from the contemplation of mystery and, save by his own frantic and invincible folly, mystery is never taken from him; it rises within his soul, a well of joy unending. I hope that's what he said exactly."
In the same interview Sonheim recalls how he first met Laurence Olivier who had just finished filming Sleuth.
SONDHEIM: Did I ever tell you about the time I met Sir Laurence Olivier? I was at a play in London, and during the interval [the British director] John Dexter said, "I have somebody here who would like to meet you." And he dragged over Sir Laurence Olivier -- this was right after "Sleuth" had finished filming. I blushed appropriately as Olivier said: "Oh, Mr. Sondheim, I'm so delighted to meet you. I've been playing you." Of course I thought he meant records of my musicals. So I said, "Which show?" And he replied, "No, I've been playing you in the movie." Because he had heard that you had based the character on me. I don't know if you know it, Tony, but that's the rumor; because you came to my house and I had a roomful of games and we talked about games, especially a game called Camouflage. Then you wrote the play, which takes place in a house that is decorated with games, and which climaxes with a version of Camouflage. The manuscript I received of the play was flatteringly called "Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?"
SHAFFER: I must tell you that I personally never called the play that.
SONDHEIM: No, I think the producer Morton Gottlieb put the title on.
SHAFFER: He might have; I certainly didn't. But I'm sure you'll admit that the "Sleuth" character's obsession with games-playing accurately describes a certain aspect of your personality, Steve.
In an interview for Variety in April 1997, Shaffer said of Sleuth: "It's a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing perfectly obviously because it has given you a name and a reputation; but it is somewhat of a curse because it condemns you to one genre. Everything now has to be or is expected to be in a twisty form, a thriller with a trick, and sometimes you haven't prepared one because you don't intend to; you don't want to." He added: "I then thought success happened all the time, that it was quite easy, though I knew later that wasn't so."
In Autumn 1998 playwrights, actors, directors, journalists and other theatre professionals were asked by the Royal National Theatre in London to nominate ten English language, twentieth century plays that they considered "significant. Sleuth was voted for 1970 and Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt Of The Sun won the 1964 vote.
Shaffer spoke to Terry Grimley from The Birmingham Post in May 1999 about why Sleuth was still as popular with audiences as it was when it first came out: "I think the reason for its survival is that the nature of the device or trick is such that if you know it the play becomes even crueller, in one way. It's an act of retaliation and because Wyke is altogether a really foul fellow, we want him to get it for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. " He adds: "I've recently seen it after some interval in San Francisco with Stacy Keach; half the audience knew the play and the other half didn't. It seemed to me that the half that didn't got the original shock and the one that did were quietly pleased with what was happening."
Sleuth has seen many revivals over the years and is still able to draw in a good audience. These productions are usually big touring events often cast with high profile names. Well known faces to TV and theatre audiences such as Peter Bowles, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Macnee, Tony Britton, Stacy Keach, Patrick Cargill, Marius Goring and more recently Simon MacCorkindale and Michael Praed are just some of the names to appear in the Sleuth revivals.
The play is set in Andrew Wyke’s living room in his large Norman Manor House in Wiltshire.
The play opens with Andrew Wyke reading the final pages of his latest detective story “The body on the tennis court.” The doorbell rings and Andrew welcomes in Milo Tindle, a young travel agent who has come at the request of Wyke who had earlier put a note through Milo’s door. They chat for a while, mostly Wyke asking Milo questions of his background, work, etc.
ANDREW: “I understand you want to marry my wife.”
Milo, taken aback by the directness of the question confirms that he does. He tells him that they intend to live together. He goes on to tell Wyke that he and Marguerite know that he has a mistress called Tea.
Wyke tells Milo that he is welcome to Marguerite but informs him that she would be expensive to keep. Could he keep her in the lifestyle that she has been accustomed with him? Can he afford to keep her? Milo explains that their relationship is based on love and once she’s left him she’ll be happy. He tells him that he can look after her.
ANDREW: “I see. You mean as soon as you and she are married,
Wyke tells Milo that Marguerite will ruin him. Therefore he has invited Milo over to discuss a way which will help him out. He tells him that he bought Marguerite a considerable amount of jewellery, in fact it was really a tax avoidance purchase and the jewellery (with receipts) really belong to him. He would allow Marguerite to wear it occasionaly.
ANDREW: “I want you to steal that jewellery.”
Milo is intrigued. Wyke tells him that he should steal the jewellery that night while Marguerite is away. He can then sell the jewellery on to a fence (one known and arranged by Wyke) and live happily ever after with Marguerite and the money. Wyke can then claim on the insurance and then settle down with Tea. Milo isn’t convinced and questions Wyke’s knowledge of committing crimes. Wyke reminds him that he is an author of great detective stories and his detective St John Lord Merridew is one of the greatest of them all. Milo disagrees.
MILO: “Oh yes, the police are always stupid in your kind of story, aren’t they?
Wyke reminds him of the money and eventually convinces him it will work. Milo agrees to steal the jewels from the safe which is under the stairs. Wyke explains that they will make it look like a burglary, but first though, Milo must dress up in a disguise to avoid any clues being left. He pulls out a large basket and pulls out various costumes for Milo.
MILO: “Haven’t you just got an old pair of wellies, a raincoat and a sock I can pull over my head?”
ANDREW: “Old pair of wellies and a sock? How dreary! That’s the whole trouble with crime today. No imagination.”
After turning down a burglars costume, a Klu Klux Klan outfit, a monks habit, a Courtier’s costume and a Little Bo Beep costume, he settles for a clowns outfit, complete with mask and shoes. He puts it on. Wyke instructs Milo to go out of the house, take a ladder from the shed and use it to climb up to the top of the large wall length window. As Milo does this, Wyke prepares the explosive for the safe. Milo climbs the ladder and breaks in through the window using a glass cutter and putty. He goes straight for the safe but Wyke tells him that he must make it look realistic for when the police arrive. He must search the bedrooms and ransack through their belongings.
ANDREW: “You have to be serious about crime if you want to afford to be in love.”
They blow the safe open and Milo takes out the jewels, marvelling at them. Wyke tells him that they must now make it look like he has surprised the burglar and a struggle breaks out, with him eventually being overpowered by the burglar. After changing his mind about being struck with a poker and tied to a chair, Wyke produces a gun. However, he points it at Milo and tells him he’s going to kill him. Milo laughs nervously thinking Wyke’s playing another of his games.
“Yes. We’ve been playing it all evening. It’s called ‘You’re going to die and no-one will suspect murder’.” He goes on, “I invited you here to set up the circumstances of your own death. The break in, the disguise, the jewels in your pocket, the householder aroused, the gun going off in the struggle and then the final fatal shot. I might even get a commendation from the police, for “having a go.”
Wyke tells Milo that he’s a fool for thinking that he would let him take his wife from him, and tells him that he hates him. Pointing the gun, he leads Milo up the stairs and orders him to put the mask on. Milo, bawling and gripped by fear, pleads with Wyke to stop. Wyke pulls the trigger and Milo tumbles down the stairs. He lies still below. Wyke goes to him and checks that he is dead. He walks away.
Act two opens with Wyke now alone in the house, receives a visit from Inspector Doppler from the local police station. He asks Wyke if he knows Milo Tindle and when did he last see him? Wyke tells him that he does know Milo but hasn’t seen him for months.
Inspector Doppler tells him that the landlord of the local pub had seen Milo and he told him that he was on his way to visit Wyke. Also, the police have the note Wyke had sent to Milo inviting him to visit. The Inspector goes on to say that Milo hasn’t been seen for two days and the police are aware that he was having an affair with his wife. A passer by had also reported seeing a struggle going on in the house.
Wyke tells him that Milo had been there for a short time. They were playing a game. In fact, he was really trying to humiliate the man. He tells him about Milo dressing up as a clown and stealing the jewels which was then followed by the shooting using a blank bullet. Milo recovered a short time later, got dressed and went home.
INSPECTOR DOPPLER: “It sounds rather sad, sir – like a child not growing up.”
ANDREW: “What’s so sad about a child playing, eh!”
INSPECTOR DOPPLER: “Nothing, sir – if you’re a child.”
Not convinced, the Inspector goes about the house searching for clues. He finds fresh blood on the stairs and carpet and notices a freshly dug mound of earth in the garden through the window. He finds Milo’s shirt and jacket hidden away at the back of a wardrobe. Wyke is shocked and explains that it’s impossible. Milo was alive and well when he left the house.
Inspector Doppler points out that the evidence is against him and that he’s going to take him to the police station. Wyke protests his innocence and refuses to go. They struggle and then the Inspector reveals who he really is. He removes a wig, glasses, cheek padding, false nose, moustache, etc and we see that it’s really Milo Tindle.
Wyke, angry at first, tells him that he had his suspicions all along and congratulates Milo on a great game. Milo tells him it’s revenge, though not as good as Wyke’s game. Wyke tells him they are now even, but Milo disagrees. He points out that he was actually facing death in Wyke’s game and that has changed him.
Milo tells Wyke that he’s killed Tea and has left three items in the house which will incrimminate Wyke for her murder. Wyke doesn’t believe him. He makes a phone call to Tea only to hear from her flatmate Joyce that she’s dead. Milo tells him that he has told the police Wyke has killed Tea and they are to meet him there at the house. Wyke has ten minutes in which to find the evidence before the police get there.
Wyke frantically rushes about the house looking for the three items that will show he murdered his mistress. Milo, playing with Wyke’s mind as he gives him clues, watches joyfully.
MILO: “You’re loving it. You’re in a high state of brilliance and excitement.
Wyke eventually finds the three clues just as the police arrive. Only, it isn’t really the police. Milo has played yet another game on him. This time he has set him up with the help of Tea and her flatmate. He also tells Wyke that he knows Tea isn’t really his mistress and that she had told Milo they hadn't slept together for over a year and he was practically impotent.
Wyke is deflated. Milo tells him that he and Marguerite are staying together and he goes upstairs to fetch her fur coat. Wyke thinks for a moment and gets his gun. When Milo appears with the coat Wyke tells him that he won’t let him go.
ANDREW: “I shall shoot you, Milo. You come here and ask my permission to steal away my wife,
Milo tells him that he really did go to the police and told them about the burglary game Wyke had set up. They didn’t seem to take his complaint seriously so he set up his own game. Milo goes to leave. Wyke shoots him.
ANDREW: “You’re a bad liar, Milo, and in the final analysis, an uninventive games-player. Can you hear me? Then listen to this, NEVER play the same game three times running!”
The police arrive as Milo dies.