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The Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap has not only the longest initial run of any play in history (it's been running continuously for nearly 65 years, mostly in the very same building in London), but also an ending which is traditionally kept secret, the audience asked after every performance not to reveal it except to others already in the know.

My question is: why is the play called The Mousetrap? A couple of possibilities come to mind:

  • The nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice is mentioned several times in the play, so there's already a mice-related theme. (But why Mousetrap rather than say Three Blind Mice as the title?)
  • The play-within-a-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet is also entitled The Mousetrap. This surely can't be a coincidence, but I'm struggling to see any other connection between the two.

Is there any authorial word or other compelling evidence on the reasoning for the play's title?

  • "The Mousetrap is based on the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice.” Although Christie’s original radio play shared the title of the rhyme, it was changed when Peter Saunders, Christie’s longtime director and friend, remembered another moderately successful play of the same title" - penguin.com/static/pdf/teachersguides/mousetrap.pdf (Penguin.com teacher's guide). – Valorum Feb 11 '17 at 15:52
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    @Valorum Sounds like you've got the makings of a good answer there. What are you doing in the comments section? :-) – Rand al'Thor Feb 11 '17 at 15:55
  • This doesn't explain the choice of name, other than in the negative (e.g. why she didn't choose a particular name). I suppose it does address one of your sub-questions... – Valorum Feb 11 '17 at 16:02
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    "The story was adapted from a radio play, Three Blind Mice, written for the Royal family in 1947. The stage play had to be renamed on the insistence of another producer, Emile Littler, who had used the name on stage before the Second World War, and it was Agatha Christie’s son-in-law, Anthony Hicks who suggested the new title. In fact, it refers to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet cryptically calls the play depicting the murder of the king, ‘The Mousetrap’." - agathachristie.com/stories/The-Mousetrap – user8 Feb 11 '17 at 17:55
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    btw, although Hamlet does call it The Mousetrap, the proper title for the play is The Murder of Gonzago. – user8 Feb 11 '17 at 18:00
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As @yannis and @Valorum have said in the comments, the play's original title Three Blind Mice had to be changed because there was an earlier play with the same title. Yannis shared this information from the official Agatha Christie website:

The story was adapted from a radio play, Three Blind Mice, written for the Royal family in 1947. The stage play had to be renamed on the insistence of another producer, Emile Littler, who had used the name on stage before the Second World War, and it was Agatha Christie’s son-in-law, Anthony Hicks who suggested the new title. In fact, it refers to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet cryptically calls the play depicting the murder of the king, ‘The Mousetrap’.

In order to understand why The Mousetrap is an appropriate title for Christie's play, let's look at the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. Hamlet's father's ghost has told him that Claudio is a murderer, but Hamlet worries that perhaps the ghost is an evil spirit deliberately misleading him. So to verify the ghost's story, Hamlet comes up with the plan of staging The Murder of Gonzago before Claudio.

In that play, Gonzago is murdered in exactly the same way that the ghost claims he himself was: his wife's lover poured poison in his ear. Hamlet wagers that if the ghost's story is true, Claudio will not be able to help reacting in a way that betrays his guilty conscience:

     I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks.
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape. Yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

(II.ii.557ff)

So the play-within-a-play is designed as a trap for Claudio. Enticed by the prospect of a delightful evening's entertainment (the way a mouse is enticed by cheese), Claudio will find himself caught. When Claudio asks Hamlet what this play is called, Hamlet does not supply its actual name, The Murder of Gonzago:

CLAUDIUS
What do you call the play?
HAMLET
The Mousetrap. Marry, how? Tropically.

(III.ii.222–23)

Marry, how? Tropically means:

Why the heck is it called that? It is a trope, i.e., a figure of speech.

(Marry, like heck, is a minced oath; it refers to the Virgin Mary.)

So in Hamlet, The Murder of Gonzago is a metaphorical mousetrap to catch a murderer. Christie's play is also about catching a murderer, and that makes The Mousetrap a good allusive title for it. The connection with the thematic mice of the original radio play makes it particularly fitting. Another relevant point is that the name of the play was changed: Christie changed the name of Three Blind Mice to The Mousetrap, just as Hamlet did with The Murder of Gonzago.

So why was the original play called Three Blind Mice to begin with? The murderer in the play sets out to kill three people; since they can't see what's coming, and don't know why they are going to be killed, and two of them end up trapped in a snowed-in house, they are blind mice. (Partial spoiler follows.)

It turns out also that the murderer has picked his victims for revenge. They were responsible for a terrible ordeal he underwent as a child: he and his two siblings were placed in foster care with a farmer whose wife beat them mercilessly. The three abused children were "blind mice", helpless and trapped, at the mercy of the farmer's wife.

The nursery rhyme is thematically apt to the story, and is used as a motif throughout the play.

More generally, Christie was fond of using nursery rhymes as titles and themes for her work. Here are some examples:

No doubt there are others. "Three blind mice" fits with this general partiality toward nursery rhymes, and when that title was hors de combat, "The Mousetrap" was a good substitute.

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    Others titles based on nursery rhymes are Five little piggies and And then there were none. – b_jonas May 30 '18 at 14:53
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The murderer refers to his three intended targets as "Three Blind Mice" -- in the first murder, a notebook mentioning "Three Blind Mice" is found, a note on the body, reading "This is the first." Following this, much of the story is of the murderer's elaborate construction of opportunity to catch his victims alone and vulnerable. Hence, a mousetrap.

To be more specific, and more spoilery:

The entire scenario, of a group of possible targets trapped with an unknown murderer, was engineered by the murderer himself -- who sets himself up as a detective, stoking their fears, ordering the people around, using "recreations" as opportunities to separate the people and catch them unawares.

Since so much of the story turns out, in retrospect, to have been a deliberate set-up to create opportunity for murder; and since there's a strong sense of a group of people trapped and awaiting a gruesome demise, "The Mousetrap" seems to me very appropriate imagery -- and setting up a trap scenario for the murder victims, is quite reminiscent of Hamlet setting up a false play in order to trap his uncle.

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