To Catch a Spy: John le Carre and Sidney Lumet's Use of Marlowe's Edward II in Performance

By Ardolino, Frank | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, March 2002 | Go to article overview

To Catch a Spy: John le Carre and Sidney Lumet's Use of Marlowe's Edward II in Performance


Ardolino, Frank, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


John Le Carre's first novel Call for the Dead (1961) and Sidney Lumet's movie based on the novel The Deadly Affair (1967), both use Marlowe's Edward II in climactic senes during which the master spy kills his accomplice in unison with Lightborn's murder of Edward onstage. However, the nature of their use of Marlowe differs markedly. The novel establishes the parallel between the onstage murder and the real one in the audience with little else specifically delineated. A reader would have to pursue further parallels between the novel and the play through a close understanding of the intricacies of Edward II. On the other hand, Lumet, by showing selected scenes with dialogue from the play and emphasizing spectatorial motifs, clearly establishes and elicits more obvious comparisons between the movie and the play than just the theater murders. (1)

The novel concerns the death by supposed suicide of a Foreign Service official named Samuel Arthur Fennan. Someone wrote an anonymous letter accusing Fennan of being a communist sympathizer in his days as an Oxford undergraduate, and George Smiley has been sent to interview Fennan about the charge. As a result of the interview, Smiley clears Fennan of current suspicion, but he is shocked to be told later that evening, when he is awakened by a telephone call, that Fennan was so upset by the letter and the interview that he committed suicide, leaving a note to that effect. Smiley is then sent to interview Fennan's widow Elsa about her husband's suicide. She was at the theater on that fatal evening, and she is very bitter towards Smiley. During his interview with her, Smiley is interrupted by a phone call which he mistakenly believes is from his headquarters. But it turns out to be a wake up call for Fennan, placed the night before. Elsa claims that the call was for her because she is so forgetful and wanted a reminder to go shopping. But Smiley learns shortly after that she is lying; Fennan arranged for the wake up call two hours before he is supposed to have killed himself. Smiley concludes that Fennan's death was murder because it is highly unlikely that he would have scheduled awake up call and then committed suicide. Ironically, Fennan's posthumous wakeup call becomes a figurative wake up call for Smiley in his investigation of the matter.

Like Edward II, the novel presents a series of deceptive, implicatory and, finally, "deadly" letters and communications. The original anonymous letter accusing Fennan was actually sent by Fennan himself as the means of initiating an investigation which he hoped would lead to the detection of his wife, whom he had come to suspect as a spy. In addition, there are the posthumous communications--his supposed suicide letter typed on the same Olivetti typewriter as the initial incriminatory letter, but by a different person; the wake up call, and a letter from Fennan written on the day of his death, asking for an appointment with Smiley for the next day. Finally, Smiley provides the most decisive false communication when he sends a postcard to Elsa ostensibly written by the master spy Dieter Frey, Smiley's former espionage accomplice during World War II. Through this ploy Smiley discovers the method by which the spies exchange information at the theatre and sets them up to be apprehended.

The chapter in which this scene occurs is entitled "The Last Act." When Dieter realizes that he has been set up, he decides to eliminate Elsa, and he does so before the eyes of the onlooking British agents. Dieter plays into their hands by panicking and murdering Elsa. Up to this point, they had no real proof linking him to the murderous espionage activities which had already occurred. A more macabre irony, however, occurs when Dieter murders her with his patented "one-finger carotid touch" in synchronization with the onstage murder:

   The play dragged on, the shouts of soldiers and the screams of the demented
   king filled the theatre, until the dreadful climax of his foul death, when
   an audible sigh rose from the stalls beneath them. … 

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