Busman's Honeymoon

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Dorothy L Sayers wrote a total of eleven detective novels in which the gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey is the main protagonist.  Uniquely, the last novel in the series completed by Sayers - Busman’s Honeymoon - was first written as a stage play, and this project was a joint one in which Dorothy L Sayers and Muriel St Clare Byrne played an equal part in its production.

This photograph, circa 1935-1950, shows Muriel St Clare Byrne (left) and Dorothy L Sayers (right) taking tea together at Dorothy’s house in Witham, Essex.  Muriel and Dorothy had a very close personal and working relationship throughout their lives, and this would have been one of many meetings that they had together.  This photograph is provided courtesy of the Marion E Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, on permanent loan, and any requests for its use should be directed to the Wade Center.  Details about how to contact and visit the Wade Center can be found on the THANKS section of this website.



Dorothy and Muriel wrote the following at the front of the stage play text:

"Busman’s Honeymoon is an attempt to express in dramatic terms the essential formula that distinguishes the true “detective problem” from the “thriller” on the one hand and the “psychological crime-story” on the other.  That formula is the “fair-play” rule, which during the past ten or twenty years has been slowly hammered out for the detective novel, and is now established and accepted by all serious lovers of this specialised art-form.  The rule is, “that every clue must be shown at the same time to the public and to the detective”, so that both have an equal chance to solve the problem.  The public must not be told the secret of the crime beforehand; nor must the detective acquire any private information which he does not immediately impart to the public.


It was necessary to invent a technique to express this formula, since the novelist’s approach by argument and explanation is clearly unsuited to the stage.  For the First Act, in which most of the major clues are introduced, the method chosen is that of visual presentation.  The clues as to Means are displayed, silently but conspicuously, down-stage, while at the same time the animated discussion of trivialities up-stage holds the ear and divides the attention of the audience.  The producer’s task is thus to play, as it were, two independent tunes concurrently, concentrating upon inessentials in order to disguise, without concealing, the essentials of the plot-structure.


In the Second Act, the method, while still contrapuntal, is highly varied.  While the inquiry is ostensibly directed to Motive, the information actually conveyed to the audience chiefly concerns Opportunity, or the lack of it.  Here, Superintendent Kirk’s unwavering canto fermo is contrasted with the freely moving descant played by Peter, who hovers continually above the action, sometimes in concord and sometimes in passing discord with the set theme.  The producer may note the visual symbolism, whereby Kirk remains throughout firmly planted in his chair, while Peter wanders about the stage, darting in upon the problem from all angles.


In Act III, Scene I, which for the purposes of the plot establishes Motive, the attention is held by yet another theme.  This, introduced in the First Act and kept moving by occasional passages in Act II, here emerges into prominence.  The human and emotional aspects of the situation, as it affects the private lives of the characters concerned, become the main source of interest.  An effort is here made to do for the detective play what has already been achieved for the detective novel—that is, to combine it with the comedy of manners, and so bring it back into the main line of English dramatic tradition.  In this scene, the masks are dropped all round: along farcical-comedy lines by Bunter; along tragi-comedy lines by Crutchley and Miss Twitterton; and along romantic-comedy lines by Peter and Harriet, the complete sincerity of whose emotion is the touchstone by which all the rest of the action must be tested.


In the final scene, both the disguised and the ostensible clues extracted from the previous scenes are presented afresh in a visual reconstruction to solve the problem on purely theatrical lines; and at the same time the emotional elements are brought into harmony.  The construction is thus that of a Three-part Fugue, moving contrapuntally to an ordered resolution.


The authors would be the last persons to claim that in this highly experimental play they have wholly succeeded in solving their own problem and providing a perfect dramatic formula for the presentation of the “fair-play” rule, and the emotional elements of the detective plot.  They suggest, however, that the future development of the detective play may lie in this direction, being convinced that neither sensation without thought nor argument without emotion can ever provide the basis for any permanent artistic structure."



The central character in all eleven of the detective novels written by Dorothy L Sayers between 1923 and 1937, is Lord Peter Wimsey.  The fictional Lord Peter is portrayed as a wealthy, aristocratic and eccentric individual who, is, nevertheless, a brilliant detective.


In the fifth novel in the series, Peter Wimsey meets and falls in love with Harriet Vane - a university educated writer of detective stories.  However, in that novel Harriet rejects Peter’s advances, and it is not until the penultimate of Dorothy L Sayers’s novels that she agrees to marry him.


The play, Busman’s Honeymoon, is set during Peter’s and Harriet’s honeymoon at an old farmhouse called ‘Talboys’, which Peter has recently purchased.  After having arrived late, Peter and Harriet spend their wedding night at Talboys - only to discover during the following morning that the cellar contains the dead body of the previous owner of the house, who has suffered a severe head injury.  Needless to say, Lord Peter Wimsey’s detective skills are put to the test, and the action of the play focuses on how he solves the mystery surrounding this death.



The play was first performed at the Comedy Theatre in London on Wednesday 16th December 1936.  It ran for at least a year in the West End of London and then went on to be performed in other theatres throughout the country.  For example, it was performed at the Richmond Theatre in 1939 - as shown in this extract from the theatre programme.


The success of Busman’s Honeymoon brought a not inconsiderable income to both Dorothy and Muriel.  In Muriel’s case it not only enabled her to focus more on her historical research but it also enabled both her and her partner, Marjorie ‘Bar’ Barber, to invest in the house that would become their home for the rest of their lives - 28, St. John’s Wood Terrace, London.

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