Feature: Theatrical crimes

Date posted: 7 Feb 2013Author: STC

True crime has long had the ability to intrigue playwrights and thrill audiences. Here we look at some of the fascinating stories that inspired two of our upcoming shows at STC, and many in our past…


(Ruth Snyder's police mugshot)

Machinal by Sophie Treadwell

This play was inspired by the case of Ruth Snyder, who was executed in 1928 for her role in the murder of her husband, Albert. After beginning an affair with Henry Judd Gray in 1925, Snyder began planning the murder, first encouraging her husband to take out life insurance, then making numerous failed attempts on his life. Finally, on 20 March, 1927, Snyder and Judd Gray attacked Albert, strangling and gagging him, and faking a burglary. They were soon found out and taken to Sing Sing prison in New York where Snyder became the first woman executed there since 1899. A press photographer amongst the witnesses present at the execution took a famous shot of Snyder in the final moments of life using a tiny camera strapped to his ankle. The case has inspired plays, films and novels including Double Indemnity, the 1944 film starring Fred Macmurray and Barbara Stanwyck.Machinal plays at STC from 21 November, 2013.

(A police photo of Christine and Lea Papin)

The Maids
by Jean Genet

Genet based this play on the true story of two sisters, Christine and Lea Papin, who worked as domestic help for a family in Le Mans in France and on 2 February 1933 murdered their mistress and her daughter. The girls gouged out the eyes of their superiors and beat them about the head until they were unrecognisable. They went to prison where Christine died four years later from wasting away after experiencing severe depression after being separated from her sister, with whom it is suspected she had a sexual relationship. Lea, who was considered to have had a lesser involvement in the crime, was released after eight years and lived for many years as a maid in a different part of France. The case attracted the attention of Genet and many other writers, artists and intellectuals as it was considered to have been the result of class struggle, with the sisters having been forced to work long hours in poor conditions. The Maidsplays at STC from 8 June, 2013.

(Judi Connelli and Nancye Hayes in Chicago, 1981)

Chicagoby John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse

This toe-tapping musical is based on a play by the same name, which was written by playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926 and was based on various crimes she had covered during a short stint as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. Watkins was particularly inspired by two cases, those of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were both suspected of murder and later acquitted. 23-year-old Annan was accused of the murder of a man called Harry Kalstedt after she called her husband to say she had killed a man who had made advances on her, and Gaertner was a cabaret singer who was accused after a man named Walter Law was found dead in her car. The musical was performed at STC in 1981, featuring Nancye Hayes and Judi Connelli.

(Sophie Ross in Blood Wedding, 2011. Photo: Brett Boardman)

Blood Weddingby Gabriel Garcia Lorca

García Lorca is thought to have loosely based his pastoral drama Blood Weddingon a shocking crime that took place in a stone church in near the town of Nijar in the Andalucian desert. In July 1928, a reportedly plain young woman (with a large dowry) called Francisca Cañada Morales was due to be married in the stone church to dull but dependable local labourer called Casimiro Perez Pino.
Francisca was not keen on the marriage, but rather in love with her cousin Curro Montes Cañada. After an argument with her fiancée the night before the wedding, Francisca abandoned the wedding plan and eloped with her cousin, but they ran into Casimiro's brother Jose in the church on their escape. He shot Curro Montes dead in a bid to save his family's honour.
The crime was first reported in the newspaper Heraldo de Madridin 1928. It is believed García Lorca would have read articles about the crime and used it as inspiration for the tragic love story he wrote in 1932. Blood Weddingwas performed at STC in 2011, directed by Iain Sinclair.

Other honourable mentions:

Tot Mom

This devised work, directed by Stephen Soderberg for STC in 2010, was based on the response of television personality Nancy Grace to the case of the death of the two-year-old child Caylee Anthony in 2008.

Six Degrees of Separation

Playwright John Guare was inspired by the story of young conman David Hampton, who convinced people (including Melanie Griffiths and Gary Sinise) that he was the son of Sidney Poitier and was given money, clothing, expensive dinners and accomodation. Hampton was later tried and acquitted of harassing Guare. The play was performed at STC in 1992, directed by Wayne Harrison and with a cast lead by Jacki Weaver and John O'May.


This 1995 play (which was made into a film two years later) was written by Nick Enright in response to the rape and murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh near Newcastle on 3 November, 1989. It was performed at STC in 1995/6 by a cast that included Joel Edgerton, Simon Lyndon, Dan Wyllie and Kym Wilson. It was made into a film in 1997.