Caroline: Agatha Christie is a very well known writer, to put it mildly. Her novels and short stories have been translated into dozens of languages, she’s a household name all over the world, and her books are still selling in their millions nearly half a century after her death. Her characters are forever being reincarnated on screen and keep finding new fans, many many decades after she first created them.
So far, so obvious. But what if I was to tell you that Agatha Christie had a whole other career in which she was, some argue, even more successful? One that she herself regarded as the much greater achievement, even though today even her most ardent fans often don’t give any thought to it. Well, that would really be something, wouldn’t it?
Join me, won’t you, as we enter the theatrical world of Agatha Christie.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Agatha Christie’s career as a playwright isn’t a secret, of course. If you happen to be in central London and walk through the West End, you will pass at least one theatre currently showing one of her plays. One of her works holds the record for the longest run ever of a West End play. But overall, it’s just that her fame and global reach as a novelist has mostly eclipsed her reputation in the theatre.
If you look closely at her achievements, though, it becomes clear both that she was a successful playwright separately to her other writing work, and that she cared very deeply about this facet of her career.
Julius: In terms of the number of people who saw her plays, and the number of productions that were performed worldwide and continue to be so she is undoubtedly and inarguably the most successful female playwright of all time, and nobody has yet challenged that statement.
This is Julius Green, a theatre producer and the author of Agatha Christie: A Life in Theatre. This book, which was first published in 2015, is a brilliantly comprehensive reappraisal of Christie’s theatrical career. As a result of all the research he did around this subject, Julius came to some pretty firm conclusions about where Agatha Christie the playwright should sit in the history of twentieth century British theatre. For instance:
Indeed, writing plays was something Agatha had wanted to do her whole life, long before the idea of writing detective novels came long, although her ambitions were only realised well after she had established herself as a mystery novelist.
Julius: She always wanted to be a playwright. She wrote plays from an early age from from a teenager, she started writing plays. But first performed play was in 1930 when she was 40 years old, so you know, relatively late in her in her life as a writer, she became a playwright and her success as a playwright as I say came in the 1950s when she was in her 60s. So, as a as an older woman, she found to success as a playwright.
Caroline: Agatha Christie’s work for the theatre is about half original plays and half adaptations of her novels and short stories.
She wrote some 30 plays, some full length, some one act, not all of them were performed in her lifetime, but a substantial number were.
She started out with a couple of works that I think Shedunnit listeners will find a little familiar — the first, Black Coffee, was an original play starring one Hercule Poirot.
Julius: Her first performed play was Black Coffee, which was staged in 1930 at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage which is now the Central School of Speech and Drama. There was then quite a gap before her second play was produced, which is the one now known as And Then There Were None, which was a huge success during the war, and became a big wartime hit, almost a morale boosting exercise inadvertantly, I think, but it struck a real chord with audiences in wartime in Britain. And that became her first Broadway play as well.
Caroline: In the course of his research, Julius actually found a number of never before seen Christie plays in her family’s archive, and he’s presenting a staged reading of one of these — The Stranger — at the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay in a few weeks’ time, should any listeners feel curious to see some of her work once you’ve listened to this episode.
Because Christie was so popular for her novels and short stories, even when people do know a bit about her work in the theatre, they tend to assume that she wasn’t actually the one putting in the work on her plays, even if it was her name on them in the end. This couldn’t be further from the truth, Julius says.
Julius: I mean, all of her work on stage, she was hugely invested in, she spent a lot of time talking with producers about, you know, changes that they wanted. She was in rehearsals a lot as the writer making changes, she got involved in the casting process. She was extremely hands on as a writer and as I say, totally invested in the process. She thoroughly enjoyed it.
Caroline: Not only was she in constant correspondence throughout her life with her longtime producer, Peter Saunders, but she personally rated her theatrical work the most highly of anything she ever did.
Julius: She thoroughly enjoyed her theatrical success and, and you know, she’s on record is saying that her proudest achievement as a writer was Witness for the Prosecution, the play.
She always saw writing novels as a way to pay the bills and pay the tax bills, although I can’t say that to the fans, obviously.
Caroline: It’s possible to tell how much the theatre meant to Christie, Julius argues, if you look at the extent to which her colleagues there became part of her personal social life.
Julius: I mean, she’s legendarily shy as a person, but she really enjoyed the company of theatrical people and you know, she writes delightfully about how during the war, you know, all they’re worried about is what they’re going to wear to go on in the show that night.
She found the perspective of theatre people very refreshing, partly because it was so self obsessed, I think, a little frame of reference with with the realities of what we’re going what was going on. But some of her best friends might be actor Larry Sullivan, who played Poirot on a number of occasions. Although she didn’t like his performances, he was a great friend of hers.
Caroline: It’s impossible to talk about Christie and the theatre without talking about The Mousetrap. That play, which premiered in London on 6th October 1952, has (with an unavoidable interruption last year because of Covid) been running continously ever since. It started life as a radio play, which Christie then expanded into a novella, from which she wrote the stage play that you can see in London today.
Buy why is it this play, of all of the dozens that she wrote, that has just kept going and going and going?
Julius: There’s been a lot of speculation about this. I mean, one of the key reasons was a very straightforward producing decision right at the beginning, her producer Peter Saunders had the choice between a very large theatre and a very small theatre. And he chose the very small theatre, the Ambassador’s Theatre, which is opposite St. Martin’s where it currently runs. And he had a big star, Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, and it became a hot ticket because you couldn’t get in. So you know, it was one of those things where right from the start, it was demand for tickets, because it was an Agatha Christie play, because it was a star cast, Attenborough extended his contract. So that continued, you know, for over a year with him in and it built up a certain momentum.
Caroline: But that’s not all — long after Attenborough and Sim had eventually left the cast, people still kept buying tickets. That’s a testament to the play’s quality, Julius says, over and above any canny producing or casting decisions that were taken at the beginning.
Julius: But also, of course, it’s a brilliant piece of theatre, which I think in particular just as And Then There Were None appealed to the wartime audience, I think The Mousetrap appealed to the post war audience, it’s very much an austerity era play. Its period setting is very specific. There’s a sense of displacement, mistrust, uncertainty, it of course, takes its storyline from a news report of the time about, you know, some children who were abused in care, which would have resonated with London audiences who had to send their children out, you know, during the war as refugees away from the capital. So, you know, the sense of uncertainty and displacement.
Caroline: In a way, with The Mousetrap Christie was updating and subverting one of the formats that she had become very famous for as a novelist — the country house murder mystery. The play has all of the same feelings of claustrophobia and that tightly knit circle of suspects we see in novels like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, but it has none of the aristocratic trappings associated with the golden age murder mysteries of the 1920s or 30s. The Second World War has blown all of that away.
Julius: It’s a country house setting, but you know, the country house is one that has been inherited, and, you know, they’re trying to earn a living by turning it into a guest house, and they keep chickens and paint their own signage. And there’s an amazing scene, where there’s a moment where the lady of the house walks across the stage with a vacuum cleaner, you know, she’s a couple of years before the Royal Court, seeing a woman ironing in Look Back in Anger causes sensation. So, you know, Christie knew exactly which buttons to press with her audiences.
Caroline: The Mousetrap is key to understanding why Christie’s reputation as a playwright ended up submerged by her achievements as a novelist, I think. If you study the history of twentieth century theatre, the story that is told of the 1950s is less about this hugely sucessful murder mystery play, and more about the arrival of the so called angry young men and their kitchen sink dramas. While those were important artistically, it wasn’t what the majority of the theatre going public were choosing to see.
Julius: People think of the 1950s as the era of, you know, John Osborne and Joe Clifford and things but you know, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had very few performances at the Royal Court and in the West End, whereas Witness for the Prosecution was selling out consistently one of the biggest theatres in London. People forget that the 1950s were really Agatha Christie and Brian Rix farces at the Whitehall Theatre rather than the Royal Court and Stratford East but theatre history has a strange way of rewriting itself.
Caroline: This selective remembering of what most people were seeing at the theatre at the time has a lot to do with how Christie’s work as a playwright is remembered, as does the confusion over whether she was writing original plays or just allowing others to adapt her novels — more on that in a moment.
After the break: Why did Christie keep cutting Hercule Poirot out of her plays?
When you feel confident, you feel like you can do it all. And who says you can’t?
Whether you’re running, biking, doing yoga, swimming or sitting on your couch, Girlfriend
Collective has clothes you feel your best in, no matter what you’re doing.
Girlfriend Collective produces sustainable, ethically made activewear for everyone. They use recycled materials to make their clothing and their shipping is 100% recyclable as well.
It all comes in functional fabrics, colors, and styles for any activity. There’s cute and comfortable bras, leggings, shorts, tanks, tee, swimsuits and more. And their sizing is inclusive, ranging from extra extra small to 6XL. I really like that they think about who is going to be wearing their stuff and what they might do in it as well — their best selling leggings, for instance, actually have usable pockets and come in different levels of support depending on whether you’re after compression or comfort.
For listeners of the show, Girlfriend Collective is offering $25 off your purchase of $100
or more when you go to girlfriend.com/shedunnit. That’s $25 off $100 or more when you go to girlfriend.com/shedunnit. girlfriend.com/shedunnit.
This episode is also sponsored by Dead Air, an audio fiction series from Realm. This ten part story sees a true-crime podcast host roped into solve a decades-old murder when someone calls into her show with a staggering reveal: the person who went to prison for the crime didn’t do it.
To seek the truth, she forms an unlikely alliance with the victim’s son, who has his own reasons for digging up the past. But then the anonymous threats begin, warning them to stop, and they have to decide if finding the real killer is worth the cost.
This is a plot that will be right up Shedunnit listeners’ street — it’s a podcast about a podcast about solving crimes! And if any of you happen to be murderinos as well (if you know, you know), you’re going to absolutely love this twisty-turny cold case mystery set in the American south about a murdered racehorse heiress.
Like all of Realm’s shows, Dead Air has high quality sound design, acting and editing — io9 once described what they make as “like Game of Thrones, but for your ears”. Check out the whole Realm slate at realm.fm and you can listen to Dead Air now, it’s available wherever you get your podcasts.
Caroline: Almost from the start of Agatha Christie’s literary career, people have been trying to put her stories on stage. In 1927 a touring actor manager named Lionel Bute acquired the rights to produce a play based on her 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Retitled Alibi, this adaptation eventually opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre on 15 May 1928, having been written by Michael Morton and directed by Gerald du Maurier. Christie had disliked many of Morton’s ideas — he wanted to make Poirot 20 years younger and a hearthrob — and resented having other people allowed to alter her story. Still, overall she enjoyed the process of seeing her work make it to the stage, and vowed to do it herself next time.
However, it is the existence of Alibi and the many other adaptations of Christie’s work for the stage that as not written by her, Julius says, that helps to muddy the waters around the extent of her theatrical achievements.
Of course, the whole thing was a bit confused by the fact that other people were adapting her books before her first performed play of her own. And of course, after she became a playwright in her own right, and I think this is one of the reasons why there’s some confusion. I think, if people see a play by Agatha Christie, they assume it’s adapted from one of her books by somebody else whereas, in fact, she wrote, several plays herself, and many of the plays she wrote were actually original plays rather than adaptations of novels.
She began writing what would become her own first play, Black Coffee, the year after Alibi premiered. It’s an original story, not based on any previous work. And in what would become an unusual decision for her, it has Hercule Poirot as its central character.
Surprisingly, when she adapts a Poirot novel, she always cuts the character of Poirot. Her first play was Black Coffee, which was an original Poirot story, which you won’t find as a novel or short story anywhere. She tended to dislike actors’ very flamboyant portrayals of the character and thought that the actors playing Poirot always distracted from the storyline and the other characters that she was interested in.
Time and time again, when turning some of her best known Poirot stories, like Death on the Nile, The Hollow and Appointment with Death, Christie reorganised them so that her famous Belgian detective was nowhere to be seen. While this might sound like a bizarre decision from a marketing point of view — who cuts their most famous asset from a new adaptation? — it was the right one to make from a theatrical standpoint, as Julius explains.
Julius: I think the problem is, she is she is actually correct. When you think about it, having a star detective on stage pulls focus in an extraordinary way because in a novel, and even in the film, or on on TV, on film and TV, the director can cut away from Poirot even if he’s in the room, or he can focus the camera so that it’s something Poirot is looking at, whereas in the theatre, if Poirot’s on stage you’re looking at Poirot.
But of course, the minute Poirot walks on stage, whether it’s Suchet, Robert Powell, Jason Doherty, everybody just looks at that performer, that person, whereas what they should be looking at is what somebody else is doing, you know, in the corner that Poirot is looking at, so it distracts from the process of the audience being able to piece together the storyline, you know, we’re focused on the wrong thing. And she realised that so I don’t honestly think there’s a great deal to be gained by reintroducing Poirot.
Caroline: It’s a good rule of thumb, actually — if you find yourself watching a so called “Agatha Christie” play and it stars Hercule Poirot but isn’t Black Coffee, you can be fairly sure that she didn’t write it.
Caroline: Although some of her theatrical successes came with adaptations of existing novels and short stories, plenty — like The Mousetrap — were original plots. And some of her plays weren’t even in the crime or thriller genre at all.
Julius: She has original plays like Spider’s Web, like Verdict, like A Daughter’s A Daughter, which, you know, in many ways, because they’re not adapted from anything are as exercises in playwriting, probably the most satisfactory of her works as a dramatist. And she very much liked Verdict, which was actually a flop. But in many ways, it’s one of the most accomplished plays. And perhaps the most accomplished piece of playwriting is A Daughter’s A Daughter, which of course, is what one would call a Mary Westmacott book, and a non crime fiction work which people assume is adapted from her Mary Westmacott novel of the same title. But in fact, the book was adapted from the play, interestingly, that’s the only time that happened that way.
Caroline: Mary Westmacott was Christie’s non crime pseudonym — I’ve done a whole episode about the books that she wrote under this name if you’re interested, just scroll back in your podcast app to find it. Starting with Giant’s Bread in 1930, she produced six novels that were credited to this pseudonym, that sometimes get categorised as “romance” but which I think are best described as domestic drama. That’s the same style that she employed for this play A Daughter’s A Daughter, which Julius rates as one of his absolute favourites, and which he thinks hints at what her play writing career could have looked like if she had had no pre existing obligations as a crime writer.
Julius: It’s a really accomplished play, very like a Terence Rattigan play. In fact, a lot of the critics who were seeing it, of course, for the first time, commented on the fact that, you know, it was right up there with Rattigan. So if if she hadn’t been sort of strong armed by publishers and producers into making a career as a crime novelist and a detective and crime playwright, her career trajectory, or career path as a playwright might have been very different. Because you know, what, something like A Daughter’s A Daughter shows is a frame of reference that is very separate very outside of the crime genre. It’s an extraordinary domestic drama, and I encourage anyone who gets a chance to see any production of it to see it.
Caroline: While awareness of works like this is relatively low, among theatre producers there is still interest in producing Christie’s plays, almost fifty years after her death.
Julius: So there’s a big appetite for still for, I think her key works. Bill Kenwright a few years ago presented the West End premiere of A Daughter’s A Daughter a few years back, that had only ever had one week of performances at the Theatre Royal, Bath in the 1950s. So yeah, people are still very, very interested. I mean, unfortunately, what people tend to want to do is to make new adaptations of the novels now or to readapt the plays, but I do encourage producers to look at the original work.
Caroline: Julius has been involved in several staged readings like the one of The Stranger that will take place at the International Agatha Christie Festival next month — in one case, a performance of a play called The Lie lead to a commission to adapt it into a radio play that was aired for the first time in August 2020.
Given his experience bringing these unknown plays to the stage, in many cases for the first time, I as curious to know whether they stood up for a modern audience as she wrote them, or if modifications are needed.
Julius: If we go back to the original scripts, as she originally wrote them, they very much stand up to date. Of course, you know, what you can’t really do is update them. Because if you introduced a mobile phone, the storyline would, you know, The Mousetrap, it wouldn’t work. And certainly with most of them, particularly And Then There Were None. So it’s a bit like Noel Coward plays, they work very much if you stage them in their time. And you know, early Alan Ayckbourn plays are now being staged as period pieces, which work very, very well, because you can understand, you can understand The Mousetrap, if it’s set in the 1950s, you can understand Witness for the Prosecution if it’s set in the 1950s. There’s no point really in updating a Noel Coward play any more than there is an Agatha Christie play. Maybe in hundreds of years time, one could update them. Shakespeare works perfectly well updated, but I think there needs to be more time elapsed in real time before that sort of exercise is undertaken.
Caroline: When I finished university, I moved to London wanting to be a writer. I lived there for nearly nine years before leaving to pursue a more rural life up north. But on my last proper night in the capital, I went to see The Mousetrap. I’d read a lot about it, of course, but as is so often the case when you live in a big city with an endless array of culture to consume, I’d never quite got round to buying a ticket. And then when I finally went, even though it was a humid Thursday evening in August, the theatre was absolutely packed, and everyone was clearly having a great time. As well as the play itself, there’s lots of photographs and memorabilia you can peruse around the theatre during the interval, and it does feel a bit like you’re in a time capsule or a museum as well as just out for the night to see a play.
But once you’re in your seat and the lights go down, the story that Christie crafted doesn’t feel dated or tired. It’s a neat, compact, devastating drama, and amid all the other reasons why it has kept running for so many decades, you’re reminded of the most fundamental one — it’s just a really good play.
Best of all, the appearance of a woman pushing a vacuum cleaner across the stage in the middl eofthe play still gets a big laugh, just as Agatha intended.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Julius Green. His wonderful and comprehensive book on the subject Agatha Christie: A Life in Theatre is available in all good booksellers and you can catch him at the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay on 18th September giving a talk about “Poirot on Stage”. The staged reading of The Stranger that we talked about is on 17th September at the Palace Theatre in Paignton.
Links to these events plus all the books and sources mentioned are in the description text for this episode and at shedunnitshow.com/thetheatricalworldofagathachristie. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence and independence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Members will, for instance, shortly be able to hear a longer version of my interview with Julius, packed with all of the Christie theatrical trivia that I couldn’t fit into this episode. To hear that, sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Many thanks to the new members we’ve welcomed in August so far: Catharine, Charles, Cathy, Sally, Trina, Grace, Kara, Kelly, L Molloy, Hayley and Jill, I look forward to discussing our book for this month, John Bude’s Death on the Riviera, with you. If you’d like to join us, there’s still time! shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.