Agatha Christie also added 'playwright'
to her resume, having written a few originals while also adapting many her of
books. Just a handful plays were actually not adapted by her (Alibi, Peril
at End House, and Murder at the Vicarage).
The play Alibi
was the first play of Agatha Christie's, based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
It was directed by Sir Gerald du Maurier in 1928 and starred Charles Laughton as
Poirot. She didn't exactly approve of Poirot in the play and thought she'd try her own
hand at writing plays.
Her first play was Black Coffee in 1930 which was
fairly successful. So much so that a movie version was made in 1931 starring
Austin Trevor as a clean-shaven Poirot (Trevor had also portrayed Poirot already
in the film version of Alibi). Peril at End House was adapted by
Arthur Ridley and premiered in 1940, starring Francis L. Sullivan as Poirot. In
1949, Murder at the Vicarage was presented at the Playhouse Theatre in
London; it was adapted by Moie Charles and Barbara Toy. As far as I can tell,
Akhnaton is the only one that has not been produced.
Love from a Stranger & Ten Little Indians
Love from a Stranger (1936) is a play based on the excellent short story
"Philomel Cottage" from the collections The Listerdale Mystery
(and Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories). The next year, it was made
into a movie starring Basil Rathbone (the first film made in England of an
Agatha Christie work).
The novel Ten Little Niggers was adapted by
Christie for the stage in 1943 with a different ending, one that was more
romantic. The stage adaptation carried the same name in the UK, but was changed
to Ten Little Indians in the US (opening a year later). Agatha Christie
believed there was too much fuss and absurdity over the change of the title "Ten
Little Niggers": it was a nursery rhyme that children chanted innocently for
some 100+ years (even "Ten Little Indians" was a totally different tune). The four movies
on the play (set in different locales) kept the happier ending rather than the
one in the novel. I have seen a production of Ten Little Indians at a
community college once, and it remains one of my happiest days.
Murder on the Nile & The Hollow
Murder on the Nile is the play adapted from the Poirot novel Death
on the Nile, which opened in 1949 at the Ambassadors Theatre in London. For
US audiences, the play was re-titled Hidden Horizon (an ok title, but why
was it changed who knows). Next came the stage version of the Poirot novel The
Hollow, which opened in 1951. Something interesting here is the omission
of Hercule Poirot's character in the play. Speaking of the novel, Christie once
said "I had ruined [the novel] by the introduction of Poirot." I guess she
thought she'd do it the right way when adapting the play.
The Mousetrap, 1952
Program for a production of The Mousetrap in 2001, in the United States.
The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the world. It had its world premiere at
the Theatre Royal, in Nottingham on October 6 1952. It opened in November 1952 at the Ambassadors
Theatre in London and included the famous English actor and director Richard Attenborough and his
wife amongst the cast. In 1974 it opened in the larger St. Martin's Theatre next door. It had not
missed a performance until March 2020 due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. Performances have not
The play itself has a little history. Originally,
it was titled Three Blind Mice and it was a twenty-minute radio play
written by Agatha Christie in 1947. That play was written by the request of the
royal family of England for Queen Mary's 80th birthday and was broadcast by the
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). The play later became a short story
(same title) and was included in the short story collection Three Blind Mice
and Other Stories, published only in the US. This short story was then
rewritten into the world famous play.
The play tells the story of Giles and Mollie Ralston who run an old manor house
converted into a guesthouse. In the middle of the winter, a murder elsewhere links
to the manor. Guests arrive shortly after, but everyone is trapped there with a
killer during a snowstorm.
Witness for the Prosecution, 1953
Christie adapted her short story "Witness for the Prosecution" for the stage. The story was orginally published as "Traitor's Hands" in a magazine in 1925 but was published in 1933 as "Witness for the Prosecution". Christie
had altered her ending (which she had described as her favorite play) because she felt it worked better in the stage setting. She had refused the play being made if the producer Peter Saunders (same who produced The
Mousetrap) went with the original story's ending. It opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in London on October 23, 1953 and had a run of 458 performances. In the US, it opened in New York December 16, 1954 for 645
performances. Actor Francis L. Sullivan won the Tony Award for his Broadway performance for Witness when he starred with the original cast. This same actor had portrayed Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's plays
Black Coffee and Peril at End House.
This expanded play was also made into a successful film in 1957 and had a wide release in 1958. It was directed by Billy Wilder and starred Charles Laughton (the first to play Poirot on stage), Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone
Power. It was a huge success, commercially and artistically, and was nominated for six Academy Awards.
Spider's Web, 1954
Spider's Web is an original play written by Christie which was opened on December 14, 1954 at the Savoy Theatre in London after a brief tour that began in Nottingham. Christie wrote this comedy-thriller to provide a
role for the actress Margaret Lockwood. Lockwood had asked if a part be written for Wilfrid Hyde White. Lockwood loved the part Christie had written for her; Mr. Hyde White had turned down the role. She plays a diplomat's wife
attempting to identify the murderer of a body she found in her drawing room; at the same time, she tries to disguise the murder itself. Although an original play by Christie, it utilizes some plot devices from her other stories.
What's of interesting note is that the Jane Marple mystery The Moving Finger had a working title of "The Spider's Web". Most recently, there was a staged reading of the play that included actor Derek Jacobi amongst the
cast at Riverside Studios in London on December 9, 2020. Amazingly, when it was originally produced Spider's Web was running simultaneously in the West End at the same time of The Mousetrap and Witness for
the Prosecution. Not just the Queen of Crime, but Agatha Christie was the Queen of West End.
A word about this period of Agatha Christie's career. She certainly loved the theater and she obviously caught "the theater bug". Christie biographer Gwen Robyns said in The Mystery of Agatha Christie that why she could
"produce a script at such a short notice, despite her book commitments, was the ease with which she wrote and her enormous reservoir of ideas". Yes, indeed. She could either produce a new book or play and the plot would still be
a clever and original one. Of the nineteen Christie plays produced, she wrote thirteen herself and six were book adaptations. In a week's time, a theater goer would have been able to see three Christie plays. Surely, Christie had
"the bug". Agatha was a "hot property" in the West End, so she continued to produce scripts.
Towards Zero, 1956
However, in the meantime, others were interested in dramatising her stories on stage. In 1956, the play Towards Zero came on the scene, which Christie herself adapted (in collaboration with writer Gerald Verner). It
came from the 1944 novel with the same name and it even kept the detective of the story in the play, Superintendent Battle. It opened in London at St James's Theatre (it was demolished in 1957) on September 4, 1956 and the play
was in production for six months and Queen Elizabeth attended one evening unannounced. It was not performed across the Atlantic in the US. A critic for The Times had complained mildly that "the tempo imposed on [Christie]
by the three-act drama is ... just a little too swift for Miss Christie's bewildering cunning."
Another original play is Verdict, written in 1958 and performed at the Strand Theatre. It focuses on the plight of Professor Karl Hendryk and the women around him. Helen wants to be tutored by him (she loves him
utterly), Lisa the physicist who takes care of his invalid wife wants attention (she loves him utterly), and his wife Anya is depressed about her condition (she loves him, too). Well, Anya is murdered and Helen confesses to
Hendryk that she killed Anya so that they can be "free" to love. The police come over and arrest Lisa the physicist through evidence of the maid. The police would question Helen, but Helen is murdered, too! What's the verdict
for Lisa (or Karl)? Agatha says this about her play: "I still think it is the best play I have written, with the exception of Witness for the Prosecution. It failed, I think, because it was not a detective story or a
thriller. It was a play that concerned murder."
Indeed it did fail. Audiences didn't like the fact that there was a corpse in the play, but no mystery surrounding it. In its first performance (with Christie in attendance), the audience was unresponsive, and so the stage
crew got flustered and the acting faltered a little. The first performance ended with the curtain descending even before the final lines of the play were delivered; what followed was booing from the crowd. Christie said later,
"I tried to write a play of character, but I can see I failed. I had thought to make Verdict my last play, but you can't go out on a failure. So I'll try again." What followed was the excellent The Unexpected
Guest, discussed below.
The Unexpected Guest, 1958
Another original play of the author's is The Unexpected Guest, which premiered in 1958 and once again produced by Peter Saunders. It opened in Bristol first, and moved and opened at the Duchess Theatre in the West
End on August 12, having 606 performances. There was no production of the play in the United States at that time. This great play was so successful that it made the theater-going public forget about the unpopular previous play,
Verdict. The cold reception for Verdict must have done something to Christie. Within one month of Verdict's opening, Christie had already written another script. Christie biographer Gwen Robyns nicknamed
the author and playwright a "word factory". Robyns said that Christie was absent for the first reading with the cast, something she frequently attened. Christie was at home instead, making raspberry jam. Christie had much faith
that this latest play would be a success compared to the last, and clearly didn't need to be present at the latest reading.
The play begins with Michael Starkwedder, our play's "unexpected guest", coming to a house for help when dense fog causes him to drive his car into a ditch. He enters the study finding a woman, Laura Warwick, standing
over the dead body of her husband with a gun in her hand. One writer, Derrick Murdoch, said "[The Unexpected Guest's] last twenty minutes constitute a crescendo of theatrical bravura." This two-act
play was one of three written into novel form by the theatrical and Christie expert Charles Osborne.
Go Back for Murder, 1960
Go Back for Murder is the play Christie adapted from the Poirot novel Five Little Pigs (1946). Appropriately, the play's title more closely resembles the novel's American title, Murder in
Retrospect. The play opened on March 23, 1960 at the Duchess Theatre in London. It was again produced by Peter Saunders. There was no American production for this play. Again, Poirot's character was removed from the play; the
character of Justin Fogg, a young lawyer, takes his place. Go Back for Murder was the last of Christie's plays that she adapted herself.
Rule of Three, 1962
It is not known to me whether Rule of Three has been produced since 1962. Christie presented the play as three one-act plays. These mini-plays were titled The Rats, The Patient, and Afternoon at
the Seaside. In The Rats, a young woman and man she loves are trapped in a missing host's house--with the young woman's dead husband in a box, with the Kurdish knife that killed him. The Patient takes place
in a hospital ward where a woman lies paralyzed, after having fallen off the balcony. The police inspector has the girl answer questions about the would-be murderer through a series of yes/no questions, and she reveals the culprit
is . . . and the woman faints. The murderer needs to silence her before she tells more! In Afternoon at the Seaside, someone steals an emerald necklace at the beach and it is up to the inspector to find out who did it. It
could be Bob, the life of the party, or the girl flirting with him, Noreen. Or is it the two couples sitting near the couple and complaining about girls wearing bikinis?