Curtain Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in the Theatre (2015) by Julius Green

This book has the unfavourable title as the book that has been on my TBR pile the longest and yes I do have to admit that the page count being nearly 600 pages did demotivate me a bit in getting started. But with a lot of train time to kill this past weekend and the fact I was going to be watching another Agatha Christie play, made me decide now was the time to slay the dragon or at the very least lop a few limbs off it, before going in for the kill when I got home. It’s certainly novel to describe the reading process as a dragon based fight, but I do assure you it was a good read nevertheless.

Given the page span and the sheer amount of information Green packs in to his book, I cannot share or comment on all of it but the book works in a chronological fashion from Christie’s early attempts at playwriting in 1908 until her last one in 1972, covering scripts which were unpublished and unperformed as well. As well as providing data about all of these pieces, Green also seeks to explore how her published and performed plays were perceived at the time, what made them fail or succeed and this topic was probably the one which interested me the most within the book. We also get to see what Christie thought of the playwriting process as well.

In keeping with previous posts about non-fiction works on mystery fiction, I have rounded up the nuggets of information which piqued my interest the most…

 

  • Christie is ‘only female playwright to have had three of her works running in the West End simultaneously.’
  • I was also surprised by how far ranging her popularity as a playwright was, with licences for amateur and repertory companies ‘being issued from Iceland to Kenya.’
  • One of Christie’s early unpublished plays was Eugenia and Eugenics. Eugenia is ‘faced with an upcoming new law that will enforce eugenic philosophy by allowing only the physically and mentally perfect to marry,’ which leads to Eugenia taking ‘herself to what she believes to be a eugenics clinic advertising perfect partners.’ Chaos and humour no doubt ensue and Green comments that she ‘wittily subverts eugenic philosophy and underlines the importance of putting the heart first.’
  • Marmalade Moon, was another of her unpublished works, which involve 2 couples in a hotel. The first are two honeymooners and the other are celebrating one year of being divorced and from the extracts I read I think it would make for a good (now) vintage play.
  • Christie also wrote an unpublished adaptation of Arthur B. Reeve’s The Exploits of Elaine, in a play called The Clutching Hand. Green makes an interesting point following on from this about the influence of Reeve’s work on Christie’s earlier adventure thrillers such as The Secret Adversary, The Secret of Chimney and The Man in the Brown Suit, the latter of which was serialised with title, Anne the Adventurous.
  • Christie’s earlier work seems to tackle very specific contemporary social issues. Eugenia is one example, but she also takes on the marriage and divorce laws in The Lie, another unpublished piece, which looks at the growing romance between in laws. I never realised that there was actually a law against marrying your wife’s sister, even if the wife in question was dead!
  • And Then There Were None, was one of the plays Christie managed to get on the stage during WW2, a context I hadn’t really considered before, but one that Green makes some thoughtful comments about. Given the plot and setting of the play, the parallels between the play and the audience might have been one of the reasons why Christie felt she needed to change the ending to a happier one. As her audience too were effectively stuck on an island, where sudden and violent death was a possibility. In fact the production had to move to a different theatre temporarily when the one they were in sustained bomb damage. I was also quite intrigued by the information that ‘Dutch prisoners of war even staged their own dramatization at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.’
  • One alternative ending to Christie’s theatrical adaptation of Death on the Nile, which may or may not have been used on the opening night in Dundee involves Acts 2 and 3 being a vision of the future road Jackie could take, but in the end decides to walk away from. Those who know the novel’s plot will hopefully get my drift.
  • It was only in 1963 that the London Council for the Promotion of Public Morality officially recommended and said that children could go and watch The Mousetrap.
  • As I mentioned in my post yesterday, Christie took legal advice for Witness For The Prosecution and it was interesting to see the tensions between being legally accurate and being theatrically appealing. For instance one legal mind observed of the play ‘that evidence is given in half an act which normally takes a couple of days.’ Peter Saunders’ rebuttal is quite good: ‘I pointed out that the audience would get rather tired of sitting in the theatre for two days at a time.’

What Christie thought about writing plays

It definitely seems to be the case that Christie found it more fun, simpler and less restrictive to write plays than write her mystery novels. In fact she saw playwriting as a fun exercise, which was not her “job”. In particular she also mentions how she was ‘not hampered by all the description that clogs you so terribly in a book and stops you getting on with what’s happening.’ I also found it quite entertaining that Christie wanted to call The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, ‘The Man who grew Vegetable Marrow,’ yet she says ‘nobody would let me’! Hmm I wonder why…

How audiences and critics have responded to Christie’s work

Green is keen to stress how critically Christie has not been viewed too favourably overtime. At times her success as a novelist has played against her, whilst others have misread her characters. Interestingly she seems to have resided in a theatrical niche of her own, neither being mainstream, within the Beaumont group, but neither did she fit into the “angry young men” counter culture. Yet perhaps one of the biggest issues she had after the success of The Mouse Trap and Witness for the Prosecution, was type casting when it came to her writing, with audiences expecting all of her plays to be mystery whodunnits. Those that did not comfortably fit this mould, and there were many given Christie’s love of experimentation when writing her plays, were viewed unfavourably at the time. In fact the ending for No Fields of Amaranth a.k.a. Verdict was booed when first performed. The latter title which was the one which it was performed under, massively mis-sold the plot, with audience members expecting another legal drama.

Having now read the book and being much more aware of the variety of plays Christie penned, I agree with Green that there is ‘no such thing as a “typical” Agatha Christie play,’ – the variety really is immense. It probably didn’t also help Christie that often plays which were based on her work, but not written by her, were not always that good, yet negative criticism was still critically apportioned to Christie herself, despite her lack of involvement. It does somewhat bring home the fact that when adaptors fail they also damage the reputation of the original writer.

To round this section off I thought I would share with you the Observer theatre critic’s summing up of Black Coffee in 1930 – ‘Black Coffee is supposed to be a strong stimulant and powerful enemy of sleep. I found the title optimistic.’

Overall Thoughts

So what do I make of Christie’s theatrical career? I’ve enjoyed all of the Christie plays I have seen performed so far, yet to comment on her career overall I have to answer based on the book really. It seems to me that most of the plays mentioned in the book, which were performed and were written either by an adaptor or Christie herself, went awry in part, albeit due to poor acting, wrong timing culturally, mis-advertisement, Christie’s increasing age and changing of priorities, as well as the changes international companies made to the pieces. Her high point seems to have been in the 50s and I think a key part of this was her being more on the ball with those productions, attending rehearsals etc. That’s not to say she didn’t care about her future plays, but her passion for travelling around the world with Max did mean she had to forgo being more hands on. I equally wonder about two other factors:

  • Would she have had more out and out successes if she had her successes of the 50s in the 1930s? As when she had her big successes in the 50s she was in her 60s and I just wonder if she had had them sooner in her life, during her creative peak, would more have been forthcoming?
  • My second query is about her motivation for them doing. She wrote that play writing is ‘a glorious gamble every time and I liked it that way’ and it has to be said that her income/lifestyle was not dependent on her success as a playwright. Perhaps if she had not had the novels to fall back on and had to rely on her success as a playwright for a living, would she have approached her theatrical projects differently?

Nevertheless Green definitely shows how important Christie’s work was to theatre and her engagement with social and political issues and if you’re working on any academic writing to do with Christie’s plays then this is certainly the book to buy. Readers outside of this context may need find this a book more to dip into than to read cover to cover. I say this because I found that Green does include an excess of details at times. This of course shows how well researched it is, but it could be said there is a mass of information that the ordinary reader is not going to be hugely interested in. Equally certain bits of information do seem to get repeated throughout the book. I did also find the conclusion a little lacking in its overall analysis of Christie’s contribution to theatre, but then again this does allow you to make your own judgements on this. To end on a positive note I did enjoy the extracts Green included in the book, often from unpublished plays and one act pieces that Christie wrote, as it helped to fix the piece being talked about in your mind. It also shows how great Christie was at dialogue. The detail may have been a bit too much for me, at times, but it is hard not to see this book as a tour de force in the amount of material it covers and as definitive on the topic it discusses.

Rating: 4.25/5

7 comments

  1. A thoughtful review of Julius Green’s masterpiece. Together with John Curran’s two books and the overviews by Charles Osborne and Robert Bernard it is essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand Christie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is now legal to marry your late wife’s sister – the law was changed sometime in the past century. There is a detective story in which this is a major plot point – I won’t say which to avoid spoilers (although it wouldn’t be much of one, as the author doesn’t play fair about the issue).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “He shall prick that annual blister
    Marriage to deceased wife’s sister”
    – Iolanthe
    There’s a very entertaining – and interesting – discussion of attempts to legalise it in E.S. Turner’s Roads to Ruin: A Shocking History of Social Progress

    For some reason, marriage to deceased husband’s brother doesn’t seem to have cropped up so often, though it was the ostensible reason the CofE came into existence. In fact, the two had to be legalised under separate Acts of Parliament, with marriage to deceased husband’s brother coming later, no doubt in deference to Henry VIII. It’s another leftover from Leviticus. Probably the supporters of the ban thought the next thong would be legalising homosexuality.

    Adolphus Cusins in Major Barbara is a “foundling” [the nearest you could get to a bastard on the stage in 1905] because his mother was his father’s deceased wife sister and so their marriage was not then legal in England, though it was in other countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] It has been a busy month, attending the Bodies from the Library conference, as well as seeing two Agatha Christie plays: Love from a Stranger and Witness for the Prosecution. So I was quite pleased that I managed 14 mystery based reads, including two non-fiction books on crime fiction. Of these two the best was definitely Julius Green’s Curtain Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in Theatre (2015). […]

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