The Lost (and Found) Plays of Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is the world’s bestselling fiction author. She’s also the twentieth century’s most successful female playwright. With fans around the world still enjoying her work, one might think that even with such a prodigious body of work, it would be well-nigh impossible for something she wrote to be lost for decades. Unfortunately, it is possible for works by Agatha Christie to vanish from the public eye. Fortunately, several long-lost Christie plays are finally being made available to the general public– and to theater companies looking to put on Christie plays that have previously been seen by only a select few audiences.
The story of Agatha Christie’s play Chimneys is sure to raise a few eyebrows. Christie wrote Chimneys at the very start of her playwriting career following the success of her first original stage play in 1930, a spy thriller entitled Black Coffee which featured Hercule Poirot. The following year, Christie’s dramatization of her novel The Secret of Chimneys, using the simpler title of the final word, was scheduled to make its London debut, but for reasons that are not known, the theatre decided to put on a different play in its place.
It is unknown if Christie made any more attempts to get Chimneys brought to the stage. Indeed, it is not clear if she even had a copy of the play available. According to some reports, Christie’s personal copy of Chimneys vanished at some point when she was abroad. Around seventy years later, John Paul Fischbach of Calgary, Alberta in Canada was looking for a little-known Christie play to open the inaugural season of the Vertigo Mystery Theatre. Accounts of how this momentous discovery was made vary– some say Fischbach found a badly battered copy of Chimneys full of Christie’s handwritten annotations buried in a long-forgotten slush pile of plays in Canada, while other news reports say that a long-forgotten copy was found in a file in the British Library.
In any event, Fischbach asked Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard for permission to produce Chimneys, and the play made its debut in Canada in 2003. Three years later, a Scottish company gave Chimneys its European debut, and the 2008 International Mystery Writers’ Festival in Kentucky also staged a production, which won several awards at the Festival. A decade passed without much more attention, but now Chimneys is finally being published and made available to a wide audience.
Ahknaton is Christie’s only foray into historical drama. It is the story of the idealistic Pharaoh Akhnaton, who seeks to convert Egypt to his monotheistic sun-worship religion, and his inability to address the social, spiritual, and political turmoil he creates by neglecting other matters of state. Eventually his relationships with family and friends are all strained, and rebellion threatens to completely destroy his legacy. It was never performed during her lifetime, due in part to the fact that producers were wary of launching a production under the Christie name that wasn’t a traditional murder mystery, and in part because it is a massive play to undertake, featuring nearly a dozen different sets and about twenty roles. Christie wrote the play in the mid-1930’s and edited it at least once during her life, but realized early on that it was unlikely to be staged. Shortly before she died, the play was published, but productions of Ahknaton were rare and performed only by small, obscure companies. Indeed, many people are either unaware that it exists or under the mistaken impression that it is a dramatization of her historical whodunit Death Comes as the End. At a time when Christie’s Egypt-set works is getting plenty of attention with a new big screen adaptation of Death of the Nile in pre-production-, Akhnaton is waiting for an ambitious theatre company with the resources to create a dazzling stage spectacle, featuring elaborate ancient Egyptian sets and costumes, and the skilled actors who can make this epic play a night at the theatre that few audience members will forget.
Christie started writing her own stage versions of her plays because she did not care for other people’s takes on her work; so it is ironic that midway through her dramatic career adaptations of two of Christie’s works by other playwrights were favored over Christie’s own versions.
The Stranger, based on Christie’s acclaimed short story “Philomel Cottage,” is the story of a young woman who decides that true happiness comes from taking a risk with the dashing paramour who whisks into her life and sweeps her off her feet, rather than with the staid, steady fiancé who does not evoke the same level of passion. After a whirlwind courtship, the young woman hopes for wedded bliss, her new husband promises her excitement, and the former fiancé pines for the woman he still loves. But as the drama unfolds, it’s revealed that one member of the love triangle is a serial killer who is poised to strike again…
When Frank Vosper fell in love with the story, he decided the best way to perform it was to write the adaptation himself. This led to Love From a Stranger. The show was a hit, leading to multiple productions and film and television adaptations. While The Stranger and Love from a Stranger keep the same plotline, Christie’s take on her own story fleshes out the characterizations in deeper directions, and with substantially different dialogue.
Comparably, Agatha Christie’s own adaptation of her novel Towards Zero, featuring a murder and an attempt to frame an innocent person for that crime, has been overshadowed by Gerald Verner’s adaptation of the book. Verner’s play is set inside the seaside manor, while Christie set her play on the manor’s terrace. The characterizations, romantic pairings, and several dramatic points are substantially different, and Christie, as is often the case, brings a creative and innovative approach to her adaptations that other authors often fail to achieve.
The Stranger and Christie’s own version of Towards Zero (published as the Outdoor Version) sat quietly in the Christie Archives for years, but now theatres can finally present Christie’s preferred approach to her classic mysteries.
Fiddlers Three is a much-revised Christie play (an early version was called Fiddlers Five) that only received a brief production late in Christie’s life and has not been published until now. Fiddlers Three is a farce, featuring assumed identities, a massive inheritance based on a bizarre wager, and a corpse whose time of death has been changed in the hopes of cashing in on an enormous amount of money.
Now, theaters around the world have the chance to produce a long-lost Christie play, along with the proud declaration that the play is having its debut in their city, state, province, or even country!
To discover more from Agatha Christie, click here.