Last night was opening night for And Then There Were None, which I directed at the high school where I have been teaching drama for the past twenty-four years. I have been living with this production in my head for the past twelve months, and I approached it with mixed feelings of excitement and concern.
Agatha Christie has been a part of my life since I was eleven, when I grabbed a copy of Ten Little Indians off the paperback carousel in a local drugstore. Christie is my favorite mystery author, the only one I feel I can speak about with some authority.
Professionally, I have included her in my school curriculum by creating an annual playwriting project for my drama students where they create a “fair play” detective story, dramatize and perform it. The project takes the form of a contest: the group who plays fairest and manages to fool the most audience members wins a prize for each member. That prize, naturally, is a novel by Agatha Christie.
I produce two musicals and a play at school every year. And Then There Were None is the fourth Christie drama I have staged, following The Hollow, The Mousetrap, and A Murder Is Announced (not written by Christie, actually – and it shows.) I enjoyed all three of those experiences, but I knew going in that this would be a special project and one fraught with challenges – ironically, because of the very material I would be working with.
ATTWN has the deserved reputation as one of the most original and successful mystery novels of all time. In addition to being a strong whodunit in the classic tradition, it ranks as a fine psychological horror story. Usually, Christie gives us Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to side with, which is always nice since, by 1939, the author has proven that we could trust nobody else in her novels. In ATTWN, there is no detective, just an island full of murderers, and frankly, they are without exception unpleasant and/or troubled people. Those of us with strong instincts of right and wrong may root for them to outwit the killer’s monstrous plan, while others may perversely support the murder’s lunatic ideas of justice. In the end, this story of ten people who learn that they cannot escape justice stands as one of Christie’s clearest indictments against those who transgress the commandment about killing others. Christie was always a strong defender of the death penalty, and she had explored this same theme of justice catching up with the wicked in an earlier novel, Murder on the Orient Express, which is more traditionally structured as a classic mystery than ATTWN, but is, in some ways, just as transgressive. And if you compare the solutions of both novels (and I will not do that here in deference to those who haven’t read them), the similarities are even more startling.
In a significant way, Christie’s 1943 play adaptation killed this delicious transgressive quality and reduced a complex morality tale to a charming but oddly flat mystery drama after Christie’s producers convinced her to change the novel’s ending. In 1943, London audiences evidently were not prepared, with the eleven o’clock fall of the curtain, to accept such darkness as ATTWN had to offer. Christie’s solution was to take the three characters who, in the novel, are the most guilty (thus reserving the greatest suffering for them), and created a pair of innocent lovers who foiled the villain and a comic relief buffoon of a policeman who spends most of the play searching, and consuming, vast amounts of food before he dies offstage.
When the novel was adapted into a film in 1945, director Rene Clair and screenwriter Dudley Nicholls had to contend with both the play’s ending and the film censors, and so the horrors of the novel were further excised. The play’s happy ending was made even clearer by eliminating any ambiguity regarding Philip Lombard’s fate, and Nicholls replaced the child victims of Anthony Marston and Vera Claythorne and the pregnant teenager driven to suicide by Emily Brent with less objectionable victims. The film is charming and eminently watchable. Yet it is also brimming with comic business that is constantly at war with the story and the tone that story should set. The casting emphasizes this: two comical music hall actors, Queenie Leonard and Richard Haydn, playing the Rogerses like a sitcom couple, and the Doctor and the Judge are portrayed like a variation on Caldicott and Charters from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, with one possessing a high Irish brogue and the other a tendency to tipple from the flask.
I’m also not a huge fan of the score by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco – too whimsical by far – but Lucien Andriot’s cinematography is beautiful, and Rene Clair’s direction, while it too often goes for the laugh, also ratchets up the suspense and keeps the action moving in places where the play often seems static. So much information at the start is conveyed wordlessly, replacing the endless exposition of the play’s first act. Clearly, Clair understands how to use the tools of his art medium in order to adapt a stage play to film. I would recommend this film to anyone, but I would also advise that this is but a shadow of the novel and that, by virtue of its happy ending, it reduces a highly original tale to just another “old dark house” mystery movie, albeit one of the very best of these. (I mention the film also because I include it as part of the celebration of 1945 over at Past Offenses.)
They say confession is good for the soul, so here I must confess that as soon as I determined that I would direct ATTWN, I was resolved to restore the original ending and the dark tone of the novel. (This is not actually something you are allowed to do, so don’t try it at home!) I was spurred even after watching the recent BBC production which, while taking a few liberties that some viewers found enlightening and enjoyable and others found offensive and an affront to Christie’s moral sensibilities, hewed closely to the original’s spirit. (You can read my review of that production here.) Modern audiences do not tend to shy away from the downbeat, so I felt they could handle the negative characters and their tragic fate.
Yet the problems with making this change proved to be staggering. First, the finale: you can’t strictly adhere to the novel’s original ending which, while brilliant in the literary sense, is inherently incapable of being dramatized without adding significant stage time and a wealth of new characters and settings. In the play as it stands, the murderer springs out of a room and explains everything to a character who, by the novel’s standards, should already be dead. Then another character springs to life and the murderer’s hopes of success are dashed. The only real way transgressors of this “happy” ending have had of “restoring” the original tone is to keep this scene and simply not have Lombard rise from the dead, then allow Vera to take the killer’s words to heart and hang herself.
And there’s more: reading through the script, I was struck by the fact that, no matter how you end it, the play generates very little real suspense and all but eliminates the sense of what happens to a group of strangers when a live scorpion is dropped in their tank. And so I compounded my crime by going back to the novel and interpolating some of the original dialogue into the play script. Now I could bring in the doubt that creeps into Emily Brent’s religious certainty, I could make Blore a more credible suspect by eliminating some of his buffoonery, and I could re-insert the dark moral center in Vera Claythorne’s heart, something that Christie had removed when she decided that Vera should be the innocent hero of a tale that has no heroes. The end result was, I admit, an uneasy hybrid, yet I felt that in some fashion, I was being truer to the characters than Christie had allowed herself to be in 1943, and I was using the author’s own words to do so.
With my amended script in hand, I set about casting the show, and there I ran into the problem that any other high school drama teacher who happens to read this will sympathize with: where were the boys? I had seven male roles to cast, and after the dust settled on auditions, I had five males to choose from! Having long toyed with the idea of turning Rogers the butler into Rogers the housekeeper (shades of Genet’s The Maids), I then faced a difficult question: which other character could I transform in terms of gender? Not Lombard or the General, for obvious reasons! Blore, too, was distinctly male: brutal and stupid. That left the Doctor or the Judge. I knew that there were female doctors in the 1930’s (remember Appointment With Death?), and I had it on pretty good authority that there were no female judges. Yet, for every purpose except historical accuracy, and because of the strong actresses I had, it made greater sense dramatically for the Judge to be played by a woman. The idea of a doctor succumbing to drink, as well as his arc of regressing to a nervous wreck throughout the play worked better for a man; the figure of authority who tries to maintain order and had to deal with a certain underlying patronizing attitude from the men in the room for being the only female in a world a males worked here for me. And so I moved forward.
One other small but, as I write this, significant point: the novel’s original title is too offensive for any taste, and so years ago, the title and setting were changed to “Indian Island.” However, in the U.S. the term “Indian” as it refers to Native Americans has been deemed similarly offensive, and the setting has undergone yet another name change, this time to Soldier Island. I went with this for the sake of ease, but it really doesn’t work when you think about it! The original name and the term “Indian” provide more fitting metaphors for the “otherness” of these ten murderer/victims than the suggestion of soldiers good and true. The characters in Christie’s novel do not behave like soldiers! Even the two soldiers do not behave like soldiers! Rather, they devolve into a pack of desperate animals (who nonetheless manage to stop for tinned tongue and tea at the proper hour), and the novel’s exploration into their rapidly deteriorating psychology and the fact that nobody in this tale gets off the hook for their crimes (the killer exacts punishment even against himself) has earned ATTWN its rightful status as one of the best mysteries of all time. Christie meant for us to think of these characters in a negative light, and the original titles (unfortunately) reflected that for the audiences of the time. The easy solution was to retain the alternate title, which I happen to prefer anyway. But the reference to our characters as soldiers will always make little sense to me.
As we rehearsed, the main challenge for my cast was to portray the high stakes of their predicament. Most young actors are mimics. They do not embrace any particular Acting Method, not having the life experience or the emotional bravery (or insanity, depending on what you think of Stanislavski) to accomplish this. In a way, their acting style is perfect for recreating a Golden Age mystery, where characters were generally conceived as types, painted in broad physical strokes and possessing no more than one or two distinctive emotional or psychological traits. Each of these actors had to imagine 35-year old soldier of fortune looks and acts like, or a 55-year-old spinster, or a successful doctor who has buried a drinking problem. My 17-year-old General MacKenzie had to rely on what he had observed of old men to create an onstage picture of that man. Then we had to work together to figure out how it would affect someone to hold in a secret for thirty years, one that had driven you to a lonely life after the loss of the only two people you ever loved – a loss that you yourself had engineered – and what would happen to you if that secret was unleashed.
The actors embraced these individual backstories fairly easily. It was the notion of being surrounded by death that provided our biggest challenges. Often, I would stop rehearsal to remind them that someone had just dropped dead of poison in front of them. None of my actors had ever seen a person get murdered before, which is lucky for them but wreaks havoc with an actor’s process! The play doesn’t make this easy by compressing three days of action into two hours of performance. Rogers the butler and Emily Brent are murdered within a minute of each other. How do you deal with this compounding of experience? How different does the sixth discovery of a dead body feel from the third? You can’t just ratchet up the hysteria! Each character has a different arc, and it has to unspool. My Doctor Armstrong and I discussed how his clothing could help him with the unraveling of his state of well-being and, truth to tell, his confession of murder didn’t come alive until we got to dress rehearsal and he had regressed from a neat three-piece suit to a rumpled jacket and crooked, loose necktie.
Adding the design elements was great fun! It was important to resist any desire to plant a gloomy haunted house onstage; Christie makes it clear that the mansion on the hill is the epitome of clean, spare modernity. It begins as a pleasant place in terms of décor and weather, and it ends the same way, albeit with ten dead bodies filling up the rooms. I worked with a wonderful student musician who composed thrilling music, and my sound designer layered this with continual sounds of the ocean. An old friend played The Voice that accuses the guests, and I haunted Vera – with Cyril Hamilton’s ghostly pleas to swim out to the rock – and Emily Brent – with a flash of the dead Beatrice Taylor, dripping wet in the storm.
As I said, last night was opening night, and you want to know what happened? From the first strains of music, you could feel a palpable sense of unease settle upon the audience. I worried that the opening scene, chock-full of exposition, would lose them, but they remained silent and alert. Then Anthony Marston choked to death on a cyanide cocktail, and the lights faded to murmurs and nervous giggling. At the end of Act One, when Philip Lombard exclaimed that General MacKenzie had been stabbed on the patio, and the curtain fell after the Judge led them to the conclusion that the killer had to be one of them, the crowd walked into the lobby buzzing with theories.
At the start of Act II, Beatrice Taylor made her appearance, and eighty people screamed (the rest laughed at the screamers!) You could feel the sense of dread growing in the seats as, one after another, the guests were picked off. The tension mounted as the characters turned toward Miss Brent in her chair, knowing without speaking that she must be dead. The lights popped up as the Judge was discovered with a bullet hole in her forehead, and the crowd sighed. As Lombard says in the play, “Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop!” – and everyone but Vera was dead. She clutched the last soldier boy in her hand and prepared to run off and be married . . . and then the faint tinkle of laughter was heard. It grew . . . the door slowly opened . . . the killer slid into the room . . . and EVERYBODY SCREAMED!
Needless to say, I had a marvelous night. I hope that, despite my tampering, Dame Agatha would have been pleased.