The Queen of Crime’s Crown Jewel
Over the course of her life, Agatha Christie wrote approximately 72 novels, in addition to numerous plays and short stories. With the notable exception of six romances, the vast majority of these works were mysteries, thereby earning their author her title as “Queen of Crime.” In 1971, she received another title, that of Dame, from Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. The only individual more widely published than Dame Christie is Shakespeare, and the only book more widely translated than her writings is the Bible. She is listed in record books as the best-selling novelist in history.
Of all these popular novels, Christie’s most successful – and thus the most successful mystery ever – is the one we know as And Then There Were None. This book has also been called Ten Little Indians, since Christie based it around a nursery rhyme of the same name (as she did this with several other works too). Several years after the novel’s release in 1939, Christie rewrote it as a play and changed the ending primarily to make it more palatable for audiences, though the new outcome was also consistent with an earlier version of the rhyme. In this performance by the Peninsula Players, each ‘Indian’ in the poem and in the island’s name was switched to the more generic ‘soldier,’ for reasons of respect.
The story begins on an island off the coast of Christie’s own hometown, Torquay in Devon, when the unknown Mrs. Owen invites ten strangers to stay at her home under various pretexts. They all arrive as scheduled, but their host herself is mysteriously detained. That evening, the butler plays a record on the gramophone. When he does, a terrible voice booms out accusations of murder against every person present. It also declares justice to come. Later that evening, the first victim seemingly chokes to death after taking a sip of his drink; in fact, they discover, it was poisoned with potassium cyanide.
After one more death, the characters realize they have been fated to follow the pattern of the gruesome poem above the mantle, which begins:
Ten little soldier boys went out to dine
One choked his little self, and then there were nine.
Nine little soldier boys stayed up very late
One overslept himself, and then there were eight.
The couplets continue in the same fashion, and so do the corresponding deaths of the island guests. Every time a guest disappears, so does a soldier figurine from the mantle, until, you may presume from the play’s name, at last there are none.
The tension rises when the remaining guests determine, after searching all over the house and grounds, that no one else is there. The killer, they reason, must be one of them. Unlike many of Christie’s calmer crime-solving detective stories, this tale is an indisputable thriller: it is agonizing to watch the characters on stage struggle to save themselves, especially when you’re watching as professional a group as the Players. With their talent, you don’t often have the chance to remember that it’s only acting, and certain images may haunt you even after leaving the theater – one man rushing excitedly toward the stairs, thinking he sees a boat on the shore, but meeting his death instead; another character frantically trying to escape but finding every door locked; finally, a paralyzed victim’s eyes, as she dies, following the one whom she now knows to be the villain.
The play, however, is not without its lighter moments too, even after the deaths have begun. At one point, the fierce Emily Brent is reading aloud a passage from the Psalms about the dark destructions which sinners bring upon themselves, when the butler approaches and interrupts her: “Breakfast is ready,” he announces dryly, drawing a laugh from the audience.
According to Christie, And Then There Were None was the most difficult of all her books to write. One would imagine, then, that the play would be a similar challenge to direct. In a Q & A Session after the play, director Linda Fortunato characterized the play as a puzzle for her to fit together, just as it is a puzzle for us to figure out. She is charged with moving people around on stage in precisely the right way, so that even the most careful viewer can neither single out the killer, nor entirely count him out. One of the actors, Matt Holzfiend, mentioned part of Fortunato’s method – she reads through the script all the way through, focusing on only one character at a time, for each and every one of them.
Those who stayed for the Q and A session also learned many other interesting tidbits, from where the disappearing figurines go, to what careers the performers considered beside theater. Erica Elam, Vera in this play and Sammy in The Tin Woman, was a poetry major in college. “This was my fallback,” she says before continuing with a smile, “It seemed more practical.”
Though presented in a country theater, this production displays an acting caliber fit for the grandest cities. It is not only one of the world’s most popular mystery story, but also one with an unusually high number of deaths. Thus in more ways than one, as I heard a performer quip after the show, you’re bound to get “more bang for your buck” with the Peninsula Player’s rendition of And Then There Were None.