Mark Ludmon is impressed by Agatha Christie’s long-lost play, The Lie – part of a collection of recently discovered scripts.
She is best known for her crime novels but Agatha Christie also holds the record for being the most performed British female playwright of all time. With 30 plays to her name, she was the first woman to have three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End when, in the 1950s, The Mousetrap – later to become the longest-running play in London – was followed by Witness for the Prosecution and Spider’s Web. The extent of her output was fully realised only when theatre producer Julius Green discovered a cache of unpublished scripts while working on his book, Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre. Some of them are now in print from Samuel French as part of its Agatha Christie Collection, ranging from stage plays to scripts for radio and TV, but one currently remains unpublished: The Lie.
Believed to date from the mid-1920s, The Lie is a remarkable drama that deals with relationships that would have been scandalous for its time. In the style of a Naturalistic play of the late 19th century plus a dash of melodrama, it exposes the realities behind an apparently perfect suburban family, taking place over the course of one evening. Its subject of marital infidelity must have been especially personal for Christie who, by 1926, had discovered her first husband, Archie, was having an affair with a younger woman. After publishing her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring detective Hercule Poirot, in 1920 and becoming national headline news when she disappeared to a Harrogate hotel under a fake name in 1926, Christie may have felt The Lie would cause a sensation for all the wrong reasons.
After rescuing the play from the Agatha Christie archives, Green organised a one-off staged reading in 2018 at the Palace Theatre in Paignton in Devon, close to the author’s home town of Torquay. The Lie has still not had a fully staged production but it is now available as an audio adaptation by Green and assistant director Martin Lewton, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 29 August and now on BBC Sounds until 26 September 2020. It reveals a family at a moment of crisis when a young wife’s dalliance with another man threatens to destroy what turns out to be a marriage already in trouble. Nobody is murdered but it is gripping in the way it gently twists and turns towards a surprising and arguably problematic conclusion. Despite the high drama, the audio adaptation reveals wit and ironic humour that could be tapped to great effect on stage alongside the occasionally overblown lines that border on melodrama. With a sensitive understanding of love and marriage, the play is particularly interesting in highlighting the precarious position of women in the patriarchal society of the 1920s.
For now, Samuel French and Concord Theatricals are offering other texts discovered by Green for future stage productions, from mystery and comedy and even an historical epic and a musical. They include Christie’s own adaptation of her novel, The Secret of Chimneys, which was never staged in her lifetime, while her first-ever play, Black Coffee from 1930, features Hercule Poirot – a rare stage outing as she deleted him from her adaptations of her novels, Appointment with Death, Murder on the Nile, Five Little Pigs, and The Hollow. Towards Zero is another stage adaptation of one of her novels – an alternative to another she wrote with her sometime collaborator, Gerald Verner, which was staged last year at the Mill at Sonning in Berkshire. Murder is also at the heart of The Unexpected Guest and comedies Spider’s Web and Personal Call but there are several other plays without murders to be solved, such as A Daughter’s A Daughter – another female-led drama which Christie later adapted into a novel under her non-crime nom-de-plume Mary Westmacott.
Inspired by her interest in archaeology, Christie’s historical epic is Akhnaton, about political intrigue in the court of an Egyptian king. The Stranger is her own adaptation of her gothic short story, Philomel Cottage, about a woman fearing for her life – again an alternative to other writers’ stage adaptations. Samuel French’s collection also includes TV play Wasp’s Nest, broadcast in 1937, and radio plays Personal Call and Butter in a Lordly Dish. One of the most intriguing works is murder-mystery radio play The Yellow Iris, which features not only Poirot but also songs, with music by Michael Sayer and lyrics by Christopher Hassall. Some of these broadcast dramas could be adapted for the stage, according to Concord Theatricals, adding to the potential for Christie to maintain her place as Britain’s most performed female playwright.