The text came over a year ago: Coastal Repertory Theatre Company in Half Moon Bay, California was planning its next season – a return to live theatre! – and they wanted to know if I was interested in directing one of their plays. See, they had heard from a mutual friend that I was really into the playwright . . .
We’re talking, of course, about Agatha Christie, who has been a big part of my life since I was ten. And I mean big: my rabbi even brought her up during my bar mitzvah! I’ve read the books over and over, I own the films and TV series, and it stood to reason that when I began my career as a theatre director I would dabble in her plays. I come here neither to bury nor praise the playwriting skills of Agatha Christie. There are those who pooh-pooh her writing, period – and yet she has sold more books than any other named author in history. I have a friend who advised her to build a better Mousetrap . . . referring to the longest running single production of a play of all time!
So there, folks!
All I can tell you is that I get a thrill at the opportunity to bring one of Christie’s stories to life. Now it’s true that I have sometimes spiced things up a little: I added an “March and Tableau” to the beginning The Hollow to introduce the characters and challenge the audience to solve the crime; I restored the book’s ending to And Then There Were None (and Miss Emily Brent just might have caught a glimpse of the maidservant she drove to suicide staring at her through the rainy window just before her own demise); and if Colonel and Mrs. Easterbrook found themselves onstage for the first time during the play version of A Murder Is Announced . . . well, the ad said all friends and neighbors were invited!
And now I myself had been invited to helm a dangerous journey down the Nile! Death on the Nile is one of my favorite Christie novels, and I jumped at the opportunity to direct her 1945 stage adaptation, despite the fact that it is one of the only of her plays with which I was unfamiliar. It is arguably one of her weakest efforts, a failure in its time, and unfortunately saddled with a few “stuck in its time” elements (the bumbling Steward and those damned bead sellers!!). But once I got permission to eliminate those elements from our production (the bead sellers were cut, and the Steward became a Scottish lady named McNaught), I was in.
Due to the vagaries of COVID, the audition process took several months, followed by a long waiting period which gave me plenty of time to ponder this theatrical adaptation of the novel. Along the way, I read and watched everything I could get my hands on, including Kenneth Branagh’s new version that premiered at the beginning of the year. I even re-listened to the BBC radio version (easily the most faithful adaptation of them all). In short, I steeped myself in the waters of the Nile, and now I offer you the tea . . .
Christie’s 22nd mystery novel was written around 1935 and published in 1937. Twelve of the twenty books she wrote during that decade featured Hercule Poirot, the detective whose popularity today may have surpassed even that of Sherlock Holmes; if they vary in quality amongst her fans, they are still all superb examples of the puzzle mystery, with Nile ranking near the top. The late 1930’s also found the author at a crossroads in her writing, and Death on the Nile showed stirrings of her moving in a new direction.
In the 20’s, Christie had turned to lighthearted thrillers as an alternative to her more complex Poirot stories. In the following decade, however, she found other distractions from her famous detective. She opened the decade with Murder at the Vicarage, her first novel featuring Miss Marple, and The Thirteen Problems, a compilation of Marple stories that had appeared in magazines in the late 20’s, were collected together in 1932. The one thriller she did write, 1934’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is still lighthearted, but it eschews political claptrap for a charmingly domestic combination of Wilkie Collins and P.G. Wodehouse. And then there were the first two novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Ignorant folks have dismissed these as romance novels, but they are, in fact, human dramas and character studies – and perhaps the most autobiographically inspired writing of Christie’s life.
In researching the novel, I found my own journey for specific background information mostly futile. It’s not surprising that Christie herself mentioned neither the novel nor the trip down the Nile she took with Max in 1934 that inspired it in her Autobiography; she spoke all too briefly about her specific work here. But neither Laura Thompson nor Gillian Gill make much mention of the novel in their biographies of the author either. And the most frustrating moments came when I picked up my copy of Dr. John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. Only a few of her novels are not mentioned at all in the scrambled pages that Curran unlocks for us. Christie’s notes on Nile are limited to one page, and two things become apparent: first, this was originally intended to be Miss Marple’s second novel-length case, and the notes Christie inscribes here seems more a nascent sketch of the characters and plotline for her next book, Appointment with Death.
Thus, it appears that any examination or analysis of Death on the Nile is limited to the text itself. We can apply all we know about Christie’s life and methods to the text and come up with our own conclusions, but these will sadly remain unverifiable. We can also read, watch, or listen to the five adaptations of the novel – the play, three films, and a radio play – and go back and forth to see what we find. The omissions and changes in each of them to perhaps her longest, most heavily populated book, are fascinating in and of themselves.
Nile contains a solid, beautifully clued puzzle plot and twenty characters (including three victims and two detectives) involved in a complex web of relationships. Neither of these elements would work particularly well onstage in a two-hour play. However, more than any of the eleven other Poirot novels she wrote during the 30’s, Nile is imbued with the qualities of the novels Christie had begun to write as Mary Westmacott that reflected her growing emphasis on character. There is so much drama inherent in the central relationship of the novel, and Christie felt instinctively, despite this being only her fourth play, that this drama was what would rivet audiences. It’s the best part of Murder on the Nile, but, as it turns out, Christie was wrong.
More than any other dramatic device in her canon, Christie relied on the romantic triangle, mining gold throughout her career over the twisting permutations of a man and two women. This situation anchored Christie’s first book, although the triangle was hidden, but the real “Golden Age” of this trope began in 1936 with the novella “Triangle at Rhodes” and continued over the course of ten years with Nile, then in Sad Cypress, Evil Under the Sun, Five Little Pigs and The Hollow. The triangle that centers Nile is one of the best: Linnet Ridgeway, wealthy, spoiled, but forthright; Jacqueline de Bellefort, passionate, bright and impoverished; and Simon Doyle, handsome and simple. The husband, the wife, the other woman.
Christie takes her time in the novel to lay out the longstanding and true friendship between Linnet and Jackie. She takes us into the minds of both women as the request for a favor leads to a terrible betrayal. Even Poirot himself gets into the act as a sort of prologue to his involvement in the case when he dines at Chez Ma Tante witnesses Jackie and Simon together, and questions whether Simon loves Jackie as much as she loves him.
We then learn about Simon leaving Jackie to marry Linnet through the eyes of other folks who will end up on the S.S. Karnak when the Doyles travel on their honeymoon: Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim, who is a cousin of one of Linnet’s hanger-on friends and always short of money; Miss Van Schuyler, the wealthy American spinster who needs two companions – her nurse Miss Bowers and poor relation Cornelia Robson – to make sure there is no “trouble” on their vacation; Andrew Pennington, Linnet’s devious American lawyer, and Jim Fanthorp, representing her loyal British legal interests; and the tragicomic author Salome Otterbourne, kicked out of one hotel with her daughter and headed to another.
That’s eleven suspects introduced in the first chapter – and we still have five more to meet in Egypt: Dr. Carl Bessner, psychologist, Mr. Richetti, archaeologist, Mr. Fergusson, Communist, Mr. Fleetwood, ship’s engineer (the suspect I always forget!), and Louise Bourget, Linnet’s maid. It won’t be for another eleven chapters till Linnet is murdered, and yet the novel never drags. We learn a lot about the passengers, we see the first glimmerings of a subplot involving Cornelia Robson’s incipient love life that has nothing to do with anything (but is charming nonetheless), and we witness two dramatic murder attempts, one on Simon and Linnet together and the other on Simon, all before Linnet is found one morning shot to death in her bed.
Both Poirot and his friend Colonel Race are on board, and they agree to investigate. Experience (both for a sleuth and a mystery reader) dictates that the most likely suspect is the spouse, for Simon stands to inherit Linnet’s fortune. However, it is shown that Simon could not possibly have killed his wife. Next, we turn to the most obvious suspect, the jealous rival Jackie, but she has an absolutely unbreakable alibi. This may be a relief to the reader because Jackie is probably the character we care about the most in this novel.
Perhaps those who got to read Christie in chronological order had a whiff of déjà vu as certain elements of this case resemble those of one of the earliest 30’s novels. For the rest of us, it’s time to examine the other passengers for motive; to be frank, the results – in the novel, at least – are mixed. Andrew Pennington, whose embezzlement scheme would have soon been uncovered by Linnet, is a strong suspect, and the Subplot of the Stolen Pearls allows us to flit amongst the passengers in search of a thief. The rest of the motives put us on shakier ground: a flippant desire by the proletarian Mr. Fergusson to see all aristocrats like Linnet put to death; a terrorist plot buried in a telegram about fruits and vegetables that Linnet had opened by mistake; Mr. Fleetwood’s (remember him?) anger at Linnet for stopping him from marrying her housemaid Marie . . . even though he still had a wife and children.) That still leaves a whole bunch of characters – The Otterbournes, Mrs. Allerton, Jim Fanthorp, Dr. Bessner, Cornelia, Louise, Miss Bowers – without motives.
This never bothers me when I read the novel: it serves to strengthen the epic feel of one of her travel books, having fellow travelers who act as witnesses, secondary victims, and comic relief. The three mother figures of Otterbourne, Van Schuyler and Allerton are all wonderful (if you ignore the stuck-in-its-time things Mrs. Allerton says), Louise and Salome make distinctive second and third victims, and the wrap-up of Cornelia’s fate is a lighthearted mystery in and of itself, complete with twists and a surprise ending.
The 1978 film adaptation, which is arguably the best and certainly the most entertaining of the lot, drops Cornelia, Jim Fanthorp, Mr. Richetti, and the Allertons. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer stays true to the basic puzzle plot, but he does something that adds to the artifice modern audiences expected out of Christie: he gives everyone a motive. Miss Otterbourne is now being sued for slander by Linnet, who is also suing Dr. Bessner for performing dangerous experiments on patients at his clinic. Miss Bowers now had a father who was ruined by Linnet’s father. Even Louise is angry at her mistress for not giving her the money she needed to marry an Egyptian!
The adaptation found in the Poirot episode is more faithful to the book: Cornelia and the Allertons are reinstated, Shaffer’s added motives are struck, and the heartfelt relationship between Poirot and Jackie is played with greater impact than that between Peter Ustinov and Mia Farrow in 1978. Unfortunately, the shorter running time means that the case feels rushed, particularly after Linnet is murdered.
The most recent film by Kenneth Branagh makes a choice that I know Agatha Christie would have hated by removing Poirot’s outsider status as detective and making the case personal. I know Christie would have hated it because of what I’ve learned about the play (see below), but this is what one would expect of Mr. Branagh as the director and star of his own show. I’ve written more extensively about the film here, so I won’t belabor all the changes. The film looks beautiful, albeit too heavily laden with CGI, and sometimes the tone is just right, but it is the weakest of the three films by far.
What I think sits so poorly with most fans is how Branagh insisted on modernizing the concept of a Golden Age detective by turning Poirot from a keen and objective observer of human nature – an outsider looking in – into a tragic romantic figure caught up in the lives of these characters. There is some precedent to this in the novel in the relationship Poirot establishes with Jackie. But this all connects back to the case and to Poirot’s philosophy regarding good and evil. Branagh insists on giving Poirot multiple arcs as both a war hero and a lover so that he himself could play these beats. It was affecting, to me at least, but it is pure, ahem, fiction. And the changes in Branagh’s depiction of the third murder victim (and the person who escapes death) are wholly original, un-Christie-an concepts.
The 1940’s were an equally prolific time for Christie, with seventeen mystery novels (two reserved for publication after her death), two Westmacotts, and four plays to her credit. Other playwrights had adapted her works in the 20’s and 30’s, and she hated all of their efforts. One of the things she hated the most was the portrayal onstage of M. Poirot. She explained:
“After seeing . . . the previous plays dramatized from my books I decided, quite definitely that Hercule Poirot was utterly unsuited to appear in any detective play, because the detective must be necessarily the onlooker and observer, and can only succeed if he abandons detection for positive action. That is, he should not be in a detective play but in a thriller.”
This quote can be found in Julius Green’s Curtain Up: Agatha Christie, A Life in the Theatre, a truly invaluable resource during my investigations. Of the four plays she wrote during the 1940’s, only And Then There Were None was an unqualified success. Towards Zero never saw a professional production until it was re-adapted in the 1950’s by Gerald Verner. Appointment with Death was interesting in that Christie provided a wholly different solution which, to my mind, is far more fascinating and satisfying than the one in the novel; nevertheless, it was poorly reviewed.
Meanwhile, Christie’s friend, the actor Francis L. Sullivan, who had played Poirot in many productions, including Black Coffee, Christie’s first play and the only one to feature the sleuth, Peril at End House, adapted by another writer, and an early TV adaptation of “Wasp’s Nest,” approached the author to say he was eager to take on the role again. He lobbied her to adapt Death on the Nile for the stage, and while she was enthusiastic about turning the novel into a play, she remained adamant that Poirot would never appear onstage again. She sat down with Sullivan to discuss this and, as she tells it,
“(I) suggested instead a retired barrister – a solicitor – a diplomat – a clergyman – canon or bishop. And suddenly he bit! His eyes half closed – ‘oh yes – purple silk front and a large cross.’ He saw it, you see. Not the speaking part – the appearance! I bet you whoever played Hamlet argued a good deal as to whether to play it in a hat or not!”
The character of Canon Pennefather bears some resemblance to an early Christie detective named Mr. Parker Pyne, who fans will remember appeared in a 1934 short story called . . . “Death on the Nile.” But what gives the Canon an edge as a character over the detectives in either version is that he does not have to be an outsider; he is actually both the detective and a prime suspect. He is partly inspired by the real-life Sir William Beveridge, an economist and social reformer who wanted to reinvent England, with proposals ranging from what we call Social Security to embracing the concepts of eugenics. But he was also a dangerous man: on the day his economic proposals were being voted upon in Parliament, Beveridge was addressing the Eugenics Society, promising them that more of his social security funds would go to the children of wealthy and middle-class Britons rather than those from the working class. Add to this the fact that Canon Pennefather shares qualities with the novel’s attempted murderer, Andrew Pennington by acting as Linnet’s financial advisor (and wanting a lot of her money for his lunatic causes), and you have here a complex and original situation in the play.
When you’re reading a complex Christie mystery, you can always go back and explore the scene of the crime or re-read old conversations in search of clues. Onstage, everything passes by too quickly to allow for much rumination. It was therefore common for the author-turned-playwright to edit the character and clue lists when adapting her novels. In terms of her Nile adaptation, which Christie first called Moon Over the Nile, this suited her current tastes, as she clearly wanted to focus on the dramatic pull of her central triangle.
Thus, she jettisoned the stolen pearls subplot, which made it easy for her to cut out over half the book’s characters. Gone are the Allertons and the Otterbournes. Miss Van Schuyler and her entourage are replaced in the play by a British snob named Miss ffoliott-ffoulkes and her niece Christina Grant. Christina witnesses Jackie shoot Simon, just as Cornelia Robson did in the novel, and she has a “sort-of” flirtation with another passenger, William Smith, who is essentially Mr. Fergusson from the novel, only without a motive; that half-hearted romance is unresolved in the end.
Curiously, Dr. Bessner is not only present in the play, but he is given a motive: evidently Linnet’s father, Melhuish Ridgeway, performed some financial chicanery that brought Bessner’s home country to the brink of ruin. Unfortunately, after the murder, this entire motive is dropped, and Bessner serves merely as medical examiner for the rest of the play. In fact, he becomes a sort of comic relief, constantly begging Simon to allow him to give an injection. And Louise Bourget is still Linnet’s maid and the second victim, although her death is staged in the manner of the novel’s third victim, Mrs. Otterbourne. This allows a nice theatrical flourish in the third act.
And that’s it: nine passengers and a ship’s employee who was once Egyptian (and intended by Christie, according to a letter to Max, as comic relief) and in my production will be Scottish. Without all of the book’s red herrings to obfuscate the audience, the challenge of pulling the muslin over their eyes is huge. But it’s clear that Christie had great faith in the core puzzle of the book. We see Jackie shoot Simon, and from that point he never leaves the stage alone. We learn that Jackie has been watched since her assault and could not have shot Linnet. Compare this with her most successful play, The Mousetrap, which has not a single clue to the killer and yet manages to surprise audiences. Nile retains many of the best clues from the book, including the retrieved stole with a bullet hole, the empty nail polish bottle, and a few choice mutterings by characters.
Despite the inclusion of clues here, this feels more about the mysteries of the human heart. There’s no sinister setting or cast of eccentrics, as in And Then There Were None or The Mousetrap. The first working title, Moon over the Nile, gave way to another: Hidden Horizon, and it’s telling that neither title refers to “death” or “murder” or “mystery.” For a while, Christie toyed with an ending steeped in magical realism, where Jackie, confronted with her crimes, is miraculously given a “do-over” and finds herself back at the moment where Canon Pennefather urges her to leave the boat before the murder. This time she does leave, rendering all that follows in the play we have just watched moot. (The producers weren’t buying it!)
The production history of Hidden Horizons is as fascinating and complex as the original novel. The play fell victim to anti-Christie bias on the part of producers due to the negative reception for Appointment with Death and Towards Zero; plus, the financial issues are so complicated that I urge you to look them up in Green’s book for the whole story. After two attempts in the provinces, the play, now re-titled Murder on the Nile (perhaps to de-emphasize Christie’s own de-emphasis of the story’s puzzle aspects), opened on the West End. The review by the Daily Mail sums up the reception:
“If even my gullible old eyes can spot successively the future assassin, the accomplice, and even the method of murder in Murder on the Nile, something is wrong. Indeed, it is a hard job to find much right with Agatha Christie’s new thriller . . . the company in general seems to suffer from a lack of spirit, natural enough in the circumstances, yet something which I found myself catching.”
Despite 1945 London’s rejection of the play, I want to say that, after two weeks of rehearsal, we are having the time of our lives. My designers have found some sumptuous ways to capture the time and place, and my actors have taken to Christie like a Wonkee-Pooh to cream! The central triangle holds up splendidly in every adaptation, and it is a joy to bring Jackie, Simon, and Linnet to life – even if Linnet is unfathomably renamed Kay. The subplot of Smith, Christina, and Miss ffoliott-ffoulkes provides a charming contrast (and some comic relief) from the high drama of the lead story.
We still get to see two characters shot onstage and that wonderful moment when Canon Pennefather stares at the bullet-ridden stole with newfound enlightenment in his eyes. The puzzle is there, just less of it, although the ambivalent position that the Canon and Smith hold as both suspects and detectives is an interesting new wrinkle. As for me, well . . . it’s good to be back in a real theatre again.
Murder on the Nile plays at Coastal Repertory Theatre in Half Moon Bay, California from September 30 – October 23. If you come over from Europe, I’ll pay for your theatre ticket.