04 May 2016

Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre by Julius Green

Summary from Goodreads:

Agatha Christie is revered around the world for her books and the indelible characters she created. Lesser known is her writing for the stage—an extraordinary repertoire of plays that firmly established her as the most successful female dramatist of all time. Now author Julius Green raises the curtain on Christie’s towering contribution to popular theatre, an element of her work previously disregarded by biographers and historians.

Starting with her childhood theatregoing experiences, Curtain Up uncovers Christie’s first serious attempts at playwriting, with scripts that reveal a very different style from the now familiar whodunits for which she became famous. Later in her life, she enjoyed enormous global success with her work for the stage, but her record-breaking achievements in the West End and her conquest of Broadway came at a price: she had to fight against her own fame and felt obliged to delete her adored character Hercule Poirot from stories that had originally been created around him.

Green’s revelations about Christie’s passion for the theatre are illustrated with copious extracts from hitherto unknown plays and unpublished private letters, many of which he discovered in archives on both sides of the Atlantic. The illuminating exchanges between Christie, her agents and producers include extensive correspondence with the legendary ‘Mousetrap Man’, theatrical impresario Sir Peter Saunders.

Meticulously researched and filled with groundbreaking discoveries, Curtain Up sheds new light on Agatha Christie’s artistry and adds a fascinating layer to her remarkable story.

I love Agatha Christie.  She is the Queen of locked-room mysteries.  I know a little bit about her stage plays - we did Witness for the Prosecution and And Then There Were None for drama in high school - but that's it.  So I thought Curtain Up would be an interesting read about Christie's life as a playwright (The Mousetrap is still the longest-running play in the West End).

This is not a quick read.  Green put in the work and explored every possible collection of papers and letters he could possibly get his hands on - the entire first chapter is devoted to assessing the current state of Christie dramatic scholarship (most of which is apparently shoddy).  It is heavy on the nitty-gritty of contracts and rights and management and directing and casting.  And very, very thick.

It was a little too much nitty-gritty for my personal taste.  That much insider-baseball about mid-century British West End theatre wasn't quite for me.  But if you're a theatre buff and into the minutiae of theatre history, this is a five-star read for you.  This is for the super-nerds who will love reading about how Agatha Christie might have wanted to be known primarily as a playwright but due to timing and her facility as a novelist her dramatic work is generally considered as a sideline.

What was surprising and pleasing (and both frustrating and very coy) is that Green deliberately avoided giving away the endings to Christie's greatest plays: And Then There Were None, The Mousetrap, and Witness for the Prosecution. He wrote around them very obviously which echoed the anti-spoiler attitude taken by the plays' producers and respected by reviewers (less well-known plays, he did give some ending information away). Now, my high school performed Witness my junior year (where the drama teacher swore us all to secrecy about the ending) and And Then There Were None for my senior year. So with a little digging in my memory, I could follow the insinuations to figure out what he was getting at with revisions, etc. However, I haven't read or seen Mousetrap so that was really annoying (though, perhaps I should see if I can lay hands on a copy of the play and just read it because why not?). So it is nice Green doesn't spoil the endings, but it makes the reading a little weird.

So if you're a Christie super-fan, I recommend you pack this for your beach reading.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher back in December - it took me that long to read - and it will now be winging its way to a friend.

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