John Curran on “The Hollow” pt.2

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Here is the second and final part of the exclusive article written by Dr. John Curran about the theatrical version of “Them Hollow”, our Book of the Month!

The Play

By the time of the stage version of The Hollow the name of Agatha Christie was a familiar one on theatre marquees in London’s West End. Since her first big success with Ten Little Niggers in 1943 she had adapted two more novels as stage plays, Appointment with Death in 1945, and Death on the Nile in 1946. When she first considered dramatising The Hollow her daughter, Rosalind, thought it a bad idea and told her mother: ‘It’s a good book and I like it, but you can’t possibly make it into a play.’ But that challenge acted as stimulation for Christie who, convinced of the book’s possibilities, proceeded to adapt it.

Poirot’s presence in The Hollow is unconvincing and although he does his usual clever job of sorting out the (few) clues and arriving at a solution, his presence in the novel is superfluous. Neither is it believable for a moment that he would have bought a house in the country. Of all of his cases this one is almost completely devoid of the physical clues that Christie readers were accustomed to – no smashed watches, no torn letters, no inexplicable phone calls – and Poirot’s deductions are almost entirely character driven. He doesn’t appear in the novel until almost 100 pages in and more oddly still, his usual French idioms are almost completely absent also. Like the dramatisations of some of his other cases – Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death, Five Little Pigs – Christie dropped Hercule Poirot when she adapted The Hollow. She discusses this in An Autobiography when she writes: ‘The Hollow was a book I always thought I had ruined by the introduction of Poirot. He did his stuff alright buy how much better I kept thinking would the book have been without him. So when I came to sketch the play, out went Poirot’. It is difficult not to applaud this decision.

The only play in which Poirot was allowed to appear is Black Coffee and she wrote that directly for the stage early in her career. His creator had an aversion to ‘seeing’ Poirot either as an image or on the stage. Her few rows with her publisher were when they wanted to have him appear on book-jackets. She relented in 1974 but only to the extent of allowing his spats to appear on the cover of Poirot’s Early Cases! In this she was probably correct. All of her readers had their own mental image of how Poirot looked and spoke and moved and no matter how accurate the representation somebody, somewhere would be disappointed so it was better to keep him a mental image; and so she wrote him out of all of her adaptations.

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Charles Laughton was Poirot in the play “Black Coffee”. This was the only play with the Little Belgian Detective.

Prior to the production of The Hollow, Christie’s producer had been Bertie Meyer and when his production of Murder at the Vicarage was taken off after a four-month run in late 1949 another producer, Peter Saunders, on the look-out for a play to recoup earlier losses, offered to tour it. The success of that tour prompted Saunders to approach Christie’s agent with an offer to read any future scripts. The next script was The Hollow, which became the first of her plays that Saunders produced. This proved to be the start of a very happy and successful professional, and later, personal relationship. Saunders explains in his autobiography, The Mousetrap Man (1972) how this association with Agatha Christie proved to be a turning point in his professional life. The year after The Hollow he produced The Mousetrap and he was responsible for all of the subsequent Christie plays including her final theatrical offering, Fiddlers Three. It was Saunders’s idea to present them as (for example) ‘Agatha Christie’s The Hollow’ instead of ‘The Hollow by Agatha Christie’, with the name of the author bigger than the title.  It may seem a small point but when it is remembered that rarely, if ever, was the name of any individual actor appearing in any of the plays as well known as that of Agatha Christie, it made good commercial sense.

After a brief provincial tour, beginning in February, The Hollow opened at the Fortune Theatre, London in June 1951, transferring later to the Ambassadors Theatre (soon to be the home of The Mousetrap) and it ran for almost a year. It was directed by Hubert Gregg who directed five Christie plays on their West End debuts. According to his book, Agatha Christie and All the Mousetrap (1980), Gregg (who also played the part of John Christow during the pre-London run) considered it a very badly written play and felt forced to do considerable re-writing. It was his idea, much to Christie’s disapproval, to introduce the storm in the last Act, and he devised the staging of the denouement between Henrietta and Gerda. His book includes a fascinating letter from Agatha Christie subsequent to the try-outs of The Hollow in which she completely re-arranges Act III having heard from friends that aspects of it were not convincing. Gregg’s relationship with Agatha Christie was uncertain and unhappy to begin and although he eventually admits that ‘it was a fascinating experience to meet and know’ her, he felt that his contributions to The Hollow, and her subsequent plays, were under-appreciated. It must be remembered that this is Gregg’s interpretation of a professional relationship. The actress Jeanne de Casalis played the part of Lady Lucy and, despite Christie’s early reservations, did a wonderful job.  Also among the first cast was the actress Jessica Spencer who would later create the role of Miss Casewell in The Mousetrap. Although away in Iraq with her husband for the pre-London tour and opening night Agatha Christie kept in touch with Gregg and Saunders by telegram and because the play ran for almost a year she was able to see it on her return.

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Very rare photo of Hubert Gregg directing “The Hollow”

The adaptation retains most of the events and characters of the book. Apart from the major omission of Poirot, the other character to disappear is David Angkatell, a student, whose part in the novel is slight anyway and whose loss makes no difference to the plot. Unusually for Christie the first Act ends before the murder and the audience has to wait until the end of the first scene of Act II before we have the dramatic death. And it is dramatic: we see the victim talking to his unseen killer, followed by the fatal shot and the body tumbling down the stage. As the other guests arrive having heard the shooing, it transpires that all of them have the opportunity – and many of them a motive – to have committed the crime. Whereas in the book Poirot arrives to discover the death scene, in the play the audience watches as the various characters arrive beside the sprawled body and, unless carefully handled, this can become almost comic. The impact of the murder scene – a dying John Christow bleeding into the swimming pool with Gerda standing over him holding a gun, surrounded by Lady Lucy with a basket of eggs and Henrietta with a bunch of dahlia heads – in the book is exceptionally striking and it is a shame that this could not have transferred directly to the stage. But practical considerations prevailed; a swimming pool onstage is still rare and in the 1950s was unthinkable. But it is ironic that the very striking setting that inspired the book had to be abandoned when the adaptation was undertaken.

As we have seen, the characters in The Hollow, especially the female ones, are among Christie’s best drawn. Lady Lucy is, with the possible exception of Clarissa in Spider’s Web, her most entertaining female character. Given to amusing observation (‘The worst of murder is that it does upset the servants so’) she entertains both the house guests and the audience throughout the play but behind the vague exterior there is a steely determination and a sharp brain. She correctly predicts, in Act I, that she ‘knew this weekend was going to be awkward’. The appearance of being a scatter-brain is just that – an appearance. As Gudgeon reminds us: ‘Her ladyship has a very keen intellect. She speaks five foreign languages…’ Henrietta Savarnake is a complex and passionate artist devoted both to her sculpture and her lover. And she is also possessed of a formidable intellect, as subsequent events prove. Veronica Cray, a ruthlessly self-centred woman, is the most unsympathetic character in the play. Actresses in the Christie output – Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies and Marina Gregg in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side – are seldom portrayed as admirable figures but Veronica is without a redeeming feature. John Christow is shown to be amoral and faithless although during the final explanations his character is redeemed somewhat.  Edward is a pitiable figure – unhappy, unfulfilled, and, at one stage about to take the ultimate step. As the ‘most unlikely suspect’ he would seem to be the obvious candidate for Murderer. Midge is an admirable figure, a young woman with a 9 to 5 job (relatively unusual in Christie of that era) in a dress shop and who travels to The Hollow in a crowded bus. She considers the weekend away to be ‘heaven’ and admits that the time she spent at Ainswick were ‘all the happy times I’ve ever had’.

In common with the other novels that Christie chose to dramatise, The Hollow has a strong emotional situation at its heart. In fact, it has a few strong emotional situations – Gerda and John, John and Henrietta, Henrietta and Edward, Edward and Midge and John and Veronica. Other Christie novels adapted for the stage feature similar dramatic entanglements – the eternal triangle of Linnet, Simon and Jacqueline in Death on the Nile, the sadistic Mrs. Boynton and her terrorised family in Appointment with Death, Amyas Crale with his wife and mistress under the same roof in Five Little Pigs, Nevile Strange inviting his former and present wife on the same weekend in Towards Zero. For a playwright this type of situation carries more promising dramatic possibilities than the detective novel of clues and alibis, however ingenious. This probably explains why Christie did not select novels which are clever detective stories – Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Murder on the Orient Express, The Body in the Library – when she was considering a new play.

A major feature of the murder scene is Christow’s use of Henrietta’s name as he lies dying. This is not the first time Christie has used this plot device. In her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles as Emily Ingelthorp, surrounded by her helpless family, lies dying she gasps out her husband’s name ‘Alfred – Alfred…’; one of the four Christie title of 1934, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is built entirely around the words of a dying man and in Death Comes as the End (1945) the dying Satipy murmurs the name of the hated ‘Nofret’. Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came to Baghdad, A Murder is Announced and Ordeal by Innocence all feature similar situations and Christie rings the changes on possible explanations. The question to be decided in each case is the import of the final words: is it an accusation, an endearment, a farewell, a plea? Or something else entirely? The explanation in The Hollow proves to be an original variation and one that baffles the police (and the audience) until the end.

Differences

Because the play uses only one setting, various scenes from the novel had to be adapted, amended or abandoned. Most of them make little difference to the plot but some are more significant than others. These include:

  • Henrietta is already a guest in The Hollow when the play opens, having moved in temporarily because of a fire in her studio.
  • A significant scene near the beginning of the novel in which one of Christow’s children insists on telling his fortune and in so doing uncovers the ace of Spades – the death card – is removed completely.
  • The entire episode of Ygdrasgil from the novel is omitted; this purely visual episode would have been lost on a theatre audience. Ygdrasgil was the name given by Henrietta to a big oak tree at Ainswick and she had a habit, in idle moments, of drawing a picture of it. When such a drawing is found near the murder scene it casts suspicion on Henrietta.
  • A major redeeming factor in the life of John Christow is merely mentioned in the play although in the novel it is a more important factor. Christow is researching ‘Ridgeway’s Disease’ and at the end of the novel Henrietta, in a very poignant scene, meets the patient in the hospital who is, in effect, the guinea-pig for his experiments and who admires Christow enormously. This scene rehabilitates the character of Christow who is seen throughout the book almost solely as a philandering husband.
  • Edward’s attempted suicide in the book is by gassing himself, whereas in the play he contemplates shooting himself.
  • An important plot element, the gun, (or, more accurately, the guns) is given an overhaul in the play. In the novel Henrietta takes the incriminating ‘second’ gun and conceals it in a sculpture; then, complete with the unidentifiable fingerprints of a blind match-seller who stands near her London flat, she ‘plants’ it in a hedge surrounding Poirot’s property. The restrictions of a single stage-setting dictated a major alteration and instead we have subterfuge with Veronica’s handbag.
  • The names of the policemen are inexplicably changed, from Inspector Grange and Sergeant Clark in the book to Inspector Colquhoun and Detective Sergeant Penny.

john curranDr John Curran acted as consultant to the National Trust during the renovation of Agatha Christie’s former home, Greenway House. His Edgar-nominated Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009) won the 2011 Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards and he published Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, also nominated for the same awards, in September 2011. He completed his PhD, on The Golden Age of Detection, at Trinity College, Dublin where he lives. His most recent publication, Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie, was co-authored with the artist Tom Adams who painted over a hundred Christie book covers.

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