English novelist Agatha Christie (1891 – 1976)
On Saturday there’s a unique opportunity to glimpse deep into Agatha’s troubled mind with the world premiere of her play The Lie, tucked away and forgotten in a drawer since being written in the 1920s.
For one night only The Lie will be staged in Paignton, Devon, a few miles from Greenways, Christie’s home near the River Dart, as part of the International Agatha Christie Festival. Hard-hitting and deeply personal it promises to be a sensation.
The plot, which centres on a married woman’s night of passion with a man who’s not her husband, sizzles with pent-up tension and could easily fit into an episode of EastEnders, so raw are the emotions laid bare by the writer.
And so modern too are the temptations portrayed. The woman discovers her husband loves her sister, not her, and seeks revenge in a one-night stand.
Agatha described the never-performed play as being “mainly about incest”.
That depends on your definition of the word but it was written when the woman destined to become the queen of crime, with more than two billion books sold worldwide, realised her husband of 10 years Archie Christie had fallen for another woman.
Everyone knows what happened next: the famous car crash followed by an 11-day disappearance when the whole of Britain was put on the lookout until she was finally discovered hiding in a Harrogate hotel claiming amnesia.
The story that unravels in The Lie does not replicate those events but the emotions expressed onstage come directly from the inner agony Agatha suffered at precisely that time.
A car being used in a police reconstruction of events surrounding the disappearance of detective sto
Julius Green, the distinguished theatre producer and biographer who discovered the lost typescript, says: “Yes, parts of the play are thinly disguised autobiography. It’s a very personal play.”
Mr Green found the script in a drawer while researching his way through the immense Christie archive for his book Curtain Up.
“There’s a huge amount of her writing there including vast quantities of unpublished work together with notebooks, manuscripts and letters – she never stopped writing!” he says admiringly.
His discovery revealed two versions of the play, annotated with pencilled notes in Agatha’s hand.
Once drawn inside its pages he knew the three-act drama was a colossal insight into a fuller understanding of her life and would have to be put on the stage.
Agatha Christie showing how she may have disguised herself after her disappearance
Green argues passionately that Agatha wrote just as well, if not better, when she put her big stars Poirot and Marple to one side and concentrated on the lives and preoccupations of ordinary people.
“She wrote a number of novels anonymously as Mary Westmacott, which delve much deeper into the human psyche,” he says.
Agatha’s biographer Laura Thompson agrees: “Her detective fiction was an impregnable disguise – she could construct a [narrative] in which the author was scarcely visible.
As Mary Westmacott she wrote the things she could never have revealed under her own name, writing with an intensity and at times heartrending naivety. The self-exposure is wrenching.”
For Julius Green The Lie falls into this category. But incest? Isn’t that going a bit far, even for the queen of crime? Not back in the day.
A Victorian law said a man may not marry his wife’s sister, even if the wife dies.
Often unmarried sisters would come to live in the family home and the government decided to stifle by statute any possibility of sexual dalliance.
This ruling was replaced in the years before Agatha wrote The Lie by the comically named Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act, which only allowed such marriages if the original wife was dead.
It wasn’t until as late as 1960 that a man could marry his sister-in-law, whether his first wife was living or not.
And so in the eyes of Agatha Christie, if not ours, her characters contemplating breaching these laws were guilty of “incest”.
Certainly sexual love within the family circle, however you describe it, was a dangerous topic to tackle back in the 1920s and no theatre producer wanted to touch it.
British mystery writer Agatha Christie
Thirty years later when Agatha was the West End’s most successful playwright with The Mousetrap and Witness For The Prosecution, theatre managers would have lapped it up.
By then, incalculably wealthy, she probably preferred not to reveal her younger self’s insecurities and feelings of failure and revenge.
The script was firmly buried in the bottom of that drawer and there it was going to stay.
In 2017, after nearly 25 years and 70 episodes, actor David Suchet hung up his Poirot moustache for the last time – there were no more stories left to film.
Angela Lansbury, Julia McKenzie, Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan all portrayed Miss Marple but even with a never-ending stream of actresses ready to play the part, those stories have run out as well.
So, after all his sleuthing through the huge Christie archive, did Julius Green turn up another Agatha Christie character – one we haven’t yet heard of? One who could fill the yawning gap on a Sunday night?
“I’m not sure you’ll find another character now,” he says but adds: “There’s always another box of papers, another script hidden in a drawer. There are still vast uncharted territories of her writing – shelves, boxes, drawers. You can never be sure!”
Crime writer TP Fielden’s latest Miss Dimont mystery, A Quarter Past Dead, will be published by HQ/HarperCollins next month. The International Agatha Christie Festival runs from September 11-15 in Torquay (iacf-uk.org).