Witness for the Prosecution Notes

Agatha Christie is the world’s best selling novelist, with book sales that are only rivaled by Shakespeare and The Bible. Yet few Americans are aware of her playwriting career, which historian J.C. Trewin called “a Midas gift to the theatre.” She wrote more that twenty plays in her lifetime, many of which were made into films. Her playwriting career began after seeing Michael Morton’s play Alibi (or The Fatal Alibi, 1928), a stage adaptation of Christie’s first best-selling novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was thoroughly disappointed with the piece and decided she should take matters into her own hands and write plays herself.
Her first effort, Black Coffee (1930), was an original piece featuring her legendary creation, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It ran for just under one hundred performances and was never transferred to New York, though it toured throughout the United Kingdom. Christie did not have another original stage production for ten years, when Ten Little Niggers (later changed to Ten Little Indians) opened at the St. James’ Theatre in 1940. Christie cited this play as the one that set her “on the path of being a playwright.” It had successful runs in both London and New York, with over four hundred Broadway performances. Her next few plays Appointment with Death (1945), Murder on the Nile (1946), and The Hollow (1951) were all successful in the West End, but only Murder on the Nile made it to Broadway, where it ran for a dismal twelve performances (under the title Hidden Horizon.)
Christie had no idea she would be making history with her next play. The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952 and remains the longest-running play in theatrical history, with well over 20,000 performances. Whether or not the play would be as successful in its Broadway run remains to be seen, since it cannot be produced elsewhere until the London production closes, a stipulation put into place to keep the play’s ending a surprise.
The Mousetrap’s producer, Peter Saunders, had first worked with Christie on the touring production of Black Coffee. He went on to produce most of her plays over the next forty years. Just after the opening of The Mousetrap, he approached Christie about adapting one of her short stories, Witness for the Prosecution, into a play. The story had first appeared in the collection The Hound of Death and Other Stories in 1933. Christie thought herself unqualified to write a courtroom drama, but Saunders persisted. Christie finally acquiesced and began her research process, which included interviewing lawyers and reading up on numerous courtroom trials. Once the extensive research was completed, Christie began writing and finished the play in just under a month.
Christie called the original short story “a mere sketch of an accused person and an enigmatic witness.” In the original piece there were no courtroom scenes, so Christie reworked the story a great deal. This included changing the ending, which many advised her against. Christie was adamant about her ending, so much so that she refused to allow the play to open without it. “[The ending] was what could have happened, what might have happened, and in my view probably what would have happened,” Christie wrote, “possibly with a little less violence, but the psychology would have been right, and the one little fact that lay beneath it had been implicit throughout the play.”
Saunders chose Wallace Douglas to direct. Douglas had been an actor in the West End but had just made his directorial debut that year with Joseph Colton’s hit play The Gay Dog. Character actor David Horne took the part of Wilfrid Robarts and Derek Blomfield portrayed defendant Leonard Vole. Patricia Jessel, who had received excellent reviews for her performance in 1948’s The Solitary Lover, took the role of Romaine.
The play premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in London on October 28th, 1953. It enjoyed a long run of 458 performances, but Christie wondered whether it would meet with similar success in New York. It had been ten years since Christie’s only successful Broadway run, Ten Little Indians. Saunders had never produced a show for Broadway, so he turned to legendary producer Gilbert Miller (Born Yesterday, 1946, The Cocktail Party, 1950, Gigi, 1951) to co-produce. Robert Lewis, an original member of The Group Theatre and co-founder of the Actor’s Studio, signed on to direct. Lewis was coming off his first major hit as director with the Tony and Pulitzer winning Teahouse of the August Moon. Veteran stage actor Francis L. Sullivan took on the role of Robarts. Sullivan had become a good friend of Christie after his portrayals of Poirot in Black Coffee and Peril at End House (1940). Robin Craven, who originated the role of Sir Edward Ramsey in 1952’s smash hit The King and I, was cast as Leonard Vole. Patricial Jessel was the only member of the original London cast to transfer to Broadway, reprising her role as Romaine. Christie was extremely pleased with the New York casting: “Of all the stage pieces I have produced, this came closest in casting to my own mental picture.”
Witness for the Prosecution opened at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York on December 16th, 1954. Time Magazine called it “Broadway’s first really bright evening of crime since Dial ‘M’ for Murder… [It] is frequently tense. And when it is not, it manages in the best English fashion to be entertainingly easygoing.” The New York Times called it “one of the best” mystery plays “in the twists of the plot and the expertness of the playing.” Critics raved about the performances as well, singling out Patricia Jessel and Francis Sullivan in particular. Brooks Atkinson called Jessel “an uncommonly gifted actress” and hailed Sullivan’s performance as representing “the true spirit of the murder mystery.” Agatha Christie called Jessel’s performance “one of the best performances I have seen on the stage…I could not have found a more perfect actress.”
Witness for the Prosecution was a great success and ran for 645 performances. It won the New York Drama Critic’s award for Best Foreign Play and both Sullivan and Jessel won Tony awards for their performances. MGM obtained the rights for the film–under the condition that they would keep Christie’s ending. Oscar winning director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, 1943, Sunset Boulevard, 1950) developed the screenplay along with writer Harry Kurnitz (A Shot in the Dark, 1961—TACT 2007).
Charles Laughton was cast as Wilfred Robarts. Like Frank L. Sullivan, Laughton had experience with Christie’s work: he portrayed Hercule Poirot in both the West End and Broadway productions of Alibi. Marlene Dietrich, who had starred in Wilder’s film A Foreign Affair (1948), was cast as wife of the accused, now named Christine rather than Romaine. Swashbuckling star Tyrone Power (Marie Antoinette, 1938, The Mark of Zorro, 1940) was cast as Leonard Vole, in what would be his last screen performance. Wilder added the character of Miss Plimsoll, Robarts’ nurse, to the story, and cast Laughton’s wife, actress Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, Come to the Stable, 1945).
In Elliot Norton’s review of the film, he wrote that Christie “has never been more skillful than in sketching [Leonard Vole’s] character.” Variety praised the “cleverly worked out storyline…which unfolds realistically, generating a quiet and steady excitement.” The New York Times hailed Laughton’s “first-rate theatrical performance.” The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton), and Best Actress (Lanchester). The producers did not allow Marlene Dietrich to be considered for an Oscar, since doing so would reveal a key plot secret. Dietrich was reportedly devastated by the decision.
No major stage production of Witness for the Prosecution was undertaken after the 1950s, though a televised film was made in 1982. It was adapted from Wilder and Kurnitz’s script by Emmy-winner John Gay. The CBS broadcast starred Ralph Richardson as Wilfred Robarts, Beau Bridges as Leonard Vole and Diana Rigg as Christine. Alan Gibson (A Woman Called Golda, 1982) directed. Variety called it a “pointless remake…Alan Gibson has filmed this TV movie with such a broad and theatrical style that one expects the characters to break out regularly into song.”
Since her death in 1976, Agatha Christie’s world-wide popularity has far from waned. To place Christie’s continued success into modern perspective, consider that J.K. Rowling has sold 325 million copies of her Harry Potter books, while Christie has well over one billion books sold and over two billion in print. Over twenty films have been made from her stories. The television series Poirot has been on the air for eighteen years and Agatha Christie’s Marple is about to enter its fourth season. The West End continues to adapt Christie’s stories into plays (the most recent being Kevin Elyot’s And Then There Were None in 2005) and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company tours the United Kingdom’s major theaters with yearly classic productions.
Despite the continued interest in Christie’s works, none of her plays have appeared on Broadway since Witness for the Prosecution. While The Mousetrap enters its fifty-fifth straight year in the West End of London, Broadway enters its fifty-second straight year without a single Agatha Christie play or adaptation. Her biggest Broadway success is now remembered for Billy Wilder’s film adaptation. Christie called Witness for the Prosecution her best play and most critics agree. Perhaps it is time for America to remember Christie for more than her books and films. After all, Christie always said she preferred writing for the theatre: “It is much more fun.”