Various

Faithful, if Lackluster, Adaptation

Title: Murder on the Nile
Author: Agatha Christie
Date of First Performance: 1945

Plot summary: Agatha Christie
Full Length, Mystery
Characters: 8 male, 5 female
Interior Set

Simon Mostyn has recently married Kay Ridgeway, a rich woman, having thrown over his former lover Jacqueline. The couple are on their honeymoon and are at present on a paddle steamer on the Nile. With them is Canon Pennefather, Kay’s guardian, and Jacqueline, who has been dogging their footsteps all through the honeymoon. Also on the boat are a rich, ill tempered old woman with her niece and companion, a rather direct young man, a German who nurses a grudge against Kay’s father and Kay’s maid. During the voyage Jacqueline works herself into a state of hysteria and shoots at Simon, wounding him in the knee. A few moments later Kay is found shot in her bunk. By the time the boat reaches its destination, Canon Pennefather has laid bare an audacious conspiracy and has made sure the criminals shall not go free.

Let me admit at the outset that I am not a play reader, although I do love to go to live theater, and it is a lifelong dream of mine to see The Mousetrap performed, preferably in London. It’s also important to note that Death on the Nile is one of my favorite of Christie’s mysteries – the setting is wonderful, the characters are well-drawn, and the solution is satisfying even if there are rather too many side-plots going on in the book.

I will talk further about all of those elements in a later review, because I plan to do a reread of this delightful mystery around the middle of May.

For now, though, I will confine my remarks to this play. My edition was published by Samuel French, and was ordered from Amazon. Along with the script, it contains a character list, a stage schematic, a Furniture and Property Plot and a Lighting Plot. The Furniture and Property Plot was actually fairly interesting, and the Lighting Plot went right over my head.

I have never seen this play performed, although when I was googling about, I found information that a local theater actually performed it a couple of years ago, which left me quite bitter. If I had known it was being staged, I absolutely would’ve gotten tickets for it.

However, reading the script did make one of the primary complaints that I’ve read about this play quite clear to me. There is absolutely no real connection to the setting here. Egypt is mentioned, the Nile is referenced, but this is a play that occurs primarily in a single room – the observation saloon on a paddle steamer nominally travelling down the Nile. It could, however, have happened anywhere, including on the Thames.

I honestly don’t know how to stage this play to take advantage of the Egyptian setting, but, then again, I’m not a playwright. It certainly seems, as well, that Agatha Christie – who was the playwright – also didn’t really know how to do this, as throwing in a couple of random beadsellers at the very beginning of the play, during what is meant to be the embarkation process, seems to be the extent of her efforts. Weak.

The stripped down nature of the play, as well, means that we don’t really get a lot of character development. Because I’ve had the advantage of reading the original text, and having seen the Poirot adaptation, I attributed much of the character depth from other sources to these characters. Someone just seeing the play, I’m afraid, wouldn’t have the benefit of that depth and would likely feel that the play itself left a lot to be desired in terms of character development. Kay, in particular, felt extremely thin. Perhaps actors who are also familiar with the source novel would be able to imbue the characters with the depth that they lack through their performances. I don’t know.

Canon Pennefather takes the place of Poirot, which was actually fine for me. Poirot might have overwhelmed the production with his fussiness and his mannerisms anyway.

Notes for the Agathytes: As I’ve previously mentioned, Canon Pennefather “reappears” with a slight name change (Canon Pennyfather) in At Bertram’s Hotel, approximately 20 years later. The characters are completely different in personality, however.

Kay is the name that Agatha Christie chose for Linnett Ridgeway in the play. I thought that was actually somewhat interesting, because Kay is also the name of the second wife, Kay Strange, in Towards Zero, a book that was published in 1944, which was also adapted as a play in 1956. The play was first performed that same year. There are some physical similarities between the two Kays. Agatha does like to recycle.

In terms of the endings, I’ll talk about this more when we reread Death on the Nile, but there were some crucial differences between the ending of the play and the ending of the book.

A Century of Women, Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Title: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Author: Carson McCullers
Date Published: 1940
Page: 359

Plot Summary: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.

Carson McCullers was 23 when she wrote The Heart is the Lonely Hunter, and already married to Reese McCullers. In 1934, she left home, in Columbus, Georgia, and went to New York City to study at Julliard, by herself, with $500.00 pinned to her underwear. She was 17 years old.

It’s hard, in 2019, with a 23 year old daughter of my own, to imagine anyone having the life experience to write The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at that age. Carson McCullers was, obviously, remarkable. She died young, 3 years younger than I am right now, her body worn down from illness and alcoholism. She wasn’t a prolific writer, leaving behind a small body of work: 4 novels and a dozen or so short stories, as her claim to immortality. But what a claim she makes.

There is research that demonstrates that reading, and especially reading literary fiction, improves the reader’s ability to empathize. Reading a book like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter makes that statement almost laughably obvious. Of course, reading fiction improves empathy. How could it not?

This book is painfully resonant. McCuller’s characters are so real that they nearly leap off the page. The center of the book is John Singer, a deaf-mute who, at the beginning of the book is living with his best friend, Antonopoulos, a fellow deaf-mute. Their lives are very simple – they rise, they go to work at their disparate employments, they meet after work and return home to dinner. Singer speaks with his hands, and talks all evening to his friend. Antonopoulos does not speak in return, and it’s never clear to anyone, including Singer, that he understands what he is being told. Singer is deeply, and non-sexually, committed to Antonopoulos. After a while, Antonopoulos begins acting out in town, and his cousin has him committed to a mental institution, which is the event that really starts the book.

Singer moves out of the apartment he shared with his friend because it is too painful for him to live there alone, and he moves to the home of Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who is, to me, the true heart of the book. He begins frequenting the New York Cafe, owned by Biff Banner. He meets Benedict Copeland, the black doctor in town, and Jake Blount, usually drunk and always scrappy. And he, somewhat inexplicably, becomes the sun around which all of these characters orbit.

BY MIDSUMMER Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closet where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.

We never do find out very much about Singer – his interior life is largely closed to the reader. We know that he visits his friend, Antonopoulos, in the institution and those visits give us just the smallest glimpse into Singer. But, he really serves as the catalyst for us to learn about the interior lives of the other characters.

McCuller’s portrayal of the black community in this small town in Georgia was astonishing. When I was digging around on the internet after finishing the book, still in the throes of the emotional weight of the story, I found quotes by James Baldwin and Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who said, of McCullers that she had the ability to “embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Dr. Copeland says:

“‘My people were brought from the great plains, and the dark, green jungles,’ he said once to Mr. Singer. ‘On the long chained journeys to the coast they died by the thousands. Only the strong survived. Chained in the foul ships that brought them here they died again. Only the hardy Negroes with will could live. Beaten and chained and sold on the block, the least of these strong ones perished again. And finally through the bitter years the strongest of my people are still here. Their sons and daughters, their grandsons and great-grandsons.’”

Mick Kelly is Scout Finch, if Atticus had been an out-of-work watch repairman with too many children and not nearly enough money, and if Scout had been a musician. Mick is the character who broke my heart into one million pieces, with the futility of her love of music and the chains of her birth circumstances tightening around her as the novel progresses. She is Thea Kronberg, from The Song of the Lark, without wings to lift her. There are no happy endings here, as she submits gracelessly to her fate, working at Woolworths, saying goodbye to her dreams, for the $10.00 a week that will help her feed her family.

And then we have Jake Blount, the drunken communist with a dark past.

“And the reason I think like I do is this: We live in the richest country in the world. There’s plenty and to spare for no man, woman, or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great, true principle—the freedom, equality, and rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of that start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars—and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t get to eat.”

This book was written during the grimmest part of the Great Depression, and yet the more things change, the more things stay the same. Like all of the very best fiction, it shows the reader things that are true in the way that only fiction can be true. I think that I could read this book a hundred times and I would get something different out of it with each reading.