Play Christie For Me

Friday March 02, 07
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune Lagniappe


Why do 'And Then There Were None'?
Friday, March 02, 2007
By David Cuthbert

In addition to her 84 mystery novels and more than 150 short stories, Agatha Christie wrote 21 stage plays. The best known are "The Mousetrap," which has been running in London since 1952, "Witness for the Prosecution," which was filmed in 1957 by Billy Wilder with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, and the most famous of all, "And Then There Were None," published as a novel in 1939, adapted by Christie for the stage in 1943 and filmed by Rene Clair in 1945, the first of at least six film versions and countless TV rip-offs.

The setup is classic: Ten people, unknown to each other, are marooned on a British island estate. A recording announces that each is guilty of murder, but evaded the law. One by one, they are killed, in the fashion suggested by a prominently posted nursery rhyme. One of them is the killer, who would be readily identified if not for a clever Christie plot device.

The bigger mystery here is why a young director like Gary Rucker should want to do this old wheeze of a play. Was it a trade-off he had to do to get "Urinetown" or something?

"No," Rucker said, "I begged producer Charlie Ward to let me do this play. I love murder mysteries and don't really get the opportunity to direct them. I don't think people do them enough. The fun for me is discovering all the subtleties that make the show work."

And what about veteran play-goers who know all too well "Whodunit"? What's in it for us?

"I have a few ideas to keep the show exciting even if you know who the killer is," Rucker said. "Even if you know the solution (and amazingly, a lot of people don't) you get to take that journey . . . . I think for the people who don't know, we'll keep them guessing."

Rucker said that what's exciting for him doing older, well-known pop plays "is that I haven't seen a lot of them before, so that even though what I choose to direct are sometimes old warhorses, to me they are fresh and new and I like to see how I can make the play my own story, rather than trying to give people what they expect.

"We are making it a point to make everyone look really guilty, and I'm doing my best to give all the suspects the opportunity to be the killer. I have a really good cast of pros who are diving in and making it their own."

The dramatis suspectae consists of Kathy Taaffe, Roland "Butch" Caire, Ashley Ricord, Michael Santos, Michael Tramontin, Reggie Henry, Jeff Martorell, Linda Hubchen, Jackson Townsend, Michael Cahill and the shiftiest of them all -- Rucker himself.

Now, as to the controversial aspect of the piece. The all-important poem that predicts the characters' demise was originally "Ten Little Indians," written in 1868 by Septimus Winner, who also wrote "Little Brown Jug," "Listen to the Mockingbird" and "Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone." According to "The Agatha Christie Companion," the poem became the basis of a Victorian music hall song in which the "n" word was substituted for "Indians." Because it was better known than the original in England, this is the title Christie used for her novel. And it was under this title that the novel was published and the play produced in England.

Christie's American publishers knew this title would be offensive in America and changed it to "And Then There Were None." On the American stage, it was "Ten Little Indians," on the screen "And Then There Were None." There was even a third title, "The Nursery Rhyme Murders."

Under whatever title, it remains Christie's most popular work.

 Feature, photograph (Santos, Hendry).