Thursday, February 1, 2018

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" at Chattanooga Theatre Centre

Poirot (Patrick Brady) & Hastings (Evans Jarnefeldt)
Chattanooga Theatre Centre
Photo by Brad Cansler
My stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first produced as an outreach tour six years ago, and published by Playscripts, Inc. a short time later. Since then it has been produced at a few high schools, college and community theaters, and most recently in a production at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

An interview on WUTC 88.1 FM (Chattanooga's NPR affiliate) was broadcast yesterday, a conversation between host Richard Winham and Steve Ray, head of the Theatre and Speech Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the production’s director. I am not so widely produced as to be in any way accustomed or even prepared to listen to people with whom I am entirely unfamiliar discuss my writing thoughtfully.

One element of interest during their ten-minute discussion, one point which makes this book -- Christie’s first book -- different from the rest, is that it is her "Great War" mystery. It takes place during the war, not after, which required me, when writing it, to have a crash-course in history of that period, and the many ways the war affected all aspects of British life.

In particular, the character of Hastings -- the narrator of the novel and my adaptation -- is an outsider. Not only is he new to Styles, but he is also a soldier, the only one in the story who has witnessed the horrors of the trenches first-hand, and for him very recently.

In the WUTC interview, the director Steve Ray comments:
“There’s a couple of moments that ... you see that this family in the manor do not get what Hastings is going through … And one moment where it’s kind of up-front, where a character makes a kind of off-hand comment about the war and it just takes Hastings off-guard.”
Thought I haven’t read the play in years, I knew exactly the moment he was referring to. What I could not remember was whether it was an exchange taken directly from the novel, or one I had created on my own. I discovered to my delight that it was the latter.

Mary (Courtenay Clovich) & Evelyn (Dana Cole)
Chattanooga Theatre Centre
Photo by Brad Cansler
Here is the passage from the novel which inspired that moment:
“The papers, of course, had been full of the tragedy. Glaring headlines, sandwiched biographies of every member of the household, subtle innuendoes, the usual familiar tag about the police having a clue. Nothing was spared us. It was a slack time. The war was momentarily inactive, and the newspapers seized with avidity on this crime in fashionable life: 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' was the topic of the moment." 
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Chapter VIII: Fresh Suspicions
And here is how I represented that moment in the script:
JOHN: ...Ghastly though, the papers. Headlines glaring, “Mysterious Affair at Styles” and all that. Rubbish. Makes you wish the war would pick up.
HASTINGS: No. Not really.
JOHN: Hmn? Anyway.
Not to pat myself on the back too hard, I am also aware that I stole Hasting’s reaction from the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
FORD: Six pints of bitter, and quickly, please. The world's about to end.
BARMAN: Oh, yes, sir? Nice weather for it. Going to the match today, sir?
FORD: No. No point.
BARMAN: Foregone conclusion, then? Arsenal without a chance?
FORD: No, it’s just that the world's about to end.
BARMAN: Oh, yes, sir. So you said. Lucky escape for Arsenal if it did.
FORD: No, not really.
What Douglas Adams wrote as an affectless observation I reinterpreted as an understated reaction to a thoughtless remark, and I am totally cool with that.

Listen to the complete interview, "Chattanooga Theatre Centre Presents Christie's 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles'" by Richard Winham, WUTC 88.1 FM (1/31/2018)

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" continues at Chattanooga Theatre Centre through February 16, 2018.

My stage adaptation of "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" is available through Playscripts, Inc.

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