Two years ago Agatha Christie produced a play, The Suspects, which never got past Tremont Street on the road to New York. Like the shrewd inspectors who dot her novels, however, Miss Christie is not so easily foiled by one failure. In her latest mystery, Witness for the Prosecution, she again tries to solve the riddle of how to write a good play, and if in the end the prize escapes her, she has at least managed a substantial improvement in technique.
Essentially the same problem which sunk The Suspects besets Witness for the Prosecution. Mystery stories, with their pat situations and inevitable chains of clues, may seem real to a reader who can make good use of his imagination. On stage, the same situations take on an absurdity which no amount of courtroom hysterics, tearing of hair, and general melodrama can erase. Two hours do not furnish enough time to develop the complex details of a murder, and at the same time create characters who even remotely resemble real people.
Miss Christie tries to do both, and succeeds in doing neither very well. Her first act is a static, cumbersome affair, in which Leonard Vole, a murder suspect, relates his story to two English barristers. If action is dull and the dialogue not very witty, the act at least has the virtue of developing a situation and preparing the audience for the courtroom scene to follow. It also leads one to expect that the hero will be saved by some new and ingenious clue, and the drama will be resolved in terms of the circumstances and not the people involved. Indeed, the leading characters are never more than shallow caricatures made ludicrous by the very violence of their emotions. Consequently, when Miss Christie reversed her play entirely in the final act, changing it from a mystery to grand tragedy based on the misevaluation of human beings, Witness for the Prosecution collapses merely for the sake of a surprise ending.
Offered little in the way of parts, the cast seldom rises above the limitations of the play. The major role of barrister Sir William Robert is played by Francis L. Sullivan, whose pomposity and gruff voice should provide the play with a comic touch. Sir William is indeed pompous, and since Sullivan has a cold his voice is even gruffer than usual, but the playgoer may wait all evening without hearing him speak a genuinely clever line. As the suspect Leonard Vole, Robert Craven creates a peculiarly obnoxious hero, not from bad acting as one might first suspect, but because Agatha Christic has made him so. The witness for the prosecution is Patricia Jessel, as Romaine. She should be commended for bringing some restraint to a part which calls for a mysterious woman with a gutteral German accent.
What little suspense Witness for the Prosecution creates comes in the courtroom scene, which represents one of Miss Christie's better efforts in play writing. But even here, the histrionics of the acting, rather than the suspense, will be remembered as typical of the play: "Leonard Vole, you murdered this woman," cries the prosecuting attorney, and Vole answers with a voice which seems to shake the chandeliers, "It's all a horrible dream."