Black Coffee is a play by the British crime-fiction author Agatha Christie (1890–1976) which was produced initially in 1930. The first piece that Christie wrote for the stage, it launched a successful second career for her as a playwright.
Twenty-two years after Christie's death, Black Coffee was re-published in the United Kingdom and the United States in the form of a novel. The novelisation was undertaken by the Australian-born writer and classical music critic Charles Osborne, with the endorsement of the Christie estate.
Writing and production
Agatha Christie began writing Black Coffee in 1929, feeling disappointed with the portrayal of Hercule Poirot in the previous year's play Alibi, and being equally dissatisfied with the motion-picture adaptations of her short story The Coming of Mr. Quin and her novel The Secret Adversary as The Passing of Mr. Quinn and Die Abenteurer G.m.b.H.. According to the foreword to the current HarperCollins edition of Black Coffee in its novelised form, she finished writing the play in late 1929.
She mentions Black Coffee in her 1977 life story, Autobiography, describing it as "a conventional spy thriller ... full of cliches, it was, I think, not at all bad". Nonetheless, her literary agents had advised her to forget the play entirely and she was willing to do so until a friend connected with the theatre suggested that it might be worth producing.
Christie's autobiography claimed that the debut performance of Black Coffee took place at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead. However, no record exists of such a staging and she was undoubtedly confusing it with the true opening production at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage (now London's Central School of Speech and Drama) on December 8, 1930. The production ran in that theatre only until December 20. On April 9, 1931 it re-opened at the St Martin's Theatre (later to be the second home of Christie's most enduring stage work The Mousetrap), where it ran until May 1 before transferring to the Wimbledon Theatre on May 4. It then went to the Little Theatre on May 11, finally closing there on June 13, 1931.
Poirot was played initially by the well-known character actor Francis L. Sullivan who became a good friend of the author. She approved of his portrayal despite the fact that physically he was far too tall for the dapper little Belgian detective. (Sullivan stood six feet, two inches in height.) Also in the premiere cast was (Sir) Donald Wolfit, playing Dr. Carelli. Wolfit would become renowned in England as an actor-manager, best remembered for his vivid interpretations of Shakespearean roles and other big-scale classical parts.
Unlike most other Christie plays, Black Coffee did not transfer to the New York stage.
Synopsis of scenes
The scene is laid in the library at Abbot's Cleve, Sir Claud Amory's house, about 25 miles from London.
- The following morning
- Fifteen minutes later
Hercule Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings are summoned to visit a famous physicist, Sir Claud Amory, but they discover on their arrival that he has been murdered. The plot revolves around a stolen formula, with Poirot deducing which of Sir Claud's house guests/family members is the killer.
The Times reviewed the work in its issue of December 9, 1930, saying that, "Mrs Christie steers her play with much dexterity; yet there are times when it is perilously near the doldrums. Always it is saved by Hercule Poirot, the great French [sic] detective, who theorizes with the gusto of a man for whom the visible world hardly exists. He carries us with him, for he does not take himself too seriously, and he salts his shrewdness with wit. For a ruthless investigator he is an arrant sentimentalist; but that is one of the ways in which Mrs Christie prevents her problem from becoming tedious. Mr Sullivan is obviously very happy in the part, and his contribution to the evening's entertainment is a considerable one. Mr Boxer Watsonizes pleasantly, and Miss Joyce Bland, as a young lady who must wait until the very end before knowing a moment's happiness, contrives to excite our sympathy for her distress. The remainder of the cast is rather serviceable than exciting."
The Observer's issue of December 14, 1930 contained a review by "HH" in which he concluded that, "Miss Agatha Christie is a competent craftsman, and her play, which is methodically planned and well carried out and played, agreeably entertains."
The Guardian reviewed the play in its issue of April 10, 1931. The reviewer stated that, "Miss Christie knows the ropes, keeps to the track, sets her Herculean protector in defence of innocence, and unmasks the real villain at eleven o’clock. One must be something of a ritualist to find enchantment in such matters. Mr. Francis Sullivan makes a large, guttural, amiable sleuth of the sagacious Hercules. He is wise not to imitate Mr. Charles Laughton who gave us such a brilliant study of the Belgian some time ago. He makes his own portrait and does it with a competent hand." The reviewer praised others in the cast by name and concluded, "the company conduct themselves with a proper sense of the ceremonial involved in a detective play. But it is surely permissible to be surprised that adult people can be found in fairly large numbers to sit undismayed through the execution of such ritual as this."
Two days later, Ivor Brown reviewed this second production in The Observer when he said that, "If you are one of those playgoers who are eternally excited by a corpse in the library and cross-examination of the family, all is well. If not, not. To me the progress of detection seemed rather heavy going, but I start with some antipathy to murdered scientists and their coveted formulae. Black coffee is supposed to be a strong stimulant and powerful enemy of sleep. I found the title optimistic. "
The Times reviewed the play again when it opened at the Little Theatre in its issue of May 13, 1931. This time it said that, "Its false scents are made for the triumph of the omniscient Belgian detective, complete according to the best tradition with unintelligent foil; and if they appear sometimes to be manufactured with a little too much determination and to be revived when they seem most likely to be dissipated, they may be allowed because they just succeed in maintaining our sympathy with distressed beauty and our interest in the solution of a problem. Though much of the dialogue is stilted, the complacent detective has an engaging manner."
Credits of London production
The 1930-1931 production was directed by André van Gyseghem. The cast changed somewhat.
Cast of December 1930 production
- Francis L. Sullivan as Hercule Poirot
- Donald Wolfit as Dr. Carelli
- Josephine Middleton as Miss Caroline Amory
- Joyce Bland as Lucia Amory
- Lawrence Hardman as Richard Amory
- Judith Menteath as Barbara Amory
- André van Gyseghem as Edward Raynor
- Wallace Evennett as Sir Claud Amory
- John Boxer as Captain Arthur Hastings
- Richard Fisher as Inspector Japp
Cast of 1931 production
- Francis L. Sullivan as Hercule Poirot
- Josephine Middleton as Miss Caroline Amory
- Dino Galvani as Dr. Carelli
- Jane Milligan as Lucia Amory
- Randolph McLeod as Richard Amory
- Renee Gadd as Barbara Amory
- Walter Fitzgerald as Edward Raynor
- E. Vivian Reynolds as Sir Claud Amory
- Roland Culver as Captain Arthur Hastings
- Neville Brook as Inspector Japp
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company's 2014 UK tour
It was directed by Joe Harmston. The set designer was was Simon Scullion.
- Robert Powell as Hercule Poirot
- Robin McCallum as Capt. Arthur Hastings
- Liza Goddard as Miss Caroline Amory
- Gary Mavers as Dr Carelli
- Olivia Mace as Lucia Amory
- Felicity Houlbrooke as Barbara Amory
- Ric Recate as Sir Claude Amory
- Eric Carte as Inspector Japp
- Ben Nealon as Richard Amory
- Martin Carroll as Tredwell
- John Ashby as Dr Graham
- Mark Jackson as Edward Raynor
- Kieran Moloney as Johnson
Robert Powell was later replaced by Jason Durr in the role as Hercule Poirot.
Publication and further adaptations
The play was first published by Alfred Ashley and Son during November 1934. It was republished with minor revisions by Samuel French Ltd. on July 1, 1952. This followed a successful revival in repertory.
Black Coffee's resurrection as a novel was not its first significant reworking, however. It had been adapted into a motion picture, also entitled Black Coffee, way back in 1931. Running to 78 minutes, the motion picture was produced by Julius S. Hagan and released on August 19, 1931 by Twickenham Film Studios. Austin Trevor played the role of Poirot in the motion picture. A few months earlier, he had played the same character in a screen version of the Alibi, made by the same film studio. (Alibi was an adaptation of Christie's classic whodunnit, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.)
In 1932, the play was filmed again, this time by Les Établissements Jacques Haïk in France. Opening in cinemas as Le Coffret de laque on July 15, 1932, it was the first non-English language treatment of a Christie work. It was released internationally as The Lackered Box.
The play was adapted for West German television in 1973.