At first glance, there is little in ‘‘The Witness for the Prosecution’’ that cries out for a stage adaptation. The story is largely about plot, strategy, and perception. It has very little in the way of dramatic action, save for one scene—and even that is severely abridged, lessening its impact. When comparing the original to its adaptation, however, it is clear that these weaknesses were really more like opportunities that allowed the author to present a dramatic work that retained the core of the original story, yet expanded so significantly upon it that the work could be enjoyed anew by even her most avid readers.
Upon first inspection, the story seems inappropriate for a stage adaptation because it features too many locations and not enough description and dialogue. As a story, ‘‘The Witness for the Prosecution’’ is short, lean, and double-barbed. It seems as if Christie were so concerned about getting the skeleton of the plot down that she left out all the extraneous parts. The story begins after the murder has already been committed, and after Leonard Vole has been arrested for the crime and had a lawyer appointed to him.
In addition, the climactic courtroom scene— around which the entire story is based—is virtually nonexistent, with most of the dialogue paraphrased instead of being presented as a contemporaneous account. In fact, for what most people now think of as a story centered on courtroom testimony, almost all the action takes place away from the courtroom.
The number of locations—almost none of which are described with any sort of detail—is dizzying for such a short tale. The first scene presumably takes place in a meeting room at the prison where Leonard is being held, and the second takes place in the Vole home. The action then shifts briefly to police court, then to Mayherne’s office, and then to the Shaw’s Rents room occupied by Mrs. Mogson. This is followed by a brief jaunt to a cinema on Lion’s Road and then—at long last—the courtroom for the main trial. The final scene is given this downright sumptuous, painterly description: ‘‘He did not see her again until some time later, and the place of their meeting is not relevant.’’ The story, then, is at least superficially the opposite of what one would consider when looking for work to adapt for the stage: too many locations and not enough dialogue It is understandable, then, that the play aims to condense all the action into just two locations: the court—identified in the play as the Old Bailey in London—and the chambers of Vole’s lawyer, Sir Wilfrid Robarts. The location changes may seem small, but they had a profound effect on how the story would be adapted. Above all, the changes acknowledge the importance of the courtroom testimony, which is the source of much of the drama and tension in the work. Suddenly the work has become a courtroom drama—of course, it always was, but Christie tried her best to ignore this fact in the original text. There are good reasons for her reticence in focusing on the courtroom aspects. First, although Christie was familiar enough with outlining the details of a crime and the maneuverings of those trying to avoid justice, she had no knowledge of the workings of trials. As she later protested theater producer Peter Saunders before agreeing to attempt the adaptation, ‘‘I don’t know a thing about legal procedure. I Should Make A Fool Of myself.’’ This explains her original handling of the pivotal courtroom scene in the story; she simply did not know the particulars of how such a trial would unfold. It was only when asked to create the stage adaptation that Christie finally researched the subject and interviewed lawyers.
There was another significant change required due to the focus on courtroom proceedings. In the original story, the viewpoint character is Mr. Mayherne, a solicitor for Leonard Vole. In the traditional British justice system, a defendant like Vole would have two lawyers: a solicitor, who would handle the gathering of information and interactions with the defendant, and an advocate, who would be the official defender of the client during the trial. This split of duties poses a problem in a tale like ‘‘Witness for the Prosecution,’’ since the lawyer who does all the work on the case— Mayherne—is not the one who confronts the witness in court. In the original story, it is in fact quite easy for a modern reader to miss the fact that Mayherne is the one cross-examining Romaine Heigler during the trial. The advocate, referred to only once as ‘‘Sir Charles,’’ is the person vaguely referred to as ‘‘counsel for the defense’’ in the courtroom scene. While British readers of the time might have easily understood the distinction, modern readers—especially American readers— may be easily confused.
For the short story, then, Christie’s solution for this problem is to downplay the courtroom action, which reduces the role of the advocate. For the play, however, Christie goes a different route. Knowing that the courtroom scenes are the heart of the drama and action, she downgrades the importance of Mayherne (renamed Mayhew in the play), and promotes Robarts the advocate to the position of main character. The latter is the better solution for a dramatic adaptation, and one cannot help but wonder if it would have been a better choice for the original story as well. Of course, the play was written with the benefit of an additional twenty-eight years of experience and reflection, so this comparative failing of the short story is perhaps forgivable.
The other significant difference between the two works is, of course, the ending. The original story packs a one-two punch at the end as Mayherne realizes Romaine is also Mrs. Mogson, the woman who provided the love letters, and then learns that Leonard was actually guilty of the murder. Not content to leave this twist alone, the play offers a quadruple-whammy: in addition to the two previous shockers, Romaine learns that Leonard has actually been cheating on her with a younger woman, and she impulsively stabs him to death in the very courtroom where he was acquitted. The dizzying revelations piled atop one another in this final scene might seem a bit much when compared to the simpler, cleaner shock of the original story, but the expanded ending is more than just an attempt to outdo the original. Much of it has to do with the special characteristics of stage drama as opposed to literature.
In the story, Mayherne realizes that Mrs. Mogson is actually Romaine after he notices that both clench and unclench their fists. However, what works beautifully on the page does not necessarily work as well on the stage. For example, it is rather difficult to show an audience a character coming to a realization, which is an internal thought process. Some dramatic works bypass this by allowing the character a monologue that describes their thoughts, but this would hardly be appropriate in the more realistic setting and style of Witness for the Prosecution In addition, in the story the author can ‘‘play fair’’ by offering a passing description of the hand movements to readers, giving them the opportunity to guess the woman’s identity before it is revealed. It would be hard for audience members—some of whom might be sitting toward the back of the theater—to pick up that this subtle physical movement is a clue to Mrs. Mogson’s identity. For these reasons, then, the play reveals the woman’s true identity via a direct confession by Romaine, complete with an imitation of Mogson’s voice for audience members who still cannot follow.
The other problem the original story’s ending has on the stage is that the final revelation does not involve any sort of climactic action. It would seem silly for the curtain to simply drop after Romaine reveals Vole’s guilt in the murder. On stage, something must happen . This is solved with the expanded ending, which adds both another revelation—externalized for the audience and Romaine in the appearance of Vole’s mistress—and a most devastating action: a murder. The pacing of this final scene might seem rushed, but it certainly delivers on action and drama.
There is one additional benefit found in the stage ending, though its significance might be more subliminal or even academic. In the original story, the killer and his accomplice go free, presumably with a large amount of money. In the stage version, the killer is himself murdered, and his accomplice goes to jail not for perjury but for murder. Justice is ultimately served, unlike in the original story. This is in keeping with many of Christie’s other works; her murderers are generally forced to answer for their crimes. Even in Murder on the Orient Express (1934), where the guilty parties are allowed to go free, it is presented as an act of greater justice, since their victim was himself a child killer. Christie felt strongly about the added ending for Witness for the Prosecution and even had to insist that she would not allow the play to be produced unless the ending appeared as she wrote it. And although the original story has its own strengths, Christie was astute at preserving the positives and building upon the dramatic opportunities the original work afforded. As she herself wrote in her autobiography, ‘‘I was as nearly satisfied with that play as I have been with any.’’ It is doubtless many audience members would agree.
Greg Wilson, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Agatha Christie, Published by Gale Group, 2010