Sarah Phelps’s screenplay The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) does more than simply rekindle interest in Agatha Christie’s original short story; rather, it points to its salvation. My understanding of adaptation follows Armelle Blin-Rolland’s model, which refuses to privilege either the source or the adapted text, considering both instead to form part of a textual multiplicity. The relationship between the two resembles, for Blin-Rolland, a vortex. Thus, the meanderings of Phelps’s adapted text cause us to take stock and to read the original itself as loiterature (Chambers) and thus as a text that eschews self-coincidence, that offers more to the idle reader than an efficient delivery of truth. Christie’s text, in other words, if I may myself adapt a term from Walter Benjamin, has an inherent adaptability. Rather than simply conjuring its own adaptation in a virtual future, “The Witness for the Prosecution” contains, in an immediate pre-diegetic past, the original source of itself as adaptation. This source text is not an alternative solution, but runs parallel to the actual reading—appealing, almost subliminally, for readers to produce it; it also runs idly, however, and, unlike its hasty corollary, is content to wait to catch a distracted eye.
Before shifting the focus more squarely from the 2016 adaptation to the original text (and its status as auto-adaptation), I should like to draw attention to the format of Phelps’s screenplay. As a mini-series, and thus an adaptation for television rather than a feature film, Phelps’s text presents something of a readerly paradox in and of itself. The series was originally aired by the BBC on two consecutive nights over the 2016 Christmas period (26 and 27 December). Thus, viewers were forced to pause for thought, but not over a week, which has traditionally been the cadence for episodes of television mini-series; instead, the 24-hour pause represented something of an extended intermission. For this reason, it is not clear whether the effect of the pause was to heighten anticipation, and thus to madden readers, or to enable them to take time out to review the case and to ask questions that the reader of the short story may not have time to ask. For, of course, the story is a short one, on the shorter side even by the standards of Christie’s shorter fiction. The mini-series does not present an abridged version, therefore, which is often the case for feature film adaptations; rather, it lengthens the story considerably. The whole experience is drawn out, not condensed. And yet, it is not clear whether this change of pace significantly alters the viewer/reader’s experience.
I shall argue here that what it in fact does is to draw out elements of the source text that otherwise pass by unseen. Thus, whether or not the experience that one has of the television mini-series is loiterly per se, it certainly causes the reader who is aware of the short story to reread the latter and, I argue here, to see it as itself an adaptation, and further as an adaptation of itself. Lastly, it is perhaps worth reflecting that, after this initial airing of the mini-series on BBC television, The Witness for the Prosecution became available on DVD and for online streaming. In these formats, the hiatus of the episode break can readily be skipped. The binge-viewer has the ability to view in haste. In addition to erasing, to some degree at least, the difference between a feature film and a television series, such viewing practices recall the perceived generic differences between literature, with its descriptive passages and detours, and crime fiction, with its tendency to be highly plot-, and especially end-, driven. In either case therefore, to apprehend crime fiction in a loiterly fashion is a learned activity, a process that may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but one that Christie’s texts reflexively promote even as they ensnare the reader in the cleverness of their plots.
The short story is famous for its twist in the tale: the person who appears the most likely murderer and who is tried for the crime turns out, in fact, to be guilty, much to the surprise of his solicitor, Mr Mayherne. Phelps’s adaptation, for its part, ends with the solicitor, John Mayhew (an alternative surname already used in Christie’s own adaptation for the stage in 1953), walking into the sea off the French coast, determined, or so it would appear, to take his own life, having been informed by his client’s partner that she has known all along that Leonard Vole was guilty. In addition to a new ending, the mini-series also receives a substantial new beginning: Leonard and Romaine receive a back-story; so too, over the course of the mini-series, does Mayhew himself. His determination to save Leonard is set against the death of his own son, who left to fight in the First World War despite being too young for service. Mayhew’s wife, we learn, has never forgiven him for the loss of her son. Saving the innocent Leonard is Mayhew’s way of redeeming himself. When he discovers that he has been duped and that he has saved a guilty man, the only atonement he can see is his own death.
While Mayhew’s probity is made ambiguous by Phelps, Leonard and Romaine’s common back-story serves to some degree to explain, if not to justify, their callous behaviour. Phelps’s dramatic first scene shows a soldier drifting almost literally blindly across no-man’s land between the trenches of a First World War battlefield, taking cover from exploding shells and finding refuge in a crater where he finds his future partner Romaine. What is staged here is a looking back to the past, but not in the kind of nostalgic longing for times gone by associated with Christie; instead, Phelps points back to the trauma of war, in the light of which the present is to be survived and negotiated. In her introduction to the edition of the short story republished following the success of the mini-series, Phelps discusses her expectations when being commissioned to adapt Christie’s works, with which she claimed to be familiar without having previously read them. She labels Christie the “epitome of a particular nostalgia-laden Englishness” and mentions, for example, having to step out of the way of people queuing to see The Mousetrap in London’s West End (Christie v). In the light of such comments, it is tempting to see Phelps’s mini-series as a means of circumnavigating popular conceptions of Christie and combating this nostalgia for things past (not only better times, perhaps, but also better detective fiction).
A vortical reading of The Witness for the Prosecution as multiplicity, however, in no way works against the original short story; in fact, rather than stepping around it, Phelps’s extended diegetic frame causes us to reflect on the way in which the story itself looks back, making room for, and even conjuring, an unseen pre-diegetic space. Thus, the battleground scene serves a reflexive end, not simply excusing Leonard and Romaine’s subsequent behaviour, but also graphically staging the textual no man’s land of adaptation—the space between the entrenched positions of two authorial powers. The bomb craters suggest both the violence done to the source text and the possibility for a new start and an end to the dominion of previous masters. Not only Leonard and Romaine, but Sarah Phelps, the reader, and even John Mayhew—who steps out of the shadows of Mr Mayherne—all escape the certainties of an era, an empire, and embrace a new future. My argument here is not simply that Christie benefits from the new beginning of another’s adaptation, but that she herself adapted what precedes Mr Mayherne’s first interview with Leonard Vole in her original text.
In the story’s final revelation, Romaine opposes Mr Mayherne’s purchase on the truth to her own: he, she states, “thought [Leonard] was innocent”, whereas she “knew – he was guilty!” (29). This is the truth that Phelps’s adaptation appears to mitigate with its staging of extenuating circumstances and casting of Mr Mayherne as the ultimate victim of the story. I do not wish to argue here that Leonard Vole is innocent; rather, what I shall argue is that Romaine and generations of readers have misunderstood the dynamics of the narrative, for the fundamental binary at play is not “thinking versus knowing” but “knowing versus believing”. In this case, therefore, I almost, but not quite, agree with Phelps’s statement that “it’s not the truth that matters […] but performance” (Christie viii). While the text is very much a performance, it is one that serves to “screen” a truth in the Freudian sense, as well as in the cinematic one: the truth that is showcased in the last line of the story also hides another truth, which is, paradoxically, the same one. By revealing the truth in the form of Romaine’s victory, the text hides the fact that Mr Mayherne has known the truth from the very start, and indeed, before that. The story is a performance therefore, but a fetishistic one that points to the truth precisely in order to keep it just out of view. In this way, what Mr Mayhew knows to be true is neither stated explicitly nor entirely repressed; instead, it is disavowed, and what the short story performs is a screen memory.
Read vortically, Christie’s and Phelps’s texts both displace the element that separates knowledge from belief, which, as Ellen Lee McCallum notes (xii), is desire. In Phelps’s adaptation, John Mayhew desires to save Leonard Vole in order to redeem his son’s death; in Christie’s text, Mr Mayherne desires to save Leonard in order to save the text. This is salvation as theorised by Shoshana Felman, who famously considered that Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw could only be saved from the critical binary of ghost story versus psychoanalytical tale by having its ambiguity preserved. If Phelps’s adaptation becomes something of a ghost story (it is, at least, a tale of people haunted by the past), Christie’s original text uses a psychoanalytic move to disavow its own psychoanalytical mechanics. Whereas detective fiction is typically end-oriented, with its focus on the ultimate revelation of truth, the psychoanalytic text locates truth in a pre-text. Thus, to save “The Witness for the Prosecution”, the reader must adopt a beginning-oriented lens and establish the original shape of its pre-diegetic revelation. This means loitering (and enacting that paradoxical mix of idle resistance advanced by Chambers) at that very point where the logics of detective fiction are seemingly designed to fast-track the reader’s pursuit of the ultimate solution. For, while reading to discover the ending is still promoted by the crime narrative here, a counter-logics of hesitation and retrospection always accompanies the reader’s progress forwards. If chances to meander down side-alleys are limited, given the brevity of the story, it is this double movement, this walking with a backwards gaze, with half an eye on the present and half on the past, that forces even that reader most pre-disposed to task-focused digestion of the text to slow down and to wander. What is so striking in “The Witness for the Prosecution” is arguably how Christie makes space for wandering in such a restricted narrative, in a creative format that is, of course, all about punch and economy.
This space is created as early as the story’s opening sentence. “Mr Mayherne”, it begins, “adjusted his pince-nez and cleared his throat with a little dry-as-dust cough that was wholly typical of him” (1). Whether or not we can be sure that Mr Mayherne’s cough was typical of him before the story begins is uncertain. His habit of adjusting his pince-nez, on the other hand, which is here associated with the cough, is certainly recently acquired. This we learn at the end of the story: “He found himself polishing his pince-nez vigorously, and checked himself. His wife had told him only the night before that he was getting a habit of it” (27). It is my contention that this habit is a response to a traumatic revelation of truth, which requires Mr Mayherne henceforth to adjust his perspective.
Habits, as Mr Mayherne’s wife points out, are born of repetition. The story, too, begins with a repeated act. Indeed, the solicitor’s next action is to look at his client, whom the reader is seeing for the first time at this initial point of the text, but whom Mr Mayherne has already seen: “Then he looked again at the man opposite him” (1, my emphasis). At the outset therefore, this habit of adjusting his pince-nez is proleptic, insofar as it will enable him to realise (albeit apparently, but only apparently, too late) that Romaine and the old woman who gives him the letters that condemn her are one and the same, but also analeptic, as it looks back to a previous contemplation of a disguise. The habit that he detects in Romaine is one of clenching and unclenching her right hand. That he sees this without initially being fully conscious of it and then later understands the gesture’s significance is due to his own fetishistic response to the truth of Leonard’s guilt. When he first sees his client, he recognises his guilt, either in his eyes, which then causes him to avert his gaze and look down to his hands, or in his murderer’s hands, which causes him to displace his gaze and to look instead at his own hands, which he occupies by adjusting his pince-nez. Either way, his failure to look at Romaine’s hands and see them immediately for what they are is itself a displacement of his dual state—of knowing his client to be guilty and believing in his innocence “in spite of the multitude of facts arrayed against [him]” (13).
Repetition blunts the reader’s awareness of its fundamental role in the story. The weight of evidence against Leonard Vole is repeated again and again. This is one of the key devices, even a cliché, of detective fiction: the most obviously guilty character must be innocent. At its most basic level, this is how “The Witness for the Prosecution” surprises its readers. My suggestion, however, is that this knowledge serves merely to screen the book’s original, or other, meaning, which is that Mr Mayherne knows the truth. It is not truth, but the knowledge of the truth, that the reader is tasked to discover. To this extent, Phelps is right: “it is not the truth that matters, but performance”. And in this case, it is the performance of the truth of Leonard’s guilt in the actualised story that hides the knowledge of the truth that is its pre-text and whose form is not taken by the story while nonetheless being analeptically staged and virtually formed, or (auto-)adapted, as pre-text. In reflexive terms, the highlighting of repeated gestures, and especially Mr Mayherne’s cleaning of his lenses, can usefully be considered signals for the reader to pause for thought. And yet, as reflexive signals, they are both provocative and provocatively hesitant, for however clearly they are displayed, they fail to check the pace and end-orientation of the short story because the reader’s own habit—the compulsion to read in haste, to read for the solution—is not so easily broken.
Leonard’s first words in the story are simply, “I know”, which is, in the framework of the present reading, a pure reflection of what the man sitting opposite him is trying to disavow. What Leonard knows is that his situation is grave and that he must be frank. He knows this because, as he says to Mr Mayherne, “You keep telling me so” (1). But it is this response that in fact causes the story to become a tale of repetition. First, there is Mr Mayherne’s conviction: “we shall succeed—we shall succeed” (2). Romaine then repeats her desire when she first meets Mr Mayherne, twice stating the words, “I want to know the worst” (14). Leonard is nonetheless responding to a prior repetition, which, is predicated on the story’s initial “looking again”. In other words, the story itself is a screen memory, a fetish-made-diegesis. The result, in an apparent paradox, is that the desire to hasten the ending, to bring on the final verdict, however terrible, is at the same time a signal for the reader to look back. Again, to look back to that initial second look is to inscribe circles on circles, and to enforce wandering even at this reflexively-staged moment of end-orientation.
Certainly, Romaine’s comment, “I want to know”, performs fetishism’s combination of knowledge and desire. And yet, unlike Mr Mayherne’s desire (to save Leonard), which is opposed to his knowledge (that Leonard is guilty), Romaine’s desire appears aligned with knowledge: she does not say that she knows the worst, but that she wants to know it. She has another secret desire, of course, as she reveals to Mr Mayherne in what is a paradoxical display of secrecy. When he asks why she hates her husband so much, she retorts: “Yes, you would like to know. But I shall not tell you. I will keep my secret” (17). Further, she mocks him for honestly believing Leonard to be innocent.
Both characters are honest, then: Romaine wants to know that Leonard is guilty (and certainly does not believe him to be innocent) and openly has a secret that she will not divulge; Mr Mayherne, for his part, knows the case against his client is ironclad but also honestly believes him to be innocent. Their stated aims may well be opposed—she wants Leonard to hang; he wants him to go free. Their “true” aims are nonetheless aligned: she knows Leonard is guilty and will sacrifice her own credibility in court to save her husband; he believes Leonard is innocent and will sacrifice her in court to save his client. Both tell the truth in public when performing their official duties (he as solicitor, she as wife). The only difference between them lies in the nature of their other performance: she lies to him by performing the role of an old woman who knows secrets about her past; he knows Leonard to be guilty but partially represses this by taking up his narrative only after he has erected a fetish to protect himself from this traumatic truth (and the reader from the secret past of the text). This disavowal means that he can honestly believe in his client’s innocence while still knowing him to be guilty. Again then, Phelps’s statement—that it is not the truth that matters, but performance—is itself both true and not true. Romaine performs in the story in order for the truth that she knows to be said and then discredited; Mr Mayherne, on the other hand, performs the story in order for his knowledge of the truth to be disavowed, which it to say, repressed within the form that is given to the reader to see, but also available, and able to take form (for the reader prepared to digress) in what lies just beyond the limits of what is said.
The conversation in which Romaine repeats her desire to know also ends in a repetition, this time with one of the solicitor’s signature moves: “Mr Mayherne gave his dry little cough and rose” (17). This cough repeats the one that opened the story. In that first instance, it distracted the reader, allowing the adverb “again” to rush through, seen and unseen. In this way, the first cough, accompanied by Mr Mayherne’s cleaning of his lenses, causes the reader to focus their own gaze on him rather than on what he had been looking at. This is a cough designed to open the narrative on Mr Mayherne’s terms. In this second example, it closes down dialogue. This second cough is motivated by precisely the same traumatic revelation of the truth, except that in this repetition it is displaced onto Romaine. With the words, “I shall not tell you. I will keep my secret”, she says to him in the text what Mr Mayherne said to himself in the pre-text. This is a repetition therefore in a story of repetition and of a story of repetition. Repeating what was said before with different words and, at the same time, repeating with the same words what was not said before, the text here presents itself to the reader in the form of an auto-adaptation, a second look at an original text whose form is otherwise virtual.
In this way, words unsaid are repressed partially: they are not said in the diegesis (which stands as a screen memory, simultaneously standing in place of the text and tracing in the present the contours of its form as absence) but are said, instead, by proxy, through displacement, in the reflexively staged performance of another text. The disavowal at play here is such that readers find themselves in two spaces at once, on two lines of flight, with the one being opposed to the other. Steps forwards and backwards are taken in equal measure. We are therefore witnesses to “The Witness for the Prosecution”, looking on as the story follows onwards, but this very act of witnessing counteracts this prosecution, adding the idleness of the gaze to the purposefulness of pursuit (of truth). The result is not so much somewhere between a stalled, or false, start, and a race to the end, as both at the same time. In this way, Christie’s story, despite appearances to the contrary, is the very embodiment of wandering.
At the origins of both Christie’s story and Phelps’s adaptation is a common truth. It serves as a pre-text for both texts, for both performances. In both cases, this pre-text privileges performance over truth. Each text also has a pre-text, which precedes and predicates the performance. We may consider that Phelps’s adaptation captures the essence (of truth) of Christie’s original. In this way, it values that truth and holds it necessary to its own performance, without being derivative in relation to it. Again, the same holds for Christie’s text, whose pre-text protects its truth beneath its performance: while the performance partially represses this pre-textual truth (with its gaudy staging of its own truth, which we may perhaps this time consider derivative), it also preserves it. For without the performance (of truth), the knowledge at its origin cannot exist. To read “The Witness for the Prosecution” as an adaptation of itself requires a fetishistic eye, and the fetishist is nothing if not a digressive observer. If you’re quick, you can catch the performance; but if you’re content to wander, the audacity of what Christie does not reveal is well worth the wait.
Blin-Rolland, Armelle. “Adaplastics: Forming the Zazie dans le métro Network.” Modern and Contemporary France (2019): forthcoming.
Chambers, Ross. Loiterature. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Christie, Agatha. The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. London: Harper, 2016.
Felman, Shoshana. “Turning the Screw of Interpretation.” Yale French Studies. 55–56 (1977): 94–207.
McCallum, Ellen Lee. Object Lessons: How to Do Things with Fetishism. New York: SUNY Press, 1992.
The Witness for the Prosecution. Dir. Julian Jarrold. BBC One, 2016.