How King Tut helped inspire a Christie play

MASK REVEALED: Howard Carter and an unnamed assistant inspect Tutankhamun’s innermost coffin

MASK REVEALED: Howard Carter and an unnamed assistant inspect Tutankhamun’s innermost coffin

First published in Gray Matter by

The not-to-be-missed exhibition Discovering Tutankhamum at the Ashmolean Museum revived scarcely dormant memories of my visit, during a holiday cruise some years ago, to the tomb of the boy king. That Tutankhamun was still a boy (almost) when he died, incidentally, was not realised in the immediate aftermath of Howard Carter’s amazing discovery. Until a post-mortem was carried out on his embalmed body, he was presumed to have died at an advanced age: as the world was gripped by mummy-mania — which is entertainingly chronicled in the exhibition — the appellation ‘Old King Tut’ became embedded in popular culture.

An early visitor to the tomb, eight years after it was opened, was the detective story writer Agatha Christie. As is well known, she was married to the archaeologist (and fellow of All Souls) Sir Max Mallowan, and often travelled with him on his digs. These supplied material for a number of her books, including Death on the Nile, Murder in Mesopotamia and Appointment With Death. In her autobiography, she wrote: “The lure of the past came up to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing, with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.”

She went on: “Many years ago, when I was once saying sadly to Max it was a pity I couldn’t have taken up archaeology when I was a girl, so as to be more knowledgeable on the subject, he said, ‘Don’t you realise that at this moment you know more about prehistoric pottery than any woman in England?’”

Her enthusiasm for Egyptian history was fuelled by her visit to Luxor in 1931 when she and Max were introduced to Howard Carter, still about his work in the tomb.

A surprising result of her interest was the writing of a play, Akhnaton (1937), which most people don’t know about for the simple reason that it has never been professionally staged. It seems remarkable that the writer of the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, in the West End since 1952, should have a work neglected in this way; but this might have something to do with the fact that it requires 11 scene changes and has no fewer than 22 speaking parts. Then there’s its subject matter — hardly stuff usually associated with the name of Agatha Christie.

I chanced upon a description of it last week while looking into the performance history of Black Coffee, her previous play, which is being brought to Oxford Playhouse next week (see today’s Weekend).

Biographer Charles Osborne writes: “It is set in Ancient Egypt, spanning a period of 17 years from 1375 to 1358BC, the years of the Pharaoh, Akhnaton. The play is concerned with the attempt of Akhnaton to persuade a polytheistic Egypt to turn to the worship of one deity, Aton, the Sun God. Son and successor of Amenhotep III, the Pharaoh had changed his name to Akhnaton, son of Aton, to indicate his devotion to the sun god. As presented by Christie, he is a man whose gentleness is not offset by strength but undermined by a weakness of character; a ruler whose attempts to lead his people along paths of peace and amity have the unfortunate effect of delivering an enervated and demoralised country into the hands of its enemies.”

It all sounds rather a long way from the world of Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells or of Miss Marple and her village parallels.

While there have been a number of amateur productions of the play, it has never been professionally staged. It was published in book form in 1973, partly in response to the revival of interest in things Egyptian following The Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum the previous year.

Christie wrote afterwards: “John Gielgud was later kind enough to write to me. He said it had interesting points, but was far too expensive to produce and had not enough humour. I had not connected humour with Akhnaton, but I saw that I was wrong. Egypt was just as full of humour as anywhere else.”

Max Mallowan said loyally of the play: “This is the way to learn painlessly about Ancient Egypt and to become imbued with an interest in it.”

This being the case, isn’t it time some theatre company at last gave us the chance to appreciate it?

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