Murder on the Orient Express: A Q&A with Playwright Ken Ludwig

Thumbnail Motoe CFT Credited

Murder on the Orient Express, adapted by Ken Ludwig, opens at Chichester Festival Theatre in May. We spoke with the esteemed playwright about transforming this story for the stage.

Tell us about the origins of your adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.

It all started when my agent called one morning and said that the Agatha Christie Limited had been in touch to ask whether I would be interested in adapting one of Christie’s novels for the stage. I was immensely flattered, of course, and I was put in touch with Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, who was then running the company. When we spoke, Mathew was kind enough allow me to choose the novel I would most like to adapt.

Why did you choose Murder on the Orient Express?

I chose Murder on the Orient Express because it is such a stunning mystery in so many ways. The setting is exotic, the characters are colourful, and though the names are changed, it’s based on an historical event—the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby—which dominated the news at the time the book was written. That historical context gives the story special consequence: this shocking crime has gone unsolved, and the killer is aboard the Orient Express.

Also, because the novel was written in the mid-1930s, I was able to cast a glance at the rise of Hitler. As you’ll see if you read the play or see it at the Chichester Festival, the shadow of Nazism has subtle yet powerful implications for Poirot’s central dilemma.

Finally, the glamour of the Orient Express itself gives a designer enormous scope to create a memorable occasion. Trains are inherently exciting, and the Orient Express is the king of them all. At the Chichester Festival, the great Rob Jones is the designer, and he and the director, Jonathan Church have put their heads together and made the train simply glorious to look at. Heck, it even gets to charge through a snowstorm!

What better way to spend a pleasant evening together?
Hercule Poirot, Ken Ludwig's Murder on the Orient Express

What are the challenges of crafting a murder mystery for the stage?

Mysteries are always tricky to write for the stage. Just think of how few truly memorable ones there are. In fact, Dame Agatha herself wrote three of the greatest. In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, one of the biggest challenges was dealing with the large number of characters in the book. In the novel, there are twelve suspects, mirroring the size of a British jury. In the play, I reduce the number of suspects to eight in order to make the play more manageable and less crowded.

Also, storytelling in plays is very different from that in novels. In a play, you have two hours to tell the story quickly and effectively, with a real sense of occasion. And you have to grab the viewer right from the get-go. In William Gibson’s wonderful book about Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Game, he points out that Shakespeare usually starts his plays with a scene that really gets the audience’s attention. For example, Romeo and Juliet begins with a street brawl. In Twelfth Night, there’s a storm at sea and a shipwreck that throws the heroine onto an unknown island. With this in mind, I open Murder on the Orient Express with the flashback of a grisly kidnapping, told in the dark. That’s not how the book begins, but it immediately draws the audience into the action and prepares them for a high-stakes mystery-thriller.

How did you go about creating speeches for the famous Belgian detective?

Writing for the character of Poirot was a delightful challenge. The character that Dame Agatha created is immensely intelligent. He’s extremely subtle, yet at the same time fussy, and he has a wry sense of humor laced with boastfulness. He’s vain—we all know how he cares for his hair and his mustache. He’s precise and persnickety—if his eggs are of different sizes, he won’t eat them. But despite his quirks, Poirot is also a man of great conviction and morality. When there are wrongs to be righted, he never stops, exploding into anger when the occasion warrants. This combination of ethics and eccentricities made writing him for the stage a special treat.

And just think: for three days these strangers are brought together in the closest of quarters, eating and sleeping under a single roof.
Hercule Poirot, Ken Ludwig's Murder on the Orient Express

There are some wonderfully funny moments in the show. How did you tease out the humour in the story?

The characters created by Dame Agatha in the book gave me enormous scope for invention. Think of Mrs. Hubbard, the mid-Western American divorcée with a flair for the dramatic; the Hungarian Countess who is romantic and beautiful, yet down to earth and highly intelligent; the nervous secretary who is scared of his own shadow; the haughty, ancient Russian princess who was forced out of her country during the revolution and has been bitter about it ever since. These are characters to savour, and I loved the opportunity to expand upon them through the lens of the stage and to highlight their comic potential.

You are most well known for your comic plays. What got you interested in writing mysteries?

From as long as I can remember, my goal in life was writing comedies for the stage. Lucky me, I had some success, and then one summer I visited a castle in Connecticut built by William Gillette. Gillette was the man who wrote the first great play about Sherlock Holmes and portrayed the character on stage for over thirty years, starting in the 1890s. This inspired me to write a mystery that takes place at the castle during the visit of Gillette’s Broadway cast for a weekend of romance and murder. That play, The Game’s Afoot, ended up winning the Edgar Award for best mystery of the year, and I suddenly realized the special joy of writing mysteries for the stage.

My next comedy-mystery was an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes tale, The Hound of The Baskervilles, which I titled Baskerville. As I wrote it, I became more and more enchanted by the genre. My latest mystery play is entitled Moriarty, which will have its world premiere at the Cleveland Playhouse next season.

For me, mystery writing, like comedy, is another way to shed light on the human condition. It can be great literature, and it’s dazzlingly fun to write.

Thumbnail Ken Ludwig Credit Leslie Cashen
Ken Ludwig, Photo Courtesy of Leslie Cashen

About Ken Ludwig

Ken Ludwig has had six shows on Broadway, seven in London's West End, and many of his works have become a standard part of the American repertoire. His 31 plays and musicals have been performed in over 30 countries in more than 20 languages and are produced throughout the United States every night of the year.

Lend Me a Tenor
won two Tony Awards and was called "one of the classic comedies of the 20th century" by The Washington Post. Crazy For You was on Broadway for 5 years and won the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Musical.

In addition, he has won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery of the Year, two Laurence Olivier Awards, two Helen Hayes Awards, and the Edwin Forrest Award for Contributions to the American Theater. His plays have starred, among others, Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett, Tony Shaloub, Joan Collins and Hal Holbrook.

His stage version of Murder on the Orient Express was written expressly at the request of Agatha Christie Limited, and his latest play, Dear Jack, Dear Louise, won the 2020 Charles MacArthur Award for Best New Play of the Year.

His book How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, published by Penguin Random House, won the Falstaff Award for Best Shakespeare Book of the Year, and his essays are published in the Yale Review.

He is a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge and is a frequent guest speaker for groups as varied as The Jane Austen Society of North America, The Folger Shakespeare Library, and The Baker Street Irregulars.

For more information, see his website at www.kenludwig.com.

Sign up to the newsletter to receive The World of Agatha Christie: 1920s magazine