Monday, December 17, 2012

Agatha Christie, Ian McKellen, Michael Jecks, and 'Democratic Art'

Ian McKellen reprises his role of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings films in The Hobbit, projected to be the first of three films chronicling the prequel time before the Rings adventures.

In an interview with TIME, McKellen pronounced that the one playright in whose plays he's acted that he hates to be Agatha Christie, the noted mystery writer. McKellen claims, "I've done a couple of plays--misery, rubbish. No sense of what human beings are at all."

Coincidentally, in a recent Twitter exchange with contemporary British mystery writer Michael Jecks, we agreed that Christie's characters are somewhat thinly developed. I tweeted Jecks:
...have you read much of Agatha Christie? I just finished one of hers. She writes puzzles...
...People seem more like caricatures. Yet I find her mysteries addictive.  
In the meantime, Jecks wrote back:
Hah! You beat me to that one! Yes, but they are fun and entertaining. Turn off mind etc...
...Yes puzzles: no characterisation really, which is why actors love her. They can stamp their own mark very easily! I enjoy 'em...
Jecks and I may seem to be saying the same thing as McKellen about Christie's work. But I don't think that's entirely so.

You see, the lack of deep character development, at least in the supporting cast of characters--suspects, mainly--in Christie's stories doesn't necessarily denote "no sense of human beings at all."

Clearly, she had a tremendous understanding of the human beings for whom she wrote her novels, stories, and plays.

She understood that in a workaday world of confounding mysteries, there's nothing more appealing to our egos or to our desire for order than a mystery in which we join the hero in resolving matters and setting things right.

The proof of how well she understood these things about us is in the enduring popularity of her work, even though much of it takes place in a Jeeves and Wooster world long gone.

Christie, like Alfred Hitchcock, also understood something primal in all human beings: Our terror that, at any moment, our well-ordered world could come crashing down on us.

So, while Christie's characters may be plastic, her understanding of the characters of those who read or viewed her works was anything but. In this, she remains lastingly insightful.

And this is why her work is more vital, more infused with character, than McKellen's dismissal of Christie would have it.

Years ago, I remember reading an essay by Ralph Gleason in Rolling Stone about the music of Bob Dylan. Much of Dylan's work is filled with Dylan's penchant for, in a phrase by Joan Baez in a song about her relationship with Dylan, "keeping things vague." Cryptic language, the meaning of which is ambiguous, can initially drive a hearer away from Dylan, not to mention the thinness of Dylan's voice and the usual sparseness of his arrangements. But those who stick with listening to Dylan are rewarded richly. Dylan's music, Gleason said, represents a "democratic art," work to which each listener brings her or his experiences, fears, and hopes. Dylan, at his best, doesn't tell you what to feel. He takes you to a place and lets you feel what you feel. That, asserted Gleason, is democratic art.

In a way, this is precisely what Christie did and still does. Actors in Christie plays or in scripts based on her stories, as Jecks pointed out, love the freedom of infusing the characters with whatever meaning or quirks they can. Readers are given the same freedom when they sit down to read a mystery by Christie.

In essence, Christie invites us to become her co-authors, to flesh out the characters she trots before us in our imaginations.

I read other authors to find fully realized characters in more realistic life situations. But that doesn't mean, as McKellen says, that Agatha Christie had no sense of human beings at all.

I find, in fact, that she knows me, anyway, very well.

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