AKHNATON: A PLAY IN THREE ACTS by Agatha Christie (1973)
Today is Agatha Christie Day on Friday's Forgotten Books. Many of us will be focusing on one book or another by the Mistress of Mystery. Although best known for her mysteries, Christie also wote mainsteam romantic novels, poetry, fantasy, and plays. Although most of her published plays are in the mystery genre, one -- AKHNATON -- stands out, perhaps because it does not seem to have had any professional performances and perhaps because it is based on a historical person.
Akhnaton, as a man, is shrouded in mystery, which makes him a fitting subject for Christie. His birthdate is unknown, but he was a son of Amenhotep III, and ruled from 1353-1336 BC (give or take a few years). He may have acted as co-regent with his father before that, but that is speculation. Anyway, for the first few years of his reign, he ruled as Amenhotep IV, then changed his name as Akhnaton (or Akhenaten) and proclaimed himself the son of Ra (or Aton), the sun god. He declared that worship of Aton would be the religion in Egypt and he had a great city built on the Upper Nile to become the capitol of the country. All other religions were apparently banned.
What few images of the man show (perhaps deliberately so) a distorted person. We do know that he had a long skull and a protruding jaw (think H. P. Lovecraft). He was married to Nefertiti, supposedly one of the most beautiful women in the world. He had a number of daughters and was probably the father (by another woman) of his successor Tutankhaton (later Tutankhamun). At his end of his life, Anhknaton's body was greatly distoted, giving rise to numerous theories about his death. After Anhknaton's death, Egypt went back to its old gods, and the memory of Anhknaton was erased until the 19th century. Slowly a contradictory picture of the man has begun to emerge.
Many people credit Anhknaton as the protogentitor of monotheism, although this may be an extreme view. He certainly was a promoter of one god above all others. Several have linked him as the origin of the Moses myth in Judeaic tradition.
Christie was greatly interested in archeology and the Middle East through her marriage to Max Mallowan. She originally wrote this play in 1937 with the help of Egyptologist friend Stephen Glanville. The play was evidently written for her pleasure only and was then set aside. She came across the manuscript in the early Seventies, and since there had been some recent interest in Tutankhamun, she made a few revisions and sent it to her publisher.
Christie's Akhnaton is a mythic and tragic figure, part dreamer and part mystic. Raise surrepitiously by his mother to worship Ra, he comes to believe that the sun is the giver of life and of warmth. Akhnaton, however, does not worship the physical object; rather, he feels that godhood lies in the sun's energy, its heat.
He considers the worship of idols and effigies to be meaningless -- a god cannot be constrained by man's image of him. As an aesthete, Anhknaton also believes in nonviolence and in the essential goodness of man. Innocents may be slaughtered in the name of nonviolence, but eventually mankind will learn the benefits of peace. Thus, while Egypt's kingdom is being invaded and its allies slaughtered, Akhnaton does nothing because he does not want blood on his hands.
The play covers the entire reign of Akhnaton, from the death of his father to the beginning of Tutankhaum's reign. While Amenhoten II is dying, the prince (soon to be known as Amenhotep IV) becomes friends with a young soldier, Horemheb. Horemheb swears allegience to the prince which begins a life-long friendship which eventually casts Horemheb as the leader of Egypt's army.
Christie's Akhnaton has room for only one love, his bride Nefertiti. Nefertiti is beautiful and faithful but not the brightest woman in Egypt -- that claim could go to her sister Nezzemut who bemoans that her sister got the beauty in the family while she received the brains. Akhnaton refuses to take any other brides (including Nezzemut), even though Nefertiti has presented him with daughters only. He names one of his sons-in-law, Tutankhaton, to be his heir. While Egypt lies broke and near ruin, priests of the deposed god Amon convince Horemhab that his true loyalty lies to Egypt and not to the king. With the aid of Nezzemut, they plot to poison the king, raising the boy Tutankhaton to the throne. After a few years, the boy could be disposed of and Horemheb could rule and rebuild the kingdom. In a cruel twist, the plot relies on Nefertiti being the unknowing engine of Akhnaton's doom.
Our understanding of that era has changed a bit since 1973. Akhnaton did have more than one wife and several consorts, including (most probably) some of his daughters. Tutankhamun was almost certainly Anhknaton's son by one of his mistresses. Anhknaton was also probably far more concerned with governing than the effetist dreamer that Christie portrayed.
But the story that Christie has given us has power. Like Icarus, Christie's hero flew far to close to the sun and paid the price. Sadly, with eleven separate scene changes within the three acts and with twenty speaking roles, most of us will never get to see this play performed. We can read it, though, and imagine.
Recommended -- especially for those who want to see another side of the Mistress of Mystery.
For more on Christie (and other Forgotten Books), see Patti Abbott's ever-fascinating blog, pattinase.