Monthly Archives: February 2014

‘The Actress’ (1923)

This story was first published in Issue 218 of Novel Magazine in May 1923, under the title ‘A Trap for the Unwary’. In 1998, it was republished in the collection While the Light Lasts and Other Stories as ‘The Actress’ – Christie’s original title. It’s the tale of Nancy Taylor, whose new identity as the actress Olga Stormer is threatened by a ruthless blackmailer, on whom she exerts a satisfying revenge. It is also Christie’s most unequivocally (and most unproblematically) feminist statement to this point.

That Christie preferred the title ‘The Actress’ is significant and highlights how unusual is the morality of this piece in relation to her other work. Nancy has killed a man back in the day – but unlike in several of her later novels, mitigating circumstances are taken into account and the implication is that Nancy is morally innocent of her ‘crime’. Indeed, her victim is ‘a beast of a man who deserved to be shot’. We do get the caveat that ‘the circumstances under which I killed him were such that no jury on earth would have convicted me’ – something she was too naïve to realise at the time. All the same, there is a subversive questioning of innocence and culpability at work in the story. Nancy has killed a man, but is morally innocent. Her blackmailer-antagonist is framed for killing her and thinks in alarm ‘My God, they hanged a man for murder! And he was innocent – innocent!’ Ironically, of course, while he is innocent of the murder he is not innocent, period – he deserves to hang more than the woman whose ‘crime’ he is exploiting. To transpose the punishment he imagines to be in store for her onto himself is a deliciously apt revenge. It is, indeed, the sheer cleverness of this plot that makes the story recognisably a Christie tale – a blackmailer ends up being threatened with the very thing with which he is threatening his victim, even though (for different reasons) neither of them actually legally deserves it.

On the other hand, of course, the thing that makes it very like Christie is the implication that, morally, it’s very clear who deserves it. Christie’s sympathies are entirely with Nancy – more than sympathy, in fact, since the text works hard to ensure that we are not just sympathetic to her plight but are never once permitted to believe her to be even vaguely deserving of condemnation. Christie’s decision to call Nancy ‘Olga’ throughout quietly signals the text’s support for the new life that Nancy (a survivor, it is implied, of some sort of abusive relationship) has chosen for herself.

What is surprising, for Christie, however, is the way a pervading metaphor of theatricality works to endorse a performative and fluid identity for the female protagonist. Olga’s act of revenge is appropriate to her current role in The Avenging Angel – while her understudy acts in the play, Olga is off doing some resourceful avenging of her own and in a manner that brings all of her theatrical talents into effect, framing her would-be blackmailer for murder by orchestrating a scene in which he is found by the maid with Olga’s ‘dead’ body. This blurs the line between performance and reality in a manner of which Oscar Wilde himself would have been proud. The implicit idea of personal identity this brings about is subversive and liberating. Olga can play any part she wants – Olga is not Nancy, nor was Nancy Olga. Indeed, Olga is ‘avenging’ Nancy – the woman she once was but no longer is. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to take from this that Olga’s fixed identity has become autonomous. It is no longer a question of who she definitely is, but of who she wants to be. Identity and performance are conflated via the central theme of acting and theatricality.

The theme of theatricality is taken even further in Olga’s ruminations about how she might best employ her talents to scupper the blackmailer’s plan:

‘Something between gloves and bare fists is needed. Let us say mittens! That means a woman! Yes, I rather fancy a woman might do the trick. A woman with a certain amount of finesse, but who knows the baser side of life from bitter experience. Olga Stormer, for instance!’

Remarkably, Olga isn’t even sure if the role she should play is that of a woman. Yes, this passage does back up the idea of ‘woman’ as a defined role characterised by finesse, elegance and the softness of mittens. But this is at least one role among many open to her. As a woman, she can choose or reject this particular kind of femininity as she desires. One wonders what she would have done had the situation called for gloves or bare fists.

I suppose it could be argued that performativity and female autonomy is endorsed because it represents a necessary intervention needed to correct the moral (rather than the social) order of things and thus actually works to back up the idea that there is an intrinsically correct moral order. In this it is entirely in keeping with the sometimes problematic catharsis of the detective plot. Yet, it is still the case that, in this story at least, the autonomous identity of a female protagonist is endorsed and celebrated. Indeed, the passage quoted above even sets up ‘Olga Stormer’ as a role she has fashioned for herself, rather than the person she definitely is – that is, having stopped being Nancy, her life is as a series of empowering performances, rather than just a series of masks hiding the weak ‘Nancy’ underneath.

In keeping with this empowering sentiment, the story ends on a note affirming the ascendency of performativity and autonomy over fixed identity: ‘I played my best part tonight, Danny. The mittens won! Jake Levitt is a coward all right, and I’m oh, Danny, Danny – I’m an actress!’ By the end of the story, then, ‘Nancy’, as an identity, is no more and even Olga Stormer has become simply the role this woman is currently playing. What she is, first and foremost, is an actress. What has changed between the beginning of the story and its end, however, is that she is now an actress to her very core – a woman whose identity depends on the script she chooses to write and the scenes she chooses to orchestrate. Moreover, unlike in Christie’s murder stories, such a stance is not condemned as dangerous or deceptive. Rather, it is presented as the road to female autonomy in a world of hubristic male privilege.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Short Stories