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Volume 1, Issue #6
"Stand By For Mars!"
June 2006

The Thunder Child Theatre Sourcebook: The Poison Belt
By Edogawa Ranpo

Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, also invented another notable eccentric, the big, burly, spade-bearded Professor Challenger ? he who had traveled to a plateau in South America to find living dinosaurs in The Lost World in 1912. In 1913, The Poison Belt was published, appearing first in The Strand magazine.

Professor Challenger has discovered that the earth is going to pass through a 'poison belt' that will kill all life on the planet...and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Challenger summons three friends to his home in the country, and they are each to bring a cylinder of oxygen with them. Challenger's plan is simple. He will seal himself, his wife, and these three friends into one room of his house, so that nothing can get in or out. Then, when the earth enters the poison belt, everyone will die but them. They don't expect to survive either, once their oxygen is used up...but they will be the last survivors on earth.

While they await their fate, and the fate of the rest of the world as well, they discuss every subject under the sun.

Professor Challenger and company. Illustration in the Strand magazine, 1913

In 1950, Peter Saunders produced a play version of The Poison Belt.

Peter Saunders
Peter Saunders (1911-2003), was a successful theatrical producer in England. Tourists from all over the world who have seen Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap (now in its 54th year) in London's West End, will perhaps remember seeing his name in the program as the producer of that record-setting mystery play. Although plays written by Agatha Christie had been staged before, it was only after Saunders became her producer (remounting Murder at the Vicarage) that her theatre works really took off. He made her theatrical career...and launched his own as well.

The play was not a success. Saunders recounts the story in his biography, The Mousetrap Man (Collins, 1972):

"Dan Sutherland then produced a play based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?s The Poison Belt. We decided to do this together through Geoffrey's company, and with the freedom of entertainment tax would, we told ourselves, build up sufficient money to bring it into the West End without the financial worries to which I had become accustomed.

iKeneth Kent agreed to play the part of Professor Challenger. Kenneth was an odd character. An uncle of his, who was a vicar and disapproved of the theatre, had left him 1000 pounds on condition that he change his name - the vicar assuming that Keneth wouldn't want to start his career all over again with a different name. Keneth took legal advice and was advised that by removing one 'n' from his Christian name (he used to spell it 'Kenneth') he had met the terms of the will. He inherited the money, became a producer, and lost the lot very quickly. To do this he had to turn down an acting job which would have been a part in the smash hit, Journey's End.

On the first day of rehearsals [for The Poison Belt], I went down to greet the cast and Keneth came up to me beaming and handed me a letter. "What is that, your resignation?" I quipped. "Yes," said Keneth, smiling even more. And it was. Keneth decided he needed an extra week for rehearsals and refused to go on without it.

The play eventually opened at Bournemouth. It was a shattering experience. The story was of a group of scientists who had decided that the world was to pass through a belt of poison air and would come to an end at a certain time on a certain date. In order to be the last people alive on earth, they locked themselves in a hermetically-sealed room with oxygen to last them for a few hours.

I'm afraid the audience didn't take it seriously, but I thought the final scene would make up for everything. It was when the oxygen was running out, and Professor Challenger decided that it would be better if they died quickly rather than of slow suffocation. He picked up a pair of heavy field glasses and hurled them through the window. The window smashed - real glass, too! - and the pay-off was that the world had passed through to the other side of the poison belt of air and wasn't coming to an end after all. But instead of the dramatic moment I had certainly anticipated, the audience shrieked with laughter. To them it was the best thing of the evening.

I was quite convinced that night that the play wouldn't work, and had to tell Dan so. We finished the disastrous tour, and it was then that I found out that not paying entertainment tax didn't help very much if there weren't many takings. The tax on nothing, of course, is nothing."

External Links
  • Classic Literature: The Poison Belt complete text
  • Silent Movie Monsters: The Challenger Adventures

    The Poison Belt: First, middle and last paragraphs

    Opening paragraph
    It is imperative that now at once, while these stupendous events are still clear in my mind, I should set them down with that exactness of detail which time may blur. But even as I do so, I am overwhelmed by the wonder of the fact that it should be our little group of the "Lost World" - Professor Challenger, Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton, and myself - who have passed through this amazing experience.

    The scientists discover the earth has passed through the poison belt:

    Chapter V


    I remember that we all sat gasping in our chairs, with that sweet, wet south-western breeze, fresh from the sea, flapping the muslin curtains and cooling our flushed faces. I wonder how long we sat! None of us afterwards could agree at all on that point. We were bewildered, stunned, semi-conscious. We had all braced our courage for death, but this fearful and sudden new fact?that we must continue to live after we had survived the race to which we belonged - struck us with the shock of a physical blow and left us prostrate. Then gradually the suspended mechanism began to move once more; the shuttles of memory worked; ideas weaved themselves together in our minds. We saw, with vivid, merciless clearness, the relations between the past, the present, and the future - the lives that we had led and the lives which we would have to live. Our eyes turned in silent horror upon those of our companions and found the same answering look in theirs. Instead of the joy which men might have been expected to feel who had so narrowly escaped an imminent death, a terrible wave of darkest depression submerged us. Everything on earth that we loved had been washed away into the great, infinite, unknown ocean, and here were we marooned upon this desert island of a world, without companions, hopes, or aspirations. A few years' skulking like jackals among the graves of the human race and then our belated and lonely end would come.

    "It's dreadful, George, dreadful!" the lady cried in an agony of sobs. "If we had only passed with the others! Oh, why did you save us? I feel as if it is we that are dead and everyone else alive."

    Challenger's great eyebrows were drawn down in concentrated thought, while his huge, hairy paw closed upon the outstretched hand of his wife. I had observed that she always held out her arms to him in trouble as a child would to its mother.

    "Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance," said he, "I have always found that the highest wisdom lies in an acquiescence with the actual." He spoke slowly, and there was a vibration of feeling in his sonorous voice.

    "I do not acquiesce," said Summerlee firmly.

    "I don't see that it matters a row of pins whether you acquiesce or whether you don't," remarked Lord John. "You've got to take it, whether you take it fightin' or take it lyin' down, so what's the odds whether you acquiesce or not?

    "I can't remember that anyone asked our permission before the thing began, and nobody's likely to ask it now. So what difference can it make what we may think of it?"

    "It is just all the difference between happiness and misery," said Challenger with an abstracted face, still patting his wife's hand. "You can swim with the tide and have peace in mind and soul, or you can thrust against it and be bruised and weary. This business is beyond us, so let us accept it as it stands and say no more."

    "But what in the world are we to do with our lives?" I asked, appealing in desperation to the blue, empty heaven.

    "What am I to do, for example? There are no newspapers, so there's an end of my vocation."

    "And there's nothin' left to shoot, and no more soldierin', so there's an end of mine," said Lord John.

    "And there are no students, so there's an end of mine," cried Summerlee.

    "But I have my husband and my house, so I can thank heaven that there is no end of mine," said the lady.

    "Nor is there an end of mine," remarked Challenger, "for science is not dead, and this catastrophe in itself will offer us many most absorbing problems for investigation."

    He had now flung open the windows and we were gazing out upon the silent and motionless landscape.

    "Let me consider," he continued. "It was about three, or a little after, yesterday afternoon that the world finally entered the poison belt to the extent of being completely submerged. It is now nine o'clock. The question is, at what hour did we pass out from it?"

    "The air was very bad at daybreak," said I.

    "Later than that," said Mrs. Challenger. "As late as eight o'clock I distinctly felt the same choking at my throat which came at the outset."

    "Then we shall say that it passed just after eight o'clock. For seventeen hours the world has been soaked in the poisonous ether. For that length of time the Great Gardener has sterilized the human mold which had grown over the surface of His fruit. Is it possible that the work is incompletely done--that others may have survived besides ourselves?"

    "That's what I was wonderin'" said Lord John. "Why should we be the only pebbles on the beach?"

    "It is absurd to suppose that anyone besides ourselves can possibly have survived," said Summerlee with conviction. "Consider that the poison was so virulent that even a man who is as strong as an ox and has not a nerve in his body, like Malone here, could hardly get up the stairs before he fell unconscious. Is it likely that anyone could stand seventeen minutes of it, far less hours?"

    The final paragraph

    "It has been a well-worn truism," said the Times, "that our human race are a feeble folk before the infinite latent forces which surround us. From the prophets of old and from the philosophers of our own time the same message and warning have reached us. But, like all oft-repeated truths, it has in time lost something of its actuality and cogency. A lesson, an actual experience, was needed to bring it home. It is from that salutory but terrible ordeal that we have just emerged, with minds which are still stunned by the suddenness of the blow and with spirits which are chastened by the realization of our own limitations and impotence. The world has paid a fearful price for its schooling. Hardly yet have we learned the full tale of disaster, but the destruction by fire of New York, of Orleans, and of Brighton constitutes in itself one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our race. When the account of the railway and shipping accidents has been completed, it will furnish grim reading, although there is evidence to show that in the vast majority of cases the drivers of trains and engineers of steamers succeeded in shutting off their motive power before succumbing to the poison. But the material damage, enormous as it is both in life and in property, is not the consideration which will be uppermost in our minds to-day. All this may in time be forgotten. But what will not be forgotten, and what will and should continue to obsess our imaginations, is this revelation of the possibilities of the universe, this destruction of our ignorant self-complacency, and this demonstration of how narrow is the path of our material existence and what abysses may lie upon either side of it. Solemnity and humility are at the base of all our emotions to-day. May they be the foundations upon which a more earnest and reverent race may build a more worthy temple."

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