McCarter play synopses are provided to help inform curious or potential audience members about the story content of our plays in production. They are fairly detailed in their description of a play’s events. Some may want to read the overview of the story of Murder on the Orient Express below before the performance, while others may skip the synopsis to avoid the revelation of plot points before experiencing the play in performance. The choice is up to you!
Famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, sits in the dining room of the Tokatlian Hotel in Istanbul, waiting to hear if he has obtained last-minute passage on the renowned Orient Express. While reading his newspaper, he overhears a curious conversation between a young British woman, who is overly anxious about missing the train, and her Scottish companion. Monsieur Bouc, head of Wagons Lits—the company that owns the Orient Express—appears and spots his old friend, Poirot. The two catch up and Poirot admits his difficulty in procuring a ticket for the train. Bouc is shocked to learn that the Orient Express is unseasonably sold-out and promises to arrange accommodations for his friend.
As departing passengers arrive on the smoky, steam-filled platform, they are greeted by Michel, a handsome French conductor. Poirot and Bouc observe as an eclectic group of characters board the train: Princess Dragomiroff, an elderly Russian exile; Greta Ohlsson, the princess’s Swedish travel companion; the young British woman from the hotel, Mary Debenham, a governess; her friend, Colonel Arbuthnot, a Scottish military man; Samuel Ratchett, an arrogant American businessman; Hector MacQueen, Ratchett’s nervous American secretary; Countess Eléna Andrenyi, a beautiful and intelligent Hungarian aristocrat; and Helen Hubbard, a flamboyantAmerican socialite. Poirot discloses to Bouc that he senses tension amongst this motley crew of passengers, which fills him with a sense of dread.
Aboard the train, Ratchett approaches Poirot and offers the detective five thousand dollars to discover the identity of an anonymous enemy who is sending him threatening letters. Poirot, disconcerted by Ratchett’s gruff and unsavory behavior, declines. As day fades into night, he Orient Express hits a snow drift and becomes immobilized. Then, just after midnight, a shriek is heard from Ratchett’s room. Poirot and Bouc rush to investigate the disturbance and are appeased when a voice from inside the compartment explains—in French—that it was a nightmare.
Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story, click here.
In the morning, MacQueen knocks on Ratchett’s door, but there is no reply. Bouc and Poirot arrive to aid MacQueen; they find Ratchett sitting up in bed—murdered! Bouc implores Poirot to work the case, Poirot enlists the services of Countess Andrenyi, a trained doctor, to assist him. They examine the body and find that the stab wounds are inconsistent, having been delivered with varying degrees of strength and seemingly right and left-handed in origin.
In Ratchett’s compartment, Poirot finds several clues, including a letter fragment that reads “remember little Daisy Armstrong.” Poirot concludes that Ratchett’s true identity is that of Bruno Cassetti, the man responsible for the murder of Daisy Armstrong, a highly-publicized, three-year-old homicide case, which also resulted in the subsequent deaths of four others: Mrs. Armstrong, who died in childbirth along with her baby; Colonel Armstrong, who committed suicide after his wife’s death; and a French housemaid, who ended her own life after being falsely accused by the District Attorney of aiding Cassetti.
After examining the murder scene, Poirot sets out to question each passenger in the Dining Car. During his interrogations, Poirot discovers that MacQueen and Princess Dragomiroff both have connections to the Armstrong murder. MacQueen’s father was the District Attorney who tried Cassetti and falsely accused the housemaid, and Princess Dragomiroff is a dear friend of Daisy’s grandmother, the famous actress Linda Arden. However, both insist they did not recognize Cassetti.
Poirot’s interviews are interrupted by a scream and a loud BANG from Cassetti’s room. Upon opening the door, Poirot finds Mary Debenham on the floor in a pool of blood. The Countess rushes to her and finds that Mary has been shot in the arm. She claims to have been shot by a man dressed in a conductor uniform, however, the powder burn on Mary’s blouse leads Poirot to suspect Mary of shooting herself.
In his last interview, Poirot questions the Countess intensely, which leads to her admission that she is Daisy Armstrong’s aunt. However, the Countess declares she is innocent of Cassetti’s murder and departs the Dining Car in tears. With this last piece of information confirmed, Poirot gathers Bouc, Michel and the seven passengers together to reveal the solution to the mysterious murder.
Spoiler alert! Proceed with caution! To discover the identity of the murderer, click here.
With the group assembled, Poirot offers two solutions for how the murder was committed. In his first solution, Poirot outlines that one of Cassetti’s many enemies boarded the train disguised as a conductor and stabbed Cassetti. In the second solution, Poirot describes that eight murderers planned the crime together to provide justice for Daisy Armstrong and her family. The second version of events is proven true when Michel and the four other passengers are revealed to also have connections to the Armstrong family.
In light of these revelations, Poirot is faced with a moral dilemma. Should he present the true facts of the case to the police, or provide a false narrative to protect the people who have rid the world of a dangerous murderer by taking justice into their own hands? In the end, Poirot turns the decision over to Bouc, who decides that the police will be told the first version of events. The group is relieved that their horrible ordeal has come to an end, as the Orient Express is freed from the clutches of the snowdrift and begins to move again.