The Production of Sherlock Holmes

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Production of "Sherlock Holmes" is an article written by A. B. published in The Sphere on 7 september 1901.


The Sphere (7 september 1901, p. 293)

Dr. Conan Doyle and Mr. William Gillette have invented a new kind of play. They have given us a novel melodrama. In case the use of the latter word should frighten over-sensitive people let me hasten to say that there is no firing although we see several revolvers during the course of the evening, that there is no killing although we hear considerable talk about murder. Yet the play holds the spectator as in a vice from beginning to end. It is interesting, fascinating indeed, and exciting. Yet the effect throughout is pleasurable, and, strongly moved as you are throughout its four acts, there is just enough laughter in it to release the tension occasionally and give the brain and nerves a rest. It has the further advantage that although you are supremely interested in every movement of the redoubtable detective, although you watch hint with the greatest zest born of the danger in which he is placed, you know that it will all turn out right and that your hero will circumvent all the villainy by which he is surrounded and come triumphant through every peril This in itself is a new sensation in drama, but the novel thing is to have made a real hero out of such a character. But this has been done, and with vast success. The play is clever — wonderfully clever — in its stage management, its detail, its elaboration, and its excellent lighting. Yet when all is said and done the theatrical accessories are not the real backbone of the play. Its success is the character of Sherlock Holmes and the embodiment of that character by Mr. Gillette.

The actor dominates the stage to this extent; long after the piece, with all its cleverness, is forgotten Sherlock Holmes will live in the memory as something distinct, something apart. It is not necessary to enter into the details of the story, which is here simply the scenic background for an admirably-drawn character and an impersonation which not only thrills but sets the mental faculties to work. If you were to analyse the part in cold blood you might say that such a marvel of perception, such a wonder of insight, such a level-headed being as Sherlock Holmes never existed. But although this may be true of certain of the details, of the incidents, of the clothing, so to speak, it does not apply to the character as a whole. Hence the success of Mr. Gillette in the part. His Sherlock Holmes is something more than a mere automaton, a stage figure. Darkened stages, unexpected events, unmatchable sang-froid, are all very well, but they go for nothing unless you have human nature underlying them. The drama in question as an excellently-contrived piece of stage work is capital in many respects, but it would be worth nothing unless it were interpreted with intelligence and marked individuality, and with the suggestion of deep feeling in the principal character. Sherlock Holmes, the noted detective, is the be all and end all of the drama.

He is in search of some compromising documents which are in the possession of a young lady who is in the toils of a couple of adventurers, a man and a woman. By his alert mind and never-shaken coolness he outwits his enemies in the quest, and by trick after trick he succeeds in discovering the papers. But he gives them back, for reasons which need not be set down by me, to their rightful owner, whose champion he becomes from that moment. The action then leads to a subterranean office, where, guarded by a host of informers and cut-throats, there dwells as doubly-dyed a villain as was ever imported into melodrama — one Professor Moriarty, the head of a gang of scoundrels who are being slowly but surely hunted down by Sherlock Holmes. We are introduced into another fearsome place, a mildewed hovel where the aforesaid Moriarty finishes off his victims by poisoning them with gas.

Being a hitherto unpublished episode in the career of the great detective, and showing his connection with the

The place is London. The time ten years ago.

  • FIRST ACT. — Drawing-room at the Larrabees' — evening.
    • Scene I. — Professor Moriarty's underground office — morning.
    • Scene II. — Sherlock Holmes's apartments in Baker Street — evening.
  • THIRD ACT. — The Stepney gas chamber — midnight.
  • FOURTH ACT. — Dr. Watson's consulting-room, Kensington the following evening.

As produced at the Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool, on Monday.

Here, indeed, we have the veriest transpontine melodrama, but it is elevated and made acceptable by the interest of the situation and the cleverness with which the entire act, its conclusion particularly, is contrived. Here, indeed, is a climax which would have delighted dramatists and playgoers of former generations. Thanks to its modern treatment it is new, it is highly effective, and that although the situation itself — the hero surrounded by his would-be murderers shielding virtue in distress — is as old as the hills. It "brought down the house" on the first night in Liverpool, and the tumultuous applause which greeted Mr. Gillette on that occasion will, I have no doubt, be repeated for many weeks to come at the Lyceum.

There is no excess of sentiment in the play; in fact there is very little of that feeling in it at all. Yet what there is is invaluable in helping to redeem the play and the principal part from the commonplace. Instead, however, of sentiment as it is commonly known on the stage we have in Sherlock Holmes a man of destiny. This is his secret charm. "Them is providence in the fall of a sparrow," and Mr. Gillette plays the part from this point of view. His performance is eminently quiet. His self-possession is perfect, but he makes his audience feel his absolute fearless-ness, his preparedness for death, his weariness of life. It is the current of sadness running through the character and contrasting the man of heart-weariness with the man of intellectual activity which must make this performance memorable. Mr. Gillette's reputation will be very considerably enhanced by it in this country, for the actor has raised melodrama out of the ordinary ruck, and curiously enough has given us a performance which appeals to men and women alike — to the boy in the gallery and the occupant of the stalls equally.

Although Sherlock Holmes has the stage almost entirely to himself it is necessary that the chief player should have adequate and peculiar support. This he finds in his present company. All are good, but I am bound to single out for special mention the Professor Moriarty of Mr. W. L. Abingdon. The part is not a large one, but it affords the actor in question an opportunity of proving that he, too, can become unconventional when he pleases. His impersonation of the arch scoundrel is quite assay from the beaten track. His make-up is admirable — it quite properly suggests villainy, but it does not caricature it. Mr. Abingdon acts quietly yet impressively — in a different manner to and, therefore, in contrast to Mr. Gillette's playing — and helps the drama by a consistent and artistic piece of character drawing.

For the rest there is not much to do. The characters are most of use to the principals, not to themselves. Still, I think there is praise in store for the faithful boy, Billy, of Mr. Henry McArdle, and Mr. Percy Lyndal is as good as possible as Dr. Watson, a rather thankless task to my mind. Nor is Miss Granville in a very happy part as the female adventuress, which reminds me that the unusual custom of omitting the prefix to the names of the players was indulged in at Liverpool. This, methinks, is "a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance." It does not much matter for the male members of the cast to figure as plain So and So, but it certainly strikes one as peculiar to find instead, for instance, of "Miss Granville," as of old, to come across "Charlotte Granville." Again, there are many Americanisms which must sound strange to English ears in the dialogue. In the last act, just to give one example, the use of the word "notify" jarred upon me. But these are spots on the sun and can be easily remedied.

A. B.