Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Play Writing and Play Producing
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
A Single-Act Sensation
Just before the creator of Sherlock Holmes was leaving London for his Crowborough retreat, a REFEREE representative had a quiet little chat with Sir Arthur on things in general and the theatre in particular.
"Yes; I have been busy in a dramatic sense," said Arthur, "for three plays of mine have been produced in little more than one year — 'The Fires of Fate,' 'The House of Temperley,' and 'The Speckled Band.' The first had about a hundred and twenty performances in London, the second about a hundred and seventy, and the third about a hundred and thirty, and is now going stronger ever at the Globe Theatre.
"All three I produced entirely myself. In the first production I shared the subsequent expense with Mr. Waller and Mr. Vedrenne.
"The reason why I undertook to bear the cost of production of these three plays was that I could find no manager to accept or to produce them on his own account.
"In the first case, 'The Fires of Fate,' every manager I saw seemed afraid of my description of it as a 'Morality' play. Yet such it was.
"Many of my critics would persist in describing 'The Fires of Fate' as a melodrama — missing the fact that the business in the desert was only introduced to work out the idea of the religious or moral influence which I had brought to bear on the various moral weaklings of the play.
"After 'The Fires of Fate' had, in spite of many predictions to the contrary, enjoyed some success, I felt I would like to produce my boxing play, 'The House of Temperley,' but I knew that it was hopeless to expect to get any actor-manager to produce it on his own account.
"In the first place, it had no star part. Also it dealt with a subject very difficult to handle on the stage. Besides, the production would, of course, be very expensive.
"I was determined, however, to try the experiment, and so I took the Adelphi, and with the valuable and efficient aid of Mr. Arthur Hardy and of Mr. Herbert Jarman I produced 'The House of Temperley,' working at first on a profit-sharing system with the proprietors of the theatre.
"It was an interesting experiment, and the result was in one way pleasing. Those who came seemed to like the piece, and many often came again. So we were able to run the piece for a considerable period.
"On the other hand, I found it was always a limited stratum of the public on which 'The House of Temperley' had to work. It was difficult to get the ladies to come to see it. Those who came liked the play. But, of course, the mere idea of the play being about prize-fighting prevented many ladies from venturing to see it at all. Naturally, that handicapped our chances.
"King Edward's death eventually knocked the life of 'The House of Temperley.'
"Here was an awkward state of things. I had signed a contract to take over the Adelphi until the end of that season.
"So, as the position was serious, and as I had nothing with which to replace 'Temperley,' I was compelled to make an effort and I wrote 'The Speckled Band.' We had that drama actually in rehearsal three weeks after I had commenced it.
"'The Speckled Band' had the luck to catch on, and so my awkward situation was saved.
"At the end of my season I was pushed out of the Adelphi, as it had to be transformed into a new house. Luckily, we were successful in transplanting ourselves to the Globe, where we shall, I hope, remain for some time.
"We have two companies travelling with 'The Speckled Band,' both doing well. 'Temperley' and 'The Fires of Fate' are also doing well on the road.
"No; 'The Speckled Band' has not yet been produced in America, but I think Mr. Frohman will presently produce it in Boston, and will then possibly tour it in the States alternately with the other Sherlock Holmes play, the one written by William Gillette.
"What I would like to do — and may do — is to take 'The House of Temperley' and its prize-fight to Paris. I think they might like to see it there.
"At present I have no intention of writing any more plays. I have by me a single-act play which I wrote some time ago. Whenever that is produced — if it ever is produced — it must be at my own expense. The cost of production would prevent it ever being accepted by any manager, and I am afraid it would frighten the most experienced of stage-carpenters.
"Title? I call it 'The Lift.' The scene lies at the top of an Eiffel Tower. All the characters most attend and descend in a proper working lift. Entrances are perpendicular instead of horizontal. The piece ends with a startling sensation — a terrific catastrophe.
"I am not leaving stage work because it does not interest me. It interests me too much. It is so absorbing that it draws one's mind away from the deeper things of life. It makes such a demand upon one's time that it is difficult to settle down steadily to any special course of reading or literary work.
"For those who can treat the deep matters of life dramatically it is different; but I recognise my own limitations in that respect. At the same time, I could conceive of certain forms of thought and ideas coming to a man which were only capable of dramatic treatment. So I make on absolute pledge that I will not again write for the stage.
"Which of my own plays do I think the best? Well, I like 'A Story of Waterloo' — which Henry Irving acted so splendidly. I like also 'The Fires of Fate,' perhaps because of the 'moral' idea which has been missed or ignored. I used to feel that that influence, changing all the characters for the better as they went on — the heroine becoming more self-sacrificing, the glutton more unselfish, the clergyman less hot-headed, the doctor more reasonable, the colonel resolving to live and bear pain for the sake of helping others, and so on. I regret that so many seemed to miss this — what I may call 'the soul' of the play.
"I shall spend my winter on a course of reading. You must take in cargo if ever you hope to put it out."