Sherlock Holmes – The William Gillette Play (1899)

by Mark Wallace

Aside from the canonical 56 short stories and 4 (short) novels, the most important early vehicle for the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective was the play Sherlock Holmes, first performed in 1899, and credited as written by William Gillette (the famous actor who played Holmes in the play) and Arthur Conan Doyle. In effect, Gillette wrote the play, using various elements from Doyle’s stories, but also adding in much unrelated material.

An index of the play’s influence is that Gillette’s utterance “Elementary, my dear Watson” went on to become Holmes’ most famous line, though it never appears in quite that form in Doyle. Similarly, the now standard curved pipe was introduced by Gillette, and his introduction of a pageboy named Billy was used by Doyle himself in later stories. It has often been revived, among the more notable efforts being the 1981 production with Frank Langella as Holmes. This is now available in reasonable quality on Youtube.

The play opens with a reminiscence from Watson, setting the story in the distant past, as if Holmes (referred to by Watson in the past tense) is already a figure of nostalgic longing – not surprising, as the play was written and produced during Doyle’s hiatus, when Holmes was apparently dead. But Watson’s fairly lenghty introduction is less about Holmes than about introducing the plot, which is unfortunately melodramatic, cliched and convoluted, involving jilted lovers, high society, compromising letters, middle-class swindlers, somebody who “died of grief”, Moriarty, and “a most interesting young lady” who will need Holmes’ help. This last is Alice Faulkner, who will be recognizable as an avatar of the Damsel-in-Distress archetype. The plot bears some resemblance at this point to “A Scandal in Bohemia”, but is, as I said, very convoluted. Hence the need for an expository introduction, one whose status I am not sure of, as it does not appear to be in the original 1899 script.

The first scene proper is set among the Larrabees, the middle-class swindlers who want to get their hands on Alice Faulkner’s valuable letters. They menace Alice in a pulpishly violent manner but hide her away before Sherlock Holmes appears (to loud applause), to engage in some verbal repartee with the villainous couple. Eventually, Holmes force them into letting him meet Alice, and tries to convince her to hand over the letters, but she refuses. Here, again, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is evoked. The difference lies in the character: the brave and resourceful Irene Adler becomes the passive and girlish Alice, very much an Angel in the House type.

Another difference comes in with Holmes’s relation to the character: he considered Irene, of course, “the woman”, but in that famous first paragraph of “Scandal”, Watson goes on to make clear that “[i]t was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler”. In the play, however, Holmes’s feelings for Alice are of a more conventionally romantic sort. So to make a perhaps obvious and predictable point in the context of discussing adaptations, the play renders the ideology of the source more conventional, more bourgeois, most noticeably in the approach towards presenting the female lead and the relations between male and female lead. It is in his attitude towards and distance from the romantic an sexual realms that Holmes is most challenging, where he subverts tropes of most popular genre, and it is here that the adapted Holmes tends to go in different directions, and more recent adaptations also show the tensions inherent in trying to represent an apparently asexual character.

Apart from the expository introduction (which is not, as I noted above, in the original play), Watson doesn’t make an appearance until over half an hour in, where he arrives at Holmes’ residence and Holmes provides one of his virtuosic readings of Watson’s personal circumstances from his appearance, many of the details of which are taken from Doyle’s stories. This is a structural change from the stories, which almost invariably open in Holmes’ lodgings, and with conversation between the two. Watson is curiously absent from much of the play (perhaps another reason to give him some space in the introduction), and the narrative is not focalized through him. On the other hand, Moriarty becomes a primary antagonist, perhaps the beginning of the culture-text of Sherlock Holmes in which Moriarty plays a large role, as opposed to Doyle’s stories where he is present only in “The Final Problem” and gets a mention in one or two other places (The Valley of Fear).

Some of the repartee between Holmes and Moriarty and the other villains is entertaining. But perhaps my favourite exchange was in Act 2, Scene 2. This follows the first introduction of Billy, the page boy (played by a very young Christian Slater), who comes into Holmes’s chambers and addresses him thusly:

BILLY: Mrs. ‘Udson’s compliments, sir, an’ she wants to know if she can see you?

HOLMES (without moving, looking into fire thoughtfully): Where is Mrs. Hudson?

BILLY:  Downstairs in the back kitchen, sir.

HOLMES:  My compliments and I don’t think she can — from where she is.

Possibly it doesn’t read as comedy genius but the line is well delivered by Langella in the 1981 version, and it got a laugh. Comedy is fairly prevalent throughout the work, accentuated by the performances. Langella’s Holmes is witty in a very deadpan manner. On the whole, Langella is a good Holmes, and it’s perhaps a shame that he never got to play him in a more cinematic setting, when he could have staked his claimed to be considered by Sherlockians alongside Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and, latterly, Benedict Cumberbatch. As it is, this is his only Holmesian legacy, and seems to be the best film version of this oft-performed play – a play that, in its initial Gillette-starring production, may have done almost as much to create the Holmes myth as the stories themselves.