The Play's the Thing

Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories about Sherlock Holmes. That is the Canon. Amen.

But is that really all he wrote about Holmes? It isn't. On top of that he wrote plays about the Baker Street detective.

Doyle's Holmesian theatre activities began surprisingly early. In 1888 A Study in Scarlet was to be dramatized. The Portsmouth Crescent mentions the fact on 28 September, according to the introduction of Richard Lancelyn Green's very excellent The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes. No mention is made of who will dramatize it. However, among Doyle's unpublished papers there is found an unfinished play called Angel of Darkness. It is based on the novel, or at least uses the same characters.

There are a few quite interesting things about the Angel of Darkness. We have Drebber, we have Stangerson, the dastardly Mormon villains. "Then there are two heroes," writes Lancelyn Green, "Jefferson Hope and John Watson, M.D., a San Francisco practitioner, as well as the aristocratic English globe-trotter Sir Montague Brown." And here's the odd bit: "The John Watson of the play appears to have no connection with the companion of Sherlock Holmes . . . Holmes himself is conspicuously absent." So at this point in time Sherlock Holmes was the least important facet of the story, the one most easily sacrificed. Redundant, in fact. Ah, well.

Still, the play was never completed. So maybe Sherlock was a little more important than Doyle at first realised? Or maybe it was just that Doyle found constructing a play just a little bit trickier than he'd imagined. And let's face it - A Study in Scarlet isn't exactly a masterpiece of elegant construction to begin with. A clockwork it ain't.

A second attempt, a play with Sherlock Holmes actually in it, came a decade or so later in 1897. He'd offed Holmes a few years earlier and the pressure to resurrect him was enormous. Doyle was reluctant, to say the least. He was adamant not to do it in print in The Strand, no matter what the sums on offer, but he might do it on stage. Write a play about Sherlock Holmes? Well - why not?

Maybe Irving would play Holmes? Alas, no. That was not to be. But, Doyle lunged ahead. On 15 December Doyle was hard at work on the play and the newspapers knew this: the great actor and producer Herbert Berbohm Tree had expressed an interest. Were he to play Sherlock - well then the play was made! No question about it.

Tree drove down to Hindhead, where Doyle lived, and they had a little chat. It was not a success. Tree had ideas, oh did he ever have ideas. First of all, he wanted to play both Holmes and Moriarty. Doyle pointed out that that wasn't a particularly feasible idea as they had several scenes together. Tree also wanted to play Holmes in a disguise and sporting a big false beard. Why on earth would Holmes be disguised the entire play? exclaimed Doyle. Dunno, replied Tree, that's for the author to figure out and explain.

Doyle didn't particularly feel like figuring that one out. He began to have serious doubts and put the play aside. It didn't matter. But it did, actually. Doyle was building a new house and any money was welcome. Well, as long as it didn't involve writing any of those infernal Holmes short stories. Then along came the Saviour - William Gillette. The stories about how Gillette came to be involved in the project vary a great deal. He himself claimed to have read in the newspapers that Doyle, in an interview, uttered that Gillette was the only man to play Sherlock Holmes. Doyle denied this. According to him it was Gillette and Gillette's manager Frohman who approached him with a bid. Anyway, Doyle finished his play and sent it to Gillette who at the time, it seems, was touring in London. But Gillette turned it down. He thought it impractical as a work for the theatre. Not surprising as Doyle had no experience of writing for the stage.

But, Gillette had an idea. Why not let him "work" on the play and "tweak it" some? Doyle said yes. But there was one condition, there was to be no "love business" in it. In fact Gillette wanted to do a little more than tweak it. He wanted to write a new play. He wrote Doyle and asked for the author's permission to take liberties with Holmes. Doyle no longer held firm. His legendary reply was: "You may marry him, or murder or do what you want with him." Gillette then immersed himself in the written stories - and forthwith announced that there simply wasn't a play there. His manager would have none of it, so Gillette wrote his play in four weeks. Then disaster struck. The theatre in San Francisco in which he was performing burned down. His play was lost in the fire.

So he wrote it again, this time in four acts instead of five like Doyle's original had been. In May 1899 he took it to Hindhead and showed it to Doyle. Doyle approved. "It's good to see the old chap again," he said.

But what happened to Doyle's own play in five acts? Was it ever performed? Did the manuscript even survive? No mention of the play is ever made, and, as I've never heard of the manuscript being published, I dare surmise that it is lost. Certainly it doesn't seem to have been among Doyle's papers. Was it, too, lost in the fire as I've seen suggested?

Gillette's play, Sherlock Holmes, premiered in late 1899, was an immense success and made Doyle a lot of money. Holmes was a valuable property and a few years later Doyle resurrected him, first in The Hound of the Baskervilles, then properly.

In 1910 Doyle leased the Adelphi Theatre for his boxing play The House of Temperley. Why? Well because no producer would touch the play. It was deemed too violent for the ladies with its brutish boxing scenes. So Doyle put it on himself. It was an unmitigated disaster. Nobody came. On top of it the lead actor went and died. Not good. They tried a couple of other plays instead, one of them also by Doyle, a one-acter called A Pot of Caviare. No go. And the lease was for six months. So, what to do, what to do?

After some pondering Doyle came upon the perfect solution: Holmes! Why not write a play about Holmes? (The fact that he didn't use his old one belies a) it was no good, b) he'd mislaid or lost it, or c) both of the above.) Holmes would save the day, obviously. So he went and turned one of his best and most popular tales, The Speckled Band, into a play called the The Stonor Case (although the short story name was ultimately used for reasons of name recognition value, I imagine, and maybe also because it's a far better title). Some minor but strange changes were made. Roylott became Rylott. The Stonor girls got new names: Helen became Violet - a name of which Doyle seems to have been inordinately fond - and Julia became Enid. Percy Armitage, engaged to Helen in the short story, becomes a butcher who befriends Enid. One of Sherlock's clients is called, strangely, Milverton - as in Charles Augustus, blackmailer non plus ultra.

At first a real snake was used. Of course the critics panned it for its lifeless performance: "The performance ended with the production of a palpably artificial serpent." They switched to a rubber snake and got a much livelier performance out of that. Oh well, just goes to show you, theatre is artifice. Holmes was played by H.A. Saintsbury and Watson by Claude King. The really interesting name in the original cast is Lyn Harding, who plays Dr. Rylott. He went on to the talkies and became a fixture in Holmes films. In The Speckled Band (1931), he reprised his role as the evil doctor, in the utterly brainless The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) he played a Moriarty foaming at the mouth when again going up against this time Arthur Wontner's Holmes. Murder at the Baskervilles (1937) - also called Silver Blaze - wasn't much better. In fact it was worse, from its asinine premise to its absurd conclusion. His Rylott was universally praised in the play. His Moriarty in the talkies was apt to become embarrasingly hammy. But he does have a wonderful presence as is evitable in other films he made.

In 1921 Doyle turned out another Holmes play, The Crown Diamond. It is essentially the Mazarin Stone for the stage. Which one came first? That we do not know. The short story was published the same year. There is even the possibility that the play was written or partly written in 1910, but that Doyle at the time decided to go with a known story instead of a new one.

The play is a very short and slight one indeed (some twenty-five pages or so in manuscript, while The Stonor Case was a solid three-acter) and the main difference between the story and the play is the villain's name. The story has him as Count Negretto Sylvius, while in the play he's a far more familiar fellow - none other than Colonel Sebastian Moran. The plot turns around that new and exotic invention - the phonograph! Well, perhaps not that new anymore. I seem to recall another Doyle plot with a phonograph, a little gothic horror story. What was it called? The Japanned Box? In that one the invention was used with much more ingenuity and to far far greater effect.

But anyway, The Crown Diamond is a mere trifle, as is The Mazarin Stone. All show and no effect. It displays eminently well that Holmes belongs on the pages of a magazine or a book, not on the stage. Even movies and TV suit him better than the stage. Because Doyle constructed him so - he has to be seen through the eyes of Watson. Watson has to interpret, explain and soften him for the rest of us. Watson has to ground him for us. Holmes, like Jeremy Brett once famously said, must be seen through cracks in the marble, only little bits at a time. Otherwise the vision of him will blind us. Or, otherwise he has to be watered down and diluted so much so that he ceases to be Sherlock Holmes at all. Just a flash in the pan. No substance, no solidity. Nothing.

So, Doyle wrote four plays about Holmes. Well three anyway, Angel of Darkness never getting finished and not even having Holmes in it pretty much disqualifies it. He wasn't a natural playwright and it took him a long time to learn his craft. Mostly from Gillette, one supposes.

Ought the plays to be included in the Canon? No. Because Doyle used old material and recycled already existing stories. (In the case of the 1898 play one can't be that certain - that one could have had a new plot about the early days of Holmes and Watson, as I've seen claimed.) Had they been all new, well that would have been a different story. Perhaps it's better this way. As I said, Holmes belongs on the page, not the stage.

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