Get out your Deerstalker hats, and dust off your powers of deduction. Sherlock Holmes is coming, as soon as it is safe to gather together to listen.
Sherlock Holmes = consulting detective, the detective's detective, the
best-loved character in detective fiction
Dr. Watson = friend and colleague to Holmes, and his biographer
Billy = Holmes' trusted boy servant
Inspector John Forman = a competent officer from Scotland Yard
James Larrabee = a blackmailer
Miss Alice Faulkner = a young and beautiful lady who was planning to avenge her sister's murder
Madge Larrabee = Larrabee's wife
Professor Robert Moriarty = the Napoleon of crime
Alfred Bassick = one of Moriarty's top agents
Jim Craigin = an assassin
Thomas Leary = one of Craigin's crew
"Lightfoot" McTague = one of Craigin's crew
Parsons = Watson's servant
Cab Driver = ***
Our performance of The Immortal Sherlock Holmes has an impressive pedigree . . .
The story begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), a Scottish physician and writer, who first introduced Sherlock Holmes in the story "A Study in Scarlet," published in 1887. Doyle's fifty-six short stories and four novels about this most famous fictional detective are considered milestones in the literary genre of crime fiction. In 1897, Doyle finished a script for a stage play entitled Sherlock Holmes. Doyle's literary agent, A.P. Wyatt, mailed the script to Charles Froham, in New York. Froham represented William Hooker Gillette (1853-1937), an American actor and playwright, then living and working in New York. Gillette and Froham agreed that Doyle's play had potential, and acquired the literary rights for dramatic use. Doyle agreed to allow Gillette to adapt his play any way he liked, with one stipulation. Wishing Sherlock Holmes on stage to model his demeanor in print, Doyle insisted that there would be no romance.
Gillette rewrote Doyle's original play, retaining only five characters—Holmes, Watson, Professor Moriarty, Mrs. Hudson, and a young boy, whom Gillette named Billy—and introducing new elements like the Stepney Gas Chamber, the melodrama's most exciting scene. Gillette's new script combined elements from Doyle's stories "A Study in Scarlet" (1887), "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (1891), and "The Adventure of the Final Problem" (1893).
And then there was the romance. Gillette communicated often with Doyle as he wrote his script. At one point he asked if Holmes might marry. The reason is unclear, but Doyle agreed to set aside his stipulation of no romance. So, Gillette, with Doyle's permission, did the one thing Doyle never did: he had Sherlock Holmes fall in love. Doyle's story "A Scandal in Bohemia" introduced Irene Adler, a talented young opera singer, who began a brief affair with the prince and future King of Bohemia, in Warsaw, Poland. The prince sent Adler compromising letters and a photograph of them together. The prince returned to Prague and prepared to become King. Adler moved to London, with the letters and the photograph. The future King of Bohemia hired Holmes to acquire the compromising materials. Adler outsmarted Holmes and escaped, leaving behind a note and a photograph of herself for Holmes to find. He did, and ever after admired Adler for her wit and cunning. Interestingly, in the story "The Five Orange Pips" Holmes comments to a client that he has been defeated on only a few occasions and only once by a woman. Perhaps this is a reference to Adler?
Gillette reprises this incident in his play, and introduces Miss Alice Faulkner, sister of Irene Adler, recently deceased. Faulkner has the package of papers, letters, and photographs and a desire for revenge against the prince of Bohemia. Holmes recognizes Miss Faulkner as Adler's sister. They embrace and fall in love. Doyle was uncomfortable with the romance, but a visit from Gillette sealed the relationship between the two writers. They shared equal credits as the authors of Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner.
Gillette's four-act play was quite different from Doyle's original, adapted as it was for American audiences who wanted melodramatic stories about stoic, strong heroes keeping their wits about them in both dangerous and romantic situations. Gillette's play is also noted for its technical achievements. Hidden elevators, trap doors, secret passageways, the famous fog of London, and special lighting effects, Gillette used them all to the best effect(s) possible. Finally, Gillette, in the leading role as Sherlock Holmes, brought the fictional character to life through his careful and conscientious appearance, economy of movement, and voice. Portrayed by Gillette, Holmes was quietly in command, graceful under pressure, even while struggling with his own boredom with life.
Gillette gave a copyright performance of his play, Sherlock Holmes, on 12 June 1899, at the Duke of York's Theatre in London, to establish his right to perform his play and protect its contents from being used by others. He returned to America where his play was first seen at the Star Theatre in Buffalo, New York, 23 October 1899. The cast included Gillette as Holmes, Bruce McRae as Dr. Watson, George Wessells as Professor Moriarity, Henry McArdle as Billy the pageboy, Katherine Florence as Alice Faulkner, and Judith Berolde as Madge Larrabee.
Further performances were offered in Rochester and Syracuse, New York, and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. All were well received. Sherlock Holmes then moved to New York, where it opened 6 November 1899, at the Garrick Theatre, and ran for 236 performances, closing 16 June 1900.
At the turn of the century, America was just getting to know Sherlock Holmes. Gillette's melodrama, at three hours in length, gave audiences ample opportunities to steep themselves in the exploits, threats of death, thrilling escapes, and associations with all manner of criminals that made Holmes such a fascinating character. Gillette also introduced several props now considered Sherlock Holmes icons, including his curved pipe (easier to hold in the mouth while speaking and did not obstruct the audience's view of the actor's mouth), a splendid dressing gown, the violin, the magnifying glass, the Scottish deerstalker cap, and the phrase "Oh, this is elementary my dear fellow," later changed to "Elementary, my dear Watson." Interesting trivia fact: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never used the phrase "elementary, my dear fellow" in his novels or stories about Holmes.
After closing in New York, Sherlock Holmes toured theatres in the Eastern United States from 8 October 1900 to 30 March 1901. Gillette and other cast members moved to England where Sherlock Holmes premiered at the Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool, 2 September. On 9 September, Sherlock Holmes opened at London's Lyceum Theatre where it ran for 200 performances, ending 12 April 1902.
In 1916, Sherlock Holmes was adapted as a silent film with the same title staring Gillette as the detective with whom he was so directly identified. One of the earliest American film adaptations of the famous fictional detective, the film was long thought lost, but was discovered in The Cinémathèque Française, Paris, in 2014, where it had been archived but incorrectly labeled. Gillette's play was adapted as a film again in 1922 with John Barrymore as Holmes. Another film adaptation of the same title, in 1932, by Paramount, starred Clive Brook, and was the first all talking Holmes film. Brooks was the first to speak the phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson" now part of both the British and American English lexicons.
Gillette appeared in two radio adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories. The first was "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," the premiere episode of a series titled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes broadcast by WEAF radio, New York, 20 October 1930 (30:00, episode 1, no surviving recording known). Gillette read the part of Sherlock Holmes. This was the first time Holmes was portrayed on radio as part of a continuing series. The script was adapted by Edith Meiser from the original stage play version of the story by Conan Doyle.
The second radio adaptation was also my Gillette, then 82 years old, who led a 50-minute performance (9:00-10:00 pm) of his own Sherlock Holmes for Lux Radio Theatre, broadcast by WABC in New York, 18 November 1935 (episode #55, no surviving recording known). Lux Radio Theatre was, and still is, noted as a classic radio series, offering radio adaptations of plays and movies, often using the original stars reading their parts. The script was written by Edith Meiser. The cast included Gillette as Holmes, Betty Hanna as Alice Faulkner, Reginald Mason as Dr. Watson, and Charles Bryant as Professor Moriarty. Gillette's performance marked the sixtieth anniversary of his first appearance on stage, the thirty-sixth year since he had first played Sherlock Holmes, and his last appearance before a radio microphone (Los Angeles Times. "Famed Star Due on Air," November 18, 1935, p. A14.; see also Zecher, Henry. William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes, Xlibris, 2011, pp. 555-557.).
William Gillette's melodrama, Sherlock Holmes, was adapted for
radio by Orson Welles (1915-1985) and broadcast 25 September 1938 as episode
#12 of The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The cast included Orson
Welles (Sherlock Holmes), Ray Collins (Dr. Watson), Mary Taylor (Alice
Faulkner), Brenda Forbes (Madge Larrabee), Edgar Barrier (James Larrabee),
Morgan Farley (Inspector Forman), Richard Wilson (Jim Craigin), and Eustace
Wyatt (Professor Moriarty). READ the script
here. Listen to a recording of this broadcast.
From this lineage Re-Imagined Radio crafted its own adaptation of the Holmesian legacy as The Immortal Sherlock Holmes. Additional inspiration comes from The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes: A Fantasy in One Act by Gillette (Ben Abramson, Chicago, 1955), and Sherlock Holmes: The Painful Predicament of Alice Faulkner, a graphic novel by Bret M. Herholz (Alterna Comics, 2009) based on Gillette's melodrama. A particularly strong reference source was William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes by Henry Zecher (Xlibris, 2011).
LEARN more about Sherlock Holmes radio dramas at John Barber's Radio Nouspace website.
Zecher, Henry. William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes. Xlibris, 2011.